Ann All spoke with Cary Fulbright, vice president of marketing and products for Five9, a provider of on-demand telemarketing, customer service and call center solutions for customer interaction management. Five9 recently surveyed 200 North American call center managers concerning their use of and perceptions about at-home call center agents.
All: What are the primary reasons companies choose to use home-based call center agents?
Fulbright: It's a combination of reasons. Part of it is lower costs. In many cases, companies can pay agents less because there is a lot of value in working from home (for the agents). Infrastructure costs are lower. Also, agent turnover tends to be high, especially in areas like customer support. Using at-home agents tends to help companies retain their existing agents and also attract a group of people who might otherwise not have been interested in doing that type of work - but are interested when they can do it from home. Related to that last point, companies want educated agents who are well-spoken and have the ability to think on the fly. Typically they've needed to be based in a large city to gain access to that kind of a workforce, but the costs are higher there. Using at-home agents allows companies to set up centers in rural areas where costs are lower, and they can still get access to the kind of educated workforce they want.
We are not pro- or anti-offshore. We have clients in a number of different countries. But about 70 percent of our business is in the U.S., and we do hear people say that using at-home agents can help U.S. companies keep more agents in the U.S.
All: You predict strong growth in the numbers of home-based agents. Why?
Fulbright: Most people are just beginning to stick their toes in the water to try it. It reminds me a lot of the initial adoption curve for Salesforce.com. There were not a lot of users at first, but the business case was so strong, it almost couldn't help but grow. What remains to be seen is how significant it will be - whether lots of companies will do it, or whether it will remain on the fringe. The industry will never be 100 percent home-based agents. One of our customers has 75 percent of their agents working at home, though.
All: What are some of the challenges - technical, cultural or other - that companies face with this business model? How can they address them?
Fulbright: One of the biggest concerns seems to be productivity. Some studies say productivity is actually higher in at-home agents because they are happier in their work. But a lot of people will say, "I know if I was at home, I'd be doing other things besides work." The reality is, not too many people work all of the time at the office, either; they generally spend some time at the water cooler. One of our customers uses the at-home option as a reward for experienced agents, those who have already earned the company's trust.
If companies are not aware of on-demand systems like ours, they are concerned that they'll need all kinds of special hardware and software. The traditional model was kind of difficult to set up. It required a dedicated line to the agent's home and special gear. You had to worry about going out and getting all of that stuff if the agent quit. And you had to worry about software updates and all of the related management issues. An on-demand system removes those concerns.