By Brendan Read
Direct marketers looking for ways to cut call centre costs and improve performance may find the answer is right at home, with home-based call centre agents as in-house employees or outsourced.
I wrote that opening sentence in “Home for the call centres” published in the August 2005 Direct Marketing News (today’s Direct Marketing Magazine). And those words are truer today than when I authored them.
Rising property and wage costs
The prime business case for home agents (and telework in general) was and continues to be cost savings. They are derived from reducing real estate expenses followed by greater agent retention and higher productivity.
Both property and labour costs risk climbing because of the stronger economy. CBRE Canada’s 2018 Real Estate Market Outlook Report “predicts strong tenant demand, coupled with declining vacancy rates which are at, or near, all-time lows in multiple Canadian markets will lead to strong increases in rental rates”1. Consequently, contact centres may likely find greater competition and pay more for high-quality, easily adaptable and conveniently located space.
Meanwhile The Globe and Mail reported earlier this year that Canada’s jobless rate has been falling while wages are increasing2. Accordingly contact centres may risk agents leaving for higher paying jobs that offer more advancement opportunities and sociable hours, which escalates recruiting and training costs while productivity suffers until new agents come up to speed and which may force wages to climb in order to lower agent churn.
To cope with these costs many companies have been locating their contact centres to smaller, less expensive high-unemployment communities. But too often they face labour force saturation, resulting in higher quality agent churn and costs, along with limited suitable property options.
Productivity critical in an on-demand economy
Home/teleworking enables contact centres to tap a higher quality and more productive Canadian workforce thanks to being freed from commuting distance that limits labour pool size. And the stronger the labour market, the higher the transportation costs and the lower the wages the smaller it is.
There are many excellent potential contact centre agents who cannot afford or who do not want to commute but who would gladly login and stay loyal to their employers if they can work from home. They include those who have mobility difficulties, who are over 40, have caretaking responsibilities and those who live in smaller communities (without the aforementioned issues of locating in them) and in remote and rural areas, provided they have reliable broadband connections.
Home working also improves productivity by eliminating weather, congestion, accident and breakdowns-cased commuting delays. It is safer and healthier, thereby lowering costly absenteeism. It limits exposure and spread of communicable diseases in the workplace. My article reported that the federal government recommended telework to limit the SARS outbreak. It also avoids injuries and fatalities from accidents and criminal acts, whether road rage or assaults (or worse) in parking lots and transit stops: whose risks climb for evening shifts.
The economy is moving to a just-in-time on-demand model in order to increase productivity and profits and returns. Customers also want to improve their personal productivity by insisting on low or no waits for personalized products, services and service. Home agents answer the call by being able to work on demand and on short notice, such as for call spikes. And when disaster strikes having a dispersed network of home agents enables customers to be served.
Enabling home agents
The customer contact environment has rapidly been evolving in such a way that home agents have become a necessity. Automated multichannel self-service solutions, popularized by chatbots/virtual assistants, are making basic live-agent customer care increasingly redundant. At the other end of the scale unified communications as a service (UCaaS) tools enable subject matter experts to connect with customers on complex issues and sales matters from their offices, branches and stores, while mobile, and yes, from their homes.
Home agents meet the need for mid-range higher quality service and sales. They are now more easily and affordably supported and managed with versatile, reliable, secure and flexible on-demand hosted routing, CRM, collaboration, recruiting, training and workforce management and optimization solutions. Agents can login from home with browser-based applications and engage with customers and team members and supervisors by voice through USB headsets. There are best practices to ensure home agent productivity, including home office setup, while noise-cancelling headsets dampen outside sounds and computer screen protectors provides additional security.
Even so and even today many executives and outsourcer clients may not be convinced that agents (or employees in general) can work successfully from home. Home agent advocates must thoroughly research and make the business case with the C-suite and get their buy-in and leadership. They must also prove to line managers that they can readily supervise home workers as part of agent teams. Finally, advocates should propose to test home agent programmes such as for billing, IT support or for a specific product’s customer service that would evaluate the results and refine them before rolling them out. Only by taking these steps will call/contact centres finally go home.
1 CBRE Canada, “With Commercial Real Estate Transactions Topping $43 Billion in 2017, CBRE Forecasts 2018 could break Investment Record for Third Consecutive Year”, press release, February 28, 2018.
2 Rachelle Younglai, “Falling jobless rate, rising wages unlikely to sway Bank of Canada, economists say”, Globe and Mail, March 9, 2018.