Out of Site

The pressure to offer round-the-clock service is leading many call centres to recruit home-workers and smaller out-of-office teams. But the virtual model may not suit every operator, says Alicia Clegg

Andrew Kirwan spends his working life on the telephone, handling a non-stop stream of enquiries from customers of NorthWest Water on behalf of his employer, Vertex Data Science, the business process outsourcing company. The strains on call centre agents are well known, but Kirwan comes across as quite relaxed. That may have something to do with his working environment. Instead of battling into Vertex’s customer contact centre in Warrington each day, Kirwan sits down at a workstation installed in the spare bedroom of the family home.

Vertex’s home-working experiment shows how call centre operators are having to reinvent the rules of business to keep pace with changes in the market. The greatest pressure is to move towards round-the-clock customer service, without incurring additional overheads. Added to this are the day-to-day management challenges of optimising conventional call centre utilisation, and recruiting and retaining skilled staff in regions that have become saturated with telemarketing businesses.

Virtual call centres could alleviate some of the pressures on overstretched call centre operators by allowing agents based in different locations to work together as one team.

The attraction of this is clear. So much so, according to a survey conducted last September at Miller Freeman’s Call Centre Expo, that more than half the industry believes that virtual call centres will replace the conventional model within three years.

A more conservative and intuitively more realistic prediction is that the new technology will supplement rather than displace the conventional model.

“Virtual call centres have a bright future,” says Christian Craggs, senior analyst with the market analysis experts Datamonitor. However, he adds that it is important to keep a sense of perspective. “Many smaller call centres would not benefit from a virtual organisation, because below a certain threshold the gains in productivity are too small to off-set the cost of implementation.”

Virtual organisations have been made possible by telecommunications advances – in particular, the arrival of intelligent networks which create the potential for operators to distribute calls to multiple locations, subject to agent availability. Depending on how the network is set up, this could include agents working from home, in a telecottage, in another call centre, or even on another continent.

Agent-from-home solutions are technically viable but commercially unproven. However, other forms of virtual call centres are already making a mark on the industry.

Many of the larger call centre operators, such as the mobile telecommunications company Orange, operate multi-site centres that are networked together to function as a single entity. This improves efficiency and, more importantly, reduces the risk of disappointing customers when an individual site has too few agents to cope with a build-up of calls.

Operators of existing multi-site centres have been the first to benefit from virtual solutions, but as the cost of deployment falls smaller players will share in the gains too. The possibility of connecting separate sites lowers the minimum efficient scale for individual call centres – and this implies that the average number of seats per centre will gradually reduce, as companies opt to build networks of smaller units in preference to large standalone complexes.

New entrants contemplating green-field developments are expected to lead the shift towards smaller centres. But such are the operational inefficiencies in managing sites of over 500 seats, that analysts predict that some existing centres will ultimately fragment into smaller units too.

Small units, big benefits

Seamus Murphy, communications centre manager for Merchants Group, a European call centre and customer management organisation, says: “Operating ten 50-seat call centres in different parts of the country, rather than a single 500-seat centre, creates a good deal of scope for load balancing and disaster recovery. It also hedges against local demographic changes, such as labour shortages, and spiralling wage rates.”

Deploying virtual technology also gives businesses an opportunity to rethink the way in which tasks are allocated – not merely within the call centre but across departmental divides. With the rise of e-commerce, companies are already expanding the role of their call centres, from voice-only operations to multi-skilled contact centres in which agents are equipped to handle a variety of media, including voice, e-mail and fax.

Networked technologies add to this the ability to co-opt additional staff from other parts of the organisation to the contact centre when necessary. Stephen Wood, an analyst with the IT and telecommunications consultancy Ovum, suggests that if this type of operation is managed well, it might enable high street banks to restore profitability to rural branches.

Innovative ways of working can add value to businesses; but they can just as easily damage profitability if the customer’s experience of the brand is diminished by the change. The indiscriminate use of so-called “follow-the-sun” call centres, whereby agents based in other time zones answer UK calls outside normal working hours is a case in point.

Routing calls to another continent may be operationally efficient for multinational enterprises that have offices spanning the globe, but how are customers affected by this? “If you are offering technical support at 2am, your customers will probably be happy as long as they get an answer to their problem,” says Stephen Jacobs, director of telephone consulting at OgilvyOne. “But to make a sale you have to be sensitive to the nuances of the customer’s language and identify with their culture.”

Home-workers could provide a local alternative to using overseas agents during the evening. The business case for equipping people to work in this way is marginal at present, but the price and quality of remote access solutions are improving continuously. And such is the pressure on companies to support e-commerce services with call-back facilities, for extended periods of the day, that some businesses could decide to embrace agent-from-home solutions simply to gain access to a more flexible workstyle.

Employing even a small number of home-based agents can help to overcome the logistical problems that prevent companies from delivering consistently excellent customer service in unpredictable circumstances. For example, businesses – such as the AA and Vertex – that are running home-working trials, confirm that home-based agents make a difference to response times during busy periods.

Support in emergencies

Diane Addison, customer services manager at Vertex, says: “Home-workers are more willing to work split shifts to cover the morning and evening busy periods, because they don’t have to journey to and from work. And if we need extra support, it is possible to find people who are willing to log on at short notice.”

Employing home-workers brings other benefits too, such as access to a greatly expanded labour pool. This is particularly important when businesses wish to find people with highly specialist skills, such as speakers of foreign or minority languages.

For example, routing calls to multiple locations enabled MM Group, a virtual communications centre, to recruit a small number of home-based Welsh language speakers to support the contact-handling service it provides for the UK Passport Agency – a factor which weighed heavily in the group’s favour during the selection process.

Similarly, operating a home-based business model in preference to a conventional call centre has enabled Comunicado, a specialist telephone interpreting service for business clients, to create a network of about 3,000 home-based interpreters, covering more than 100 languages.

The success of ventures such as Comunicado demonstrates that, given the right business model, agent-from-home solutions can enable companies to provide services that would otherwise be operationally impractical.

But it would be wrong to conclude that all, or even most, businesses would necessarily benefit from locating agents at home – particularly if the motivating factor was to find an alternative strategy for tackling people-related problems, such as high rates of employee turnover or absenteeism.

Not a problem-solver

Mike Harvard, managing director of consultants Outsourcing Insight, says: “Companies that view home-working as a way to overcome workplace tensions are reacting to the symptoms, not the cause of their difficulties.

“The first questions to ask are whether it is possible to use people’s skills more fully by offering greater task variety. It is also important to look at the use of space and invest in good ergonomics.” And if that fails to improve matters, it may be time to consider outsourcing the call centre business, he suggests.

Negative as it may sound, this analysis is realistic. Companies which have demonstrated a poor understanding of human factors in conventional working environments are least likely to possess the higher level skills and ingenuity that are needed to lead virtual teams.

For all its weaknesses, traditional face-to-face management is at least supported by a set of implicit workplace protocols that are known and understood by all. In a home-working environment, even the basic rules of effective communication have still to be worked out.

“Agent-from-home programmes will force companies to develop a better understanding of interpersonal issues,” says Stephanie Rouse, communications centre director at MM Group. “For example, it is essential to know when it is appropriate to talk to someone face to face, instead of sending an e-mail or picking up the phone.”

Given time, companies will create the human resource strategies to support home-workers effectively. But whether agent-from-home solutions will supersede office-based work is not yet known. In the short-term, the rise of the virtual call centre poses few threats to the conventional bricks-and-mortar workplace.

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