Every member of our CRM magazine editorial staff has conducted interviews, filed stories, and edited copy from home for various reasons, from recovery from surgery to having plumbing repaired. CRM's editors typically rely on telecommuting for these kinds of sporadic personal events. But when New York City's transit union members spent three days on the picket lines in December 2005 during the transit strike, we had to telecommute. Working from home went from being an occasional choice to being the core of our contingency strategy for maintaining normalcy (which means, in our case, the controlled chaos of hitting lots of deadlines).
CRM's staff represents a tiny fraction of the millions of U.S. employees who work from home either occasionally or regularly, part- or full-time. Within the broad scope of telecommuting, however, lies an increasingly popular subgroup of home workers: at-home customer service representatives. It's not hard to understand why. Reduced operating costs, improved productivity, more flexibility for meeting customer demands, better qualified and highly motivated agents, and lowered attrition are just handful of reasons why companies use home-based CSRs. Some companies turn to third parties like Alpine Access, Convergys, ICT Group, LiveOps, Sitel, VIPdesk, West, WillowCSN, and Working Solutions for at-home agents, while others hire at-home agents directly and let some of their on-the-premises reps transition to home-based CSRs.
The industry is taking note: IDC forecasts that the number of U.S. at-home agents--a slim but rising subsegment of the millions of CSRs in the United States--will burgeon from an estimated 112,000 in 2005 to more than 300,000 by 2010. "The companies themselves are looking for an alternative to the way they provide customer service, which drives more profitable revenue, but drives it at a much lower cost," says Angie Selden, CEO at WillowCSN.
The at-home agent method certainly isn't a new concept, but over the past few years several trends have emerged to stimulate the model's penetration into companies' customer service practices. One driving force boils down to the demand placed on contact centers to keep costs as low as possible without letting service suffer. Three additional factors driving the at-home agent trend are consumer backlash against offshoring, negative press coverage about leveraging overseas agents, and the need to efficiently staff for peaks, part-time hours, early mornings, and late nights. Many companies are also continuously looking to combat dismal attrition rates, while many workers are trying to find ways to cope with skyrocketing gas prices and cost of living expenses.
But it's technology like broadband, multimedia routing engines, hosted contact center offerings, Web and teleconferencing, mobile phones, email, and instant messaging that is really making at-home easier to implement. "An Internet connection, a PC, and a phone, and they can be up and running," says Stephen Loynd, a program manager at IDC.
In particular, IP-based infrastructure makes it much easier to incorporate home-based agents, according to Donna Fluss, principal of DMG Consulting and author of "At-home Agent Business Case and Best Practices," a white paper sponsored by Nortel. "In the past companies realized significant start-up and ongoing costs when they installed time division multiplexing (TDM)-based contact-center infrastructure in the homes of remote agents," she writes. "The agent was burdened with having to tie up a phone line and pay carrier costs for the entire time he was scheduled to be handling calls. Internet Protocol (IP) and Session Initiation Protocol (SIP) enable enterprises to easily connect agents to their contact center infrastructure with minimal ongoing charges. In the IP/SIP world, agents are simply another end point to the switch."
Many companies tap at-home agents to handle after-hours contacts, query overflow, and seasonal spikes. …