At-Home Agents Pros and Cons
The hype about at-home agents has been ramping up for years, though the number of companies actually using this model has been relatively small. Retailers appear to be highly successful early adopters, as are a number of companies in the travel industry and a growing number of outsourcers. Many financial services organizations are also interested in using at-home agents but are very concerned about data security, including payment card industry (PCI) standards and other regulatory issues. In spite of these and other challenges, at-home agent programs have many advantages, primarily cost reduction, business continuity and agent retention. At-home agent best practices are emerging from the pioneering companies, helping insure that the pros of implementing at-home agents will outweigh the cons.
Cost Savings and other Benefits
The at-home agent model delivers cost savings in three categories: a lower pay scale (often $2 to $3 per hour less than on-site staff); the ability to close an office building, reducing real estate and occupancy costs; and reduced agent attrition rates, better attendance, and improvements in schedule adherence. Early adopters unanimously report increased agent loyalty and improved morale in the organization – work-at-home programs are well-liked by agents, who may show their appreciation through enhanced performance.
Other factors favoring the at-home agent model are the need for business continuity and the desire to reduce hardware costs. Some companies expect agents to pay for their hardware and network fees, and consider this an important cost savings; others find that practical difficulties involved in this decision may outweigh the benefits. Troubleshooting technical glitches can become very burdensome when agents have different PCs. Capable and readily available technical support is also required to prevent small issues from turning into lengthy outages that hurt contact center service levels. To avoid these issues, some companies supply a standard PC but require agents to pay for their own network connectivity.
Going “green” is another theme that is just beginning to influence managers’ staffing decisions. Some states may give companies a tax break for using at-home agents; the federal government may also take similar action in the future. (Please let me know if your state gives a tax break for using at-home agents.) State employment laws create an additional layer of issues for employers. Legislative and regulatory concerns can make out-of-state agents complex and costly to support, driving a growing number of companies to turn to outsourcers to meet their at-home agent needs.
The biggest challenge in implementing an at-home agent program is making sure to find the right people to staff these jobs. Many companies allow only their top performers to work from home. An established best practice is to use a work-at-home contract that specifies the necessary work environment, all job requirements, and performance goals. Most work-at-home contracts include a zero-tolerance policy. These contracts generally require at-home agents to have a home office or dedicated space where they can work without interruption or background noise. Even one breach can result in the agent being asked to return to the office, or face being fired. This might sound harsh, but it’s generally accepted, because working at home is considered a privilege by both management and agents.
Another major challenge is performance coaching for at-home agents. In general, if coaching cannot be accomplished over the phone, the agent may have to come into the office. This can only be accomplished if agents live relatively close to the site. Some companies only allow people who are within one hour or 50 miles of their office to work at home. It may also be important for agents to remain in close proximity to the office so that they can drive over and work on-site when they have technical difficulties at home that cannot be readily resolved. This keeps downtime and understaffing to a minimum.
A third challenge with the at-home work model is security. There is no sure-fire method for securing a work-at-home environment. Some organizations require that systems be wired directly into their network; some use a Citrix desktop that has a security layer; others do not allow agents to load anything locally onto their PC; and a few organizations use home auditors to conduct surprise visits (which present their own set of potential issues).
Managers who introduce at-home agent programs can look forward to significant benefits, but they must also be prepared for some ups and downs, as is always the case when managing people. To improve the chances of success, managers should seek out and adopt the work-at-home best practices that are emerging and evolving in the market.
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Ask the Experts
I am researching a pay-per-call approach for a 12-person at-home and in-office call center. Can you tell me a little bit about the different types of pay-per-call approaches and which are most effective?
Pay-per-call is a pricing scheme where the customer pays an outsourcer or service provider a set fee per call. Pay-per-call is not an approach favored by most outsourcers, unless they can establish parameters that will ensure a profit. Outsourcers are looking to make a certain dollar amount per customer or campaign and need to set a price that allows them to hit the necessary margins comfortably. So, if they agree to a pay-per-call scheme, they are going to ask you to commit to a call volume, average handle time and service level that will produce a consistent revenue stream. Vendors do not want to do pay-per-call when call volumes have large monthly fluctuations.
There are many types of pricing schemes used by companies today, including:
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