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Home Work

As the new breed of telecommuters, home-based agents may become the norm for companies operating call centers. To boost productivity, call centers need to offer quick and easy electronic access to information about policies and procedures, keyword searches and answers to most frequently asked questions.

Tuesday, May 16, 2006
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Three days a week, Tanya Holbeck's alarm clock rings shortly before 7 a.m. After waking up her teen-age son for school and walking her two dogs through her Salt Lake City neighborhood, she grabs a cup of coffee and heads downstairs to her basement office, still wearing her pajamas and fuzzy blue slippers. By 8 a.m., she has logged onto her employer's Web site, ready to go to work.

For the past four years, Holbeck has worked as a part-time reservation crew member for JetBlue Airways, based in Salt Lake City. She's one of 1,100 employees who work from home.

"I like the flexibility," says Holbeck, who handles hundreds of customer-service calls during each eight-hour shift. "You can trade shifts. And when the weather is bad, you don't have to go out in the snow. You save on gas, wardrobe, wear and tear on your car. It makes you feel more free, like you're more on your own."

As the need for call centers has increased over the past decade, so has the number of home-based agents, a symptom of technological advancements, the growing need for work/life balance and see-sawing prices at the gas pumps.

While agents enjoy the independence and freedom that such jobs offer, they're actually filling an important niche for companies whose livelihoods thrive on handling customer-service calls. With the ability to staff phones at all hours of the day, their business revenues keep rising while the list of qualified applicants keeps growing, something no employer would ever scoff at.

A good example is JetBlue, which hired home-based workers when the airline was launched six years ago, says Jason Ward, director of customer commitment for the airline. Only 30 percent of its home-based agents work full time, while the rest are part-timers, working approximately 24 hours each week.

"We get a lot of housewives, a lot of secondary-income people, a lot of retirees or near-retirees -- 55 to 65 years old," he says, adding that these positions are only offered to employees in Salt Lake City where the company's headquarters and support center are located. "We had several hundred [agents] when we first started. But we have 82 aircraft now and handle 35,000 calls a day."

New hires complete a one-and-a-half-day orientation and a four-week training program at the support center that covers the airline's technology systems, culture and operations. During the last week, they field calls at the support center while monitored by supervisors walking the floor. Ward says they can train in the center for up to two additional weeks -- without supervision -- before working from home.

The company provides each agent with a computer, phone and e-mail address. Agents must furnish their own desks and chairs and pay $25 each month for an additional phone line. In the early days, says Ward, the company's tech team would perform home inspections, ensuring agents would be working in quiet environments, and would then set up the computer and update the hardware as needed.

But the company's rapid growth prohibited that from continuing, he says. Now, employees bring along their hard drives for the initial set-up, repairs or updates when they come into the corporate office for quarterly team meetings. By the time the meeting has ended, the company's tech department has finished working on their computers.

The supervisor-to-employee ratio is 32-to-one, he says, adding that supervisors are equipped with detailed reports that include everything from how many calls agents handle during their shift to how long they take for lunch. They monitor and review four calls each month per agent.

Every quarter, they also conduct face-to-face employee-performance evaluations, while all agents receive additional training from JetBlue University, a division of the airline company that supports two training centers in Orlando, Fla., and Forest Hills, N.Y., and is responsible for employee orientation and training. 

"They don't realize they'll have an umbilical cord attached to them," says Ward, adding that the turnover rate for reservations crew members is approximately 25 percent. "People quit for various reasons. Some thought they would be saving more money by working from home."

Still, the ability to work from home frequently acts as an employee magnet. At Hartford Customer Services Group in Ft. Washington, Pa., the turnover rate for home-based agents is four times lower than office-based ones, says Jay Fleming, chief operating officer for the business unit, which is part of Hartford Financial Services Group and supports 850 call-center agents.

"It clearly is a strategic advantage for us to grow this program," Fleming says, adding that it requires strong executive leadership and ongoing support from information technology.

Pros and Cons

Hartford began experimenting with home-based agents back in the 1990s to accommodate two call-center employees who required special work accommodations due to physical disabilities. Word quickly spread throughout the ranks and, by 2000, 20 employees worked from home. That number grew to 60 in 2005 and is expected to more than double -- to 130 -- in 2006.

