Teamwork gets the job done

If your firm offers customer service, inside sales, or help desk assistance you undoubtedly staff a call center. Should you, for financial, recruitment, safety, insurance or real estate reasons, want to seriously consider going virtual (remote call center staffing) you have two options.

You can go it alone, sending some of your call center staff home, overseeing the transition and the supervision in-house. Or, to expand your current staff, you can look to virtual call center firms. These agencies are fast becoming an attractive alternative to your spending time finding, training, supervising and paying your newly-virtual staff.

How do you decide which alternative is the most attractive – affordable, efficient, effective?

Jack Heacock, virtual call center/telework consultant with the Heacock Group and Vice President of the Telework Coalition, is an expert on this issue. He is past president of the International Telework Association and Council and board member of Call Center Magazine. His background includes many years as a call center administrator.

“There are a number of factors involved in setting up your own virtual call center,” Heacock advised: “ IT, Human Resources, pay, replacement of broken parts, termination of a virtual employee, employee relocation and so forth.” Heacock noted several points your management team should discuss:

  • How much money are you going to invest up front?
  • How do you take HR people used to face-to-face interviews and training and make them want to do virtual?
  • Where’s the money coming from?
  • What are executive expectations?
  • How much change are you capable of absorbing in a short period of time?

Heacock believes you have to answer the question, “Where’s your pain?” to know if virtual is right for you. “Determining why you’re even considering a virtual call center is paramount to your decision whether to move forward – write it down,” he said. Answer these questions: “Is continuity of operations a concern? What about insurance risk? Where do you see your business being three to five years from now?”

McKesson Health Solutions is a client of Heacock Group. “Jack has been a great help with our going virtual, “ said Michael Modiz, vice president of operations and strategic projects. “We keep him on retainer to help us with problems that arise – issues his other clients have successfully resolved.” McKesson’s virtual staff is evenly divided between inbound and outbound tasks. Primarily RNs, they take calls about medical concerns, advising folks in distress whether the medical problem requires a trip to the emergency room, a call for an ambulance, or a doctor visit in the near future. Outbound they watch over patients with chronic ailments who need education on caring for themselves and their illnesses.

Begun in September 2003 to reduce expenses and improve their labor pool, McKesson’s virtual program will expand to fifty percent of their 550-600 nursing staff by the end of 2005. “We won’t ever go completely virtual,” says Modiz. “While we have many folks who love working at home we also have a significant number of skilled, loyal employees who never want to do it.”

Modiz is thrilled about their virtual project’s success, as are the employees. In a recent employee satisfaction survey, McKesson earned high marks for their work-at-home call center program.

McKesson Health Solutions has five different office locations – in Sacramento, Denver, Chicago, Jackson Mississippi, Westlake Texas and San Juan Puerto Rico. While McKesson is in the process of introducing their own connectivity into the home office locations they still allow home workers to use their own PCs for work. The firm is now successfully recruiting directly into the home.

Paul Heacock (no relation to Jack) is President of Human Dynamics, a management consulting firm that specializes in virtualizing a company’s training and work processes.

“We help firms democratize the knowledge to do the job,” explained Heacock. Their products are designed to help those who can’t raise their hand or tap the person in the next pod – the home worker. “The biggest impediment to folks finding the help they need,” said Heacock, “is that they don’t always know what questions to ask.’ “Human Dynamics’ program anticipates the user’s needs. It knows, for instance, that s/he is on the customer service screen and that there are about ten actions the worker would typically need to perform from here. Its software prompts the user to choose from the list of alternatives. Its one or two click resolution is much faster than the fastest search engine.

Should you, however, want to forego the headaches of trying to create your own virtual call center, you can let the experts do it for you. Two highly successful virtual call center firms – one whose agents are employees, the other who works with independent contractors – earn high marks with their clients and staff.

The first, Fort Lauderdale-based Willow CSN, contracted with the Washington Post early this year to assist the paper’s classified advertising staff during peak times. Willow’s ‘cyberagents’ began taking overflow calls in June.
Goli Sheikholeslami, consumer-to-consumer sales manager at the Post, said that they are very happy with Willow and its virtual agents. “We monitor the calls, and those [Willow agents] who’ve been here from the start – the first of June – are becoming very proficient.” Sheikholeslami says that Willow reps are given the same talk time and conversion goals as the in-house staff and those cyberagents who came on board at the onset are now beginning to meet those goals. “We didn’t want to decrease our current staff,” explained Sheikholeslami, ”but we had humps where we were providing bad service. Willow resolved that.” She was attracted to Willow because they were able to offer flexibility, with half hour scheduling. Willow CSN takes Washington Post calls Wednesday, Thursday and Friday afternoons between 3 and 6:30pm – when things are starting to heat up for the Sunday classified deadline.

“We’re perfect for companies who can’t always predict their call volume, “ said Willow CEO Basil Bennett. “We’re very flexible.” Since its inception in 1997 Willow CSN has grown steadily, and now has over 2000 agents, contracted as individual corporations, working from home in eight states – Florida, Arizona, Maryland, Georgia, North and South Carolina, Michigan and Texas.

Where the agents live has nothing to do with where the clients are, however. Willow serves 30 clients all over the country – companies as diverse as Virgin Atlantic Airways, Sears, Staples, AAA, GE and AIG. Each client prepares training to submit to Willow for its cyberagents, although Willow’s twenty-person curriculum development team is highly competent in helping a client take its training virtual. With a Florida home office, Willow easily attracts bilingual agents. Forty-two percent of Willows cyberagents are Spanish fluent.

Colorado-based Alpine Access, the largest provider of virtual call center agents, employs 3800. That employment is the biggest difference between Willow and Alpine – in fact, as far as we could determine, the biggest difference between Alpine and all others. Alpine’s agents are employees – not contractors. While both Alpine and Willow managers are adamant that their way is better, the primary difference seems to be in the way the agents themselves get paid. Willow compensates its agents for each minute they are on a call, while Alpine pays each employee an hourly rate, whether on a call or not.

At this time Alpine only hires in Colorado, Arizona and Utah, although they will be adding to other locations in the next year. Just like Willow CSN there are no location restrictions on Alpine clients.

Both Alpine and Willow have strict auditioning processes. All agents must show technical/computer proficiency and general customer service skills, and must pass voice and live auditioning interviews. Of course, they then must successfully complete the clients’ training programs.

Alpine’s COO Jim Farnsworth explained the process for resolving a client’s unexpected call volume crisis. “Each account has an account manager responsible for day to day contact with the client,” he said. “We can respond very quickly.” Farnsworth said that agents dictate their own schedules (and can change them every thirty days.) Each agent lists three levels of availability: Optimal being the hours she really wants to work; Less Optimal but available indicating those hours he’s willing to work if needed; and Emergency (I really don’t want to but if it’s crucial I will.) These schedules tell the account manager which folks are available to respond to their client’s immediate need.

Alpine and Willow share two clients – 1-800-FLOWERS and Office Depot. “That’s pretty typical of clients,” said Farnsworth. “If all calls are contracted out they usually use three or more firms; if they want outsourcers to take only overflow (peak) calls they choose one or two. It’s common practice.” Alpine’s many clients include American Marketing Services, and Park University.

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