A company I’ll simply call "Star" found that its best customer service agents walked out the door in an 18- to 24-month period, and because they were the best agents, with the highest productivity, the company had to replace each of them with two to three new hires.
Star’s HR manager and head of customer service piloted a program to place 20 agents, each with an average 12 months of tenure, in their homes, working four days per week. They came into the main contact center a fifth day to keep in touch with the company training and central operations.
Telecommuting has been around for 30 years and represents a large percentage of American workers—"almost 14 million Americans were telecommuting at least part time in 2004," wrote Brad Foss for the Associated Press (Telecommuters Tout Lifestyle as Great for Them, Employer, March 19, 2006)—and now we’re seeing contact centers embracing telecommuting for sales and care (not yet for tech support), leveraging the same advantages that telecommuters and their companies have known for quite a while:
- More work-hour flexibility
- Higher levels of productivity, partly because of fewer distractions than in the traditional workplace
- No downtime stuck in traffic or finding a place to park or catching a bus in time to get home to fix dinner
There are approximately 110,000 home agents today in the United States, and the number is expected to triple in the next five years, as "home sourcing" benefits from a number of factors including greater availability of DSL and Voice over IP networks and impressive online distance-learning training tools and programs, some geared specifically for the at-home contact center market place. (An excellent example is NJ-based ePath Learning, on the web at http://www.ePathLearning.com.)
In addition to well-known cases such as Jet Blue Airways, which places all of its reservations agents at home, many other companies are doing it in house or using third-party companies that specialize in deploying agents working exclusively from their homes.
Home sourcing customer service jobs shares some of the same challenges hiring and managing agents in traditional brick-and-mortar (B&M) contact centers but also represents a double-win for companies: reduced agent turnover and lower costs.
The U.S. contact center market suffers an annual agent turnover of 40 percent to 120 percent. With turnover averaging 60 percent per year, then, companies need to replace their entire new hire pool within two years, which greatly affects the consistency of their service and costs loads of money. (By some accounts, it costs $17,000 to hire and train one agent, excluding salaries and benefits of that new hire.)
So why do agents leave so quickly, and how would an agent-at-home program produce this double-win? Agents tell their companies that they leave for many reasons (itself an important analysis to conduct, but that’s another story), but one repeated theme is they can’t stick with the very tight regimen required in most B&M centers, with frequently changing fixed eight-hour shift patterns to match demand, requiring different work hours that disrupt non-work life. Agents who work at home can, in some cases, set their schedules more flexibly, and they are more willing to work part-time, helping to fill the peaks and smooth out the valleys of agent "supply" vs. demand. They can also "flex" to accommodate frequently requested/required overtime, adding hours more readily at home than from B&M locations.
When companies adapt to their employees’ preferred work times, especially if the agents can work from home, these agents are less likely to look for other work; as a result, companies can see reduced annual turnover by 20 percent to 50 percent vs. today’s stress levels. All in, they can enjoy, on average, a 20 percent lower cost of operation (both operating costs and amortized capital costs, without the attendant B&M facilities)—an attractive double-win.
After Star implemented its pilot home-sourcing program, executives very quickly they discovered that the already highly productive agents increased their performance levels at home and were the first to volunteer for additional hours when the company needed to cope with unexpected demand. These agents were soon joined by 20 more, then 40 more on top of that. The 80 agents not only sustained top productivity scores, but also they remained fully employed for 24 more months. Star wound up with a more loyal work force, happier customers and vastly lower cost: the double-win in action!