Fleming says employees view the position as a privilege. So far, only those with at least 12 months of experience at Hartford are eligible because the products and services being sold are highly complex and regulated.

Besides lower turnover rates, Fleming says there are other business advantages: Less office space is needed and employee-satisfaction ratings for home-based agents are between five and 10 points higher than those for office agents.

One reason home-based agents are gaining in popularity has to do with work-flow fluctuations. For instance, if a call center's heaviest volume is between 10 a.m. and 11:45 a.m. and between 4 p.m. and 6 p.m., employers must pay office employees for their entire shift, which includes downtime.

Not so with home-based agents. Many accumulate overtime by working an hour here or two hours there in between doing their laundry or grocery shopping, which ultimately saves their employer money, says Jay Minnucci, vice president of consulting at the Incoming Calls Management Institute in Annapolis, Md.

"The industry's growth is seen in companies that [provide] customer service for other companies," he says. "The majority of call centers still haven't dipped their toes into the possibilities."

Yet, companies dealing with security-related issues are more reluctant to hire home-based agents, he says. Sensitive medical or financial information can be more easily accessed. Likewise, home-based agents can scribble bank-account or credit-card numbers on scrap paper and discard them in their trash, which then can be stolen.

What's more, legal problems can erupt. What happens if a home-based agent trips over a rug on the way to answering a call and breaks a leg? Who's liable? Can the employee file a worker's compensation claim?

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These are all questions human resource executives must ask before establishing a home-based program. To boost agent productivity, says Minnucci, call centers also need to create a knowledge-management system that offers quick and easy electronic access to information about policies and procedures, keyword searches and answers to most frequently asked questions.

"HR needs to provide tools to help people get through [the calls]," Minnucci says.

Independent Spirits

Not all home-based agents are company employees. Consider WillowCSN in Miramar, Fla., which hires independent contractors for its virtual call-center services nationwide.

Its 3,000 "cyber agents" are required to form sub-S corporations, which roughly costs each agent $75, says Basil Bennett, president of the 8-year old company that has doubled in size over the last several years.

But that's just the beginning. They pay another $25 up front for an online screening and timed psychological test. If they pass, the company conducts a federal background check and engages them in different sales and service role-plays, which helps HR assess their diction and other communication skills.

At that point, agents complete a 20-hour, online self-paced course that prepares them for the basics of the job. Additional client training -- which can cost anywhere from $50 to $200 -- and certification are the last steps in the process.

To stay on board, says Bennett, all agents must maintain a 98 percent attendance rate. Likewise, some clients require them to close at least half of the deals they're pitching during sales calls.

"The call-center business is a very analytical business," he says, adding that supervisors monitor calls and coach agents during live phone calls since customers can't hear them.

Four years ago, he says, the company began offering financial incentives, which improved the quality of applicants who are also tested for their sales ability. E-learning was also substituted for classroom training, which he says produces better agents than those trained in the classroom, partly because the majority of online learning is self-paced.

The key challenge Willow faces now is keeping ahead of client demand for more agents. "Once they start to see the quality of people, they go way beyond what they ever told us they were going to do," Bennett says. "Every one of our clients that compares us with their internal-operations employees are shocked how much better our performance metrics are when compared to their own."

Employees find satisfaction in the job as well. Working Solutions, a 9-year-old call-solutions provider, created a national database of 28,000 registered and active agents, all through word-of-mouth. The company employs between 2,000 and 5,000 agents, depending upon the season, and has never placed a help-wanted ad, says Kim Houlne, president and COO of the Plano, Texas-based company.

Agents -- who work as independent contractors -- pay for everything from software to high-speed Internet connections. They complete a series of online tests and participate in a three- to four-day Webinar that prepares them for the job. Quality assurance staff members listen to live calls or recordings and score staff performance. The number of calls supervisors monitor varies between clients.

As a result of the freedom and flexibility the job offers, Houlne says, many home-based agents are often great decision-makers and high achievers. She believes that's a big reason why the company's revenues have doubled every year.

"It's been incredibly successful," she says, adding that the company's employee turnover rate is less than two percent. "We're very selective about the contractors we choose and, once we select them, they can stay around for a very long time because they realize what a great business opportunity this is for them."

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