By Peter Lyle DeHaan, Ph.D.
When I started publishing AnswerStat’s sister magazine, Connections Magazine, it operated as a virtual company. This wasn’t intentional. It just worked out that way and continues to be the case. Not only am I the only one working in the “corporate office,” there are no local suppliers either. Indeed everyone who takes part in the production of this magazine is from out of state – different states!
Dave, our graphics designer and creative genius, is in Pennsylvania. Articles and ads get mailed or emailed to him and his staff. His work gets sent via the Internet to our printer in Ohio. They work up the proofs and put them on an FTP site for Dave and me to approve. For each issue, I output the mailing list to a file and email it to our list processor. They massage the data, sort the list, and forward it to our printer. The printer inkjets the addresses on the magazines and delivers them to the post office, which happens to be next door to them.
Another important team member is Valerie Port, our New York-based media representative. She handles the advertising sales that generate the revenue to produce this magazine. As editor, I plan, solicit, collect, and edit the articles and press releases. A team of proofwriters in North Dakota review each article, performing the final edits, correcting grammar, checking punctuation, and ensuring that each piece is clear and understandable. Finally, our website (AnswerStat.com) is hosted by a company in Arizona but I update content remotely from Michigan.
I have never met any of these people in person, except for Valerie who, after a year and a half, I recently had the privilege of meeting. We maintain contact via the telephone and make frequent use of email. Each issue is produced without any face-to-face interaction. At first this was somewhat disarming and disconcerting, but I am convinced that the results are better than if we all worked together in the same office. True, we miss out on some synergy, incidental communication, and camaraderie, but we are also each free to do what he or she does best and to do so with minimal outside distraction and interruption. For us, it is all virtual.
A Virtual Call Center: A call center (or contact center, if you prefer) is by definition, a centralized operation. Although the concept of a decentralized call center initially seems oxymoronic, technology has brought us to the place where virtual call centers are not only feasible, but also exist with increasing frequency. Although most decentralized call centers have a mix of local and remote agents, a few have gone completely virtual and have no agents in their call center. Indeed, their “office” may merely house a switch and network servers. But before someone takes issue with this statement, let me assert that these functions can be outsourced, completely fulfilling the vision of a virtual call center, one with no office, no location, no real estate, and no equipment.
The completely virtual call center, however, may be too futuristic for many to seriously consider. Nonetheless, aspects of a virtual call center are concepts that every manager who desires job security should be contemplating and investigating.
Distributed Agents: The first and foremost consideration for a virtual call center is a distributed staff, be it home-based agents, a satellite office, or outsourcing. Because of advances in computer and telephony technology, coupled with the ubiquitous Internet, all of these options are readily available.
As the name implies, a home-based agent is one who works from his or her own home. There are many reasons to consider home-based agents.
- Expand your labor pool: Many capable and qualified workers are not part of the workforce because by choice or circumstance they do not leave home. Why let positions go unfilled or under-filled, when quality, albeit nontraditional, staff is readily available?
- Expand your labor market: Home-based agents are viable wherever the Internet is. Therefore you can hire and employ call center staff in other cities and states. Plus you will never lose an employee to relocation again!
- Respond to overcrowding: What happens when there is an agent station squeezed into every inch of your call center and every station is in use during peak times? How can you grow and expand without moving or remodeling? Quite simply, begin hiring home-based staff. A remote agent does not take up any space in your office, allowing you to process more calls without incurring a capital expense.
- Eliminate commuting: In areas where commute times are long or the infrastructure congested, using home-based representatives is an ideal response. In some areas there are even mandates and incentives for organizations to take steps to minimize commuter traffic.
- Facilitate split-shifts: Call center traffic demands never correspond to eight-hour work shifts. Unless you are prepared to be overstaffed part of the day and understaffed much of the rest, an eight-hour shift is a rare commodity in a call center. This means shorter shifts and even split-shifts to optimize labor to traffic. Unfortunately there is often resistance to split-shifts. However, when the employee is home-based, many of the objections (commute time and dress code) evaporate. In fact, some employees would enjoy split-shifts if they could do so from the comfort of their home.
A satellite office is a great option to tap into a labor market in another area while maintaining on-site supervision and control. In this case, a mini-call center is set-up, but it runs off of the switch and network at the main location. Although real estate and supervision is duplicated, hardware and software is not. This is also an option when the physical space in a call center is maxed out.
Outsourcing: A parallel consideration is call outsourcing. This can be manifested in four ways: all calls, overflow traffic, certain call types, or by time-of-day/day-of-week. Some of the types of calls that can be outsourced include telephone triage, medical answering service, physician referral, class registrations, and PBX/console calls.
Conventional wisdom says that you don’t outsource your “core competencies.” However, there are those who advocate that you can farm out your core competencies, too. What if someone else can do it better or cheaper? What if your labor market has low unemployment or if you’re just plain tired of the staffing ramifications of running a call center? All of these are prime reasons to consider outsourcing your calls. Since no one can master everything, it is pragmatic and wise to consider outsourcing the less strong areas or unmet demand.
Certainly, no outsourcing agreement should be entered into lightly or without due diligence. You should scrutinize an outsourcing partner just as you would any other vendor. “Look before you leap.” Referrals are valuable; check references. Unless they come highly recommended, visit them in person. What does their facility look like? Are they big enough to handle your traffic? Are they small enough to care about your account and your calls? Do you have a good rapport with and respect for the key people in their company? Is there the potential for a long-term business relationship? Lastly, find out who will be your primary contact on a day-to-day basis. How well do you mesh with that individual? What is their anticipated future tenure with the call center? If this contact leaves, will your satisfaction with the outsourcer’s service disappear as well, or will someone else be able to take over without negatively affecting your organization?
Conclusion: All of this is discussion is not to advocate that everyone needs to go virtual or to outsource, but there are some intriguing opportunities worth considering as you plan and consider how to make your call center better. Lastly, be aware that every outsource consideration is a dual opportunity. For some it is an option to off-load work (or costs) to another call center, while for others it is an occasion to pick up work (and hence revenue) from other sources. When properly structured, both perspectives can be beneficial.
[From the Fall 2003 issue of AnswerStat magazine]