Published: November 25, 2009 | Comments
At AAA Oregon/Idaho’s contact center in Lake Oswego, Ore., many of the agents rarely show up. But just because these agents are nowhere to be seen doesn’t mean they don’t have an awfully big presence.
They work from home. And they do it very well – in fact, seven out of the 10 top-performers at AAA Oregon/Idaho are home agents. In all, 17 of the center’s 77 agents work remotely, seamlessly and proficiently handling roadside assistance calls from customers in Oregon and southern Idaho.
As a group, the home agents achieve very impressive results, including higher productivity, quality and attendance rates than their onsite peers. However, one key metric is significantly lower for AAA Oregon/Idaho’s home agents: turnover.
The main objective of the at-home program was to improve employee retention,” says Pete Herstedt, vice president of automotive services. “The impact on retention was terrific from the get-go. For the first five of six years of the program, we had zero turnover among home agents – zero turnover. That’s pretty unusual in the call center world.”
Selecting Staff for Remote Agent Assignment
A big reason for the high retention and performance is the AAA Oregon/Idaho’s remote agent selection process. The centers’ management is careful to pick experienced staff who demonstrate more than just solid quality scores and high productivity.
“We look at things like attendance, the ability to make intelligent business decisions, and the ability to work independently without constant assistance from the leadership team,” explains Steve Fox, director of call center operations. He adds that the center also considers the candidate’s home environment to ensure that there are no noises or distractions that could hinder the agent’s performance and the customer experience.
Because home agent selections are largely based on past performance and behaviors, AAA Oregon/Idaho does not have a “direct-hire” home agent process in place. All home agents are selected from existing staff.
And while home-based work is certainly popular, not every agent in the center is battling for an at-home position. Those who crave the social aspects of the workplace are perfectly happy staying put, Herstedt says. “It’s not for everybody. And people are pretty good judges of their needs and whether or not they will like working from home.” For those who do gun for a home agent slot, management asks them behavioral-based questions during the interview process to help determine if they’re likely to struggle in an isolated work environment.
Also during the interview process, managers carefully go over the center’s formal telecommuting agreement to ensure that each candidate fully understands what is expected and required of home agents. “It’s a three page document with all the terms and conditions regarding the use of business equipment, workspace requirements, overtime, among other things. The agreement is reviewed and signed before we place anybody in an at-home CSR position,” say Herstedt. “A clear and concise telecommuting agreement is a really important part of a successful work-at-home program.”
Flexible Scheduling, Lower Cost – and Elbow Room
The benefits of the home agent program go beyond improved agent retention and performance; it’s been instrumental in helping AAA Oregon/Idaho overcome key operational challenges, too. For instance, it’s enabled the center to adjust agent schedules to match – and cost-effectively handle – a dynamic workload. About a year and a half ago, the center introduced a split shift for all its new home agents, which has made all the difference in managing its morning and afternoon peak periods.
“These agents have four hours between [morning and afternoon] shifts, but are at home already so it’s not an inconvenience,” Fox explains. “We couldn’t do this effectively with full-time agents who work in the call center. The at-home program really suits our business needs, allowing us to better manage our incoming call volume.”
Herstedt adds that having agents all set up at home also gives the center “on-call” capabilities in the event of unforeseen call spikes.
The home agent program is a boon from a facility management and cost standpoint, too. “It’s allowed us to control costs because we haven’t had to expand our facility as we’ve grown,” says Fox. And, he adds, because the existing call center facility is no longer over-crowded, life has improved for agents who work onsite, who now have more dedicated workspace. “We are a 24 x 7 facility, so we have shared worked stations. But because of the at-home agent program, we now have fewer shared workstations – we are able to award dedicated workspace to a large number of employees. This is a perk and a retention tool for those who work inside the call center. It’s a better environment.”
Not that home agents never come into the call center. At least twice a month, home agents change from their pajamas into business casual attire and head to the center for some important face-to-face time with peers and supervisors. These are more than social visits; it gives home agents a chance to attend meetings and to receive more elaborate coaching and training than they receive while working from home, as well as maintain a strong connection to the organizational culture.
As valuable as the onsite visits are, AAA Oregon/Idaho relies mostly on communicating with and coaching home agents remotely – a quintessential component of any telework venture. At-home staff are kept in the loop, up to date and up to snuff via frequent phone calls with and emails from their supervisors.
Of course, it takes more than that for telework to, well, work. Technology plays a critical role in the home agent initiative. In fact, Fox attributes much of the success of the program to the cohesive relationship between the call center and the IT department.
“Any company considering an at-home program needs to have very good support from IT, and that’s something that we definitely have. Our IT people are very responsive to our needs and are really ‘dialed in’ as far as how we’re able to manage our at-home agents."
Some of the key technologies that drive the program – and are ably supported by IT – are a reliable and secure high-speed Internet and VPN connection, a Siemens switch/phone system that seamlessly routes customer calls to home agents, and a monitoring system by Goserco that enables the QA team to easily record home agent calls for quality and training purposes.
Herstedt and Fox also credit the home agents themselves for helping to keep things running smoothly from a technology perspective. “We’ve found that this group is an excellent resource for workflow improvements, says Herstedt. “They are among our most experienced agents and are very good about providing IT with feedback on any issues they encounter in the home environment.”
Fortunately, the center hasn’t run into any major roadblocks – technology-related or otherwise.
“It’s been a worry-free group – we’ve have had very few issues,” Herstedt says. “Retention is great, employees love their arrangement. It’s been a very positive program all around.”