I recently had to remind a person under 25 that I grew up without a cell phone. There was only a landline and it didn’t move – you went to it.
And that got me thinking about the virtual call center trend. Does it really make sense to have hundreds of staff travel to one location – just because that’s where the phones are?
What is a virtual call center?
There are two setups that you could call a ‘virtual call center’.
The first is a single service that’s spread across multiple sites. A business might route incoming calls, based on the caller’s location, to one of several call centers.
The service might be exactly the same at each site, or it might vary based on local customer needs. Either way, it’s basically the same traditional call center setup – an office space that agents commute to.
The second is remote working, where agents handle calls from their own homes. The major difference is that there’s no ‘call center’. In fact, the call handling is entirely decentralized.
That’s a far more radical idea, and that’s what we’re going to think about today.
Are these approaches common?
Plenty of businesses have call centers across multiple sites. There’s outsourced work, overflow call centers and a general trend towards globalized markets – so multi-site contact centers are everywhere.
But what about remote agents? Surely that is still pretty rare?
Well, not as rare as you might think. According to the National Association of Contact Centers, 53% of US contact centers have at least some agents working from home.
How are your agents compensated?
What are the benefits of remote workers?
How do you feel about remote workers? Thoughtful? Or fearful?
A lot of call center leaders are afraid that:
- Productivity could drop off without supervision
- Agents will act less professionally in a home setting
- Sensitive data will be exposed.
These seem like reasonable concerns… but they’re not based on facts.
The case study
A doll business called My Twinn outsourced almost all their US call center operations to home-based agents. Did they feel the impact? Yes – the number of enquiries converted to orders went up 30%.
Escalated calls dropped 90%.
Agent turnover also fell, by 88%.
Those figures are pretty staggering but they fit the general trend. A typical virtual contact center has better retention too; 80%, compared with 25% for on-site centers.
Larger applicant pools mean companies can be more selective in determining hiring qualifications. As a result, most agents working in this model are more mature, with an average age of just under 40 years, and are more educated and experienced, on average, than traditional applicant pools.
Debra Dimarco, Virtual Call Centers – Making Work-at-Home Work
Challenges for the virtual call center
There are good reasons to consider a virtual contact center. There are also some big technical challenges.
How do you connect the agents to your systems?
Once, this would have been the hardest part. Now it might be the easiest. Using either a hosted or cloud-based call center means that the physical location of your agents doesn’t matter.
If you’re the technically minded type, you’ll already know that cloud-based SIP trunking and SBC is pretty much all you need. (If you’re more of a big-picture person, it’s enough to know that voice and media data can travel anywhere without much hassle.)
There are plenty of other ways to set this up, based on your needs, even if the rest of your call tools are 100% premise-based. Ideally, you’ll already have deeply integrated systems that enable intelligent automation. That cuts back on routine tasks like data entry and follow-up actions. (And gives you the twin benefits of reduced strain on home internet connections and simpler training.)
How do you keep sensitive data secure?
This is worth thinking about. One survey found that 4% of agents who collect customers’ Personally Identifiable Information (PII) have been asked by someone outside of their organisation to illicitly share it. Worryingly, 42% of them failed to report it to anyone.
First thing: guard against outside attacks. SRTP and SIP encryption are generally a standard feature of phone systems and software – but make sure that’s the case. Encryption means (at the simplest level) that it’s hard to ‘tap the phones’.
Another useful feature to look for is manual control of call recordings. There are some details that agents shouldn’t record, like payment card details. The simplest way to enact that is to let agents pause the call recording.
Finally, there’s how data is accessed and stored (or not stored.) We would strongly recommend a real-time-access approach, where data is provided only as it’s needed and immediately discarded.
How do you monitor agent performance?
The virtual call center needs a different employer/employee relationship. You’ll need a new angle on everything from recruitment to onboarding to L&D.
But monitoring probably isn’t as tough as you think. Ok, you can’t casually drop by an agent’s desk for an informal chat. But whatever call center metrics you use to measure their performance – feedback scores, AHT, conversions – are just as measurable, no matter where the agent is.
Consider this: the applicants attracted to remote roles are slightly older, more experienced and more educated.
Basically, the kind of employees who excel in these roles are those who already work well with limited supervision – embrace that! (While also bearing in mind that call centers save about $25,000 per agent who works from home…)
When will the virtual call center be the norm?
The virtual call center basically looks at ‘labour’ and removes everything you don’t need. In this case, you don’t need the effort of getting hundreds of people to commute to ‘the building with all the phones in it.’
In his book ‘Fifty Things That Shaped the Modern Economy’ economist Tim Harford examines why electricity – once, the next big thing – was so slow to change the way big factories worked.
The tech wasn’t the problem. It was the factory owners who didn’t want to change their approach:
‘They could, of course, use an electric motor in the same way they used steam engines. It would slot right into their old systems. But electric motors could do so much more…
Factory owners hesitated, for understandable reasons. Of course they didn’t want to scrap their existing capital. But maybe, too, they simply struggled to think through the implications of a world in which everything needed to adapt to the new technology.’
Tim Harford, Fifty Things That Shaped the Modern Economy
Just something to think about…