Cultural Connections Tough for Home-based Call Agents

Ann All
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Earlier today, my IT Business Edge colleague Susan Hall wrote about a new group called Jobs4America that hopes to create 100,000 jobs in the next two years, largely by bringing call center work back from overseas. A large number of the jobs are likely to involve customer service agents working from their own homes, a trend I've written about a couple of times over the past few years. Susan notes the group announced more than 13,000 jobs at a press event yesterday, including 2,000 at an Indiana company called Accent Marketing Services, just across the Ohio River from our Louisvillle, Ky., HQ. Half of those jobs will be performed by home-based agents.


I'm a huge proponent of telework, based on the dozen or so years I've been doing it myself. Yet I confess I have niggling doubts about the feasibility of call center work performed from home. When I mentioned this to Susan, she said, "I don't know how you'd supervise them." While productivity (or lack thereof) is a concern, that's not what has me wondering about the home agent model. The key to that, as with any other home-based position, is hiring folks highly motivated to do the work, providing clear performance goals and regularly checking to ensure goals are met.


My bigger concern is that it'll be tough to promote a customer-centric culture by focusing on team-building and agent empowerment. While call centers have been likened to white-collar sweat shops, companies including American Express and Sprint have boosted satisfaction scores among both employees and customers by emphasizing hands-on training.


When I interviewed Deeanne King, VP of customer care for Sprint, she told me about the company's investment in performance management software. While the software automated the chore of collecting performance data and offered new analytics capabilities that help Sprint identify key behaviors of its top-performing agents, King said these insights wouldn't have been as valuable without a coaching program. She said:

... If you are trying to improve issue resolution, you have the ability to see the key behaviors that drive improvement in issue resolution. Then through monitoring and coaching sessions, you can provide agents with feedback identifying the behaviors they need to focus on. So it's more about the behavior and less about the metrics. Our experience showed us that when you focus on the behaviors, the metrics will come.

Earlier this week, I read a post by Forrester Research analyst Kerry Bodine, who offered US Cellular and Fidelity Investments as examples of companies that involve employees, external partners and customers in the design of their customer experience. She notes that US Cellular's VP of customer service, makes twice-annual visits to the company's call centers, during which she meets with small groups of employees to discuss relevant industry and company news, especially as it relates to customer experience.


The VP also "helps these employees understand their role in the ecosystem and the impact they personally have on customers' interactions and perceptions of the US Cellular brand," Bodine writes. The executive meets with agents not only in the U.S. but also those who work at call centers in Nicaragua and Jamaica. Bodine doesn't say so, but I feel fairly sure this customer focus is reinforced frequently, not just during the VP's visits.


While foreign accents and cultures are often cited as reasons for Western dissatisfaction with offshore call center agents and Indian call centers somewhat notoriously require their employees to use Western names, accents and cultural references, I think the bigger issue is lack of training that stresses not Western culture but the corporate culture of an agent's employer. I fear it may be just as hard for companies to convey their culture to U.S. agents working out of their own homes.

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