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Going Green: Minimizing the Contact Center’s Carbon Footprint

I didn’t really want to use the above title for this article; however, I knew it would get your attention. After all, green is in. Green is the new black. 

Environmentalism seems to be more of a hot trend than a social and moral imperative these days. People everywhere now call themselves “green” because they occasionally recycle and/or have seen Al Gore’s film An Inconvenient Truth. Businesses are doing the same; they make sure the public knows that the company now uses energy efficient light bulbs and has reduced paper use – hoping that such a green marketing campaign will win over customers and increase profits. 

No doubt, green is red hot. Unfortunately, all the noise that individuals and businesses are making about their half-hearted efforts to be environmentally friendly is its own form of pollution. Going green seems to be more about “look at me” than “look what we need to do.” True, some individuals and corporations do a lot in the way of conserving resources and energy, and those efforts are deserving of some recognition; but the truth is, all the measures that people and businesses are now taking – or, in many cases, merely say they are taking – to reduce their carbon footprint are the sort of measures that we should have been taking (and have been advised to take by environmental experts) for decades. 

Experts agree that it’s time to move beyond the politics and PR of environmentalism, and get down to what can and needs to be done. As a contact center professional, you may be thinking that a green initiative should be led by C-level execs. Or perhaps you are thinking that since the contact center doesn’t pump out pollution or consume energy like manufacturing plants do, going green doesn’t really pertain to your area of the business. But going green is everybody’s responsibility, and there are myriad things a contact center can do in that regard. 

A growing number of centers already are – and not just for publicity and praise. These organizations realize that going green has a profound impact on the community around them and the planet itself, as well as on operational efficiencies, performance and employee satisfaction and retention within their company.

“Overwhelmingly, when asked what is motivating the change, the feedback we get from leading outsourcers and companies with huge call centers is that going green is simply the right thing to do,” says Michael DeSalles, strategic analyst for Frost & Sullivan’s Information & Communication Technologies division. “Companies that operate call centers have included 'environmental responsibility' as part of their overall Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) commitment, based on the assumption that businesses have an environmental duty to their shareholders, employees, clients and partners.”     

Creating a Sustainable Contact Center

While going green in the contact center is the right thing to do, not everybody knows how to do it. Here’s a list of best practices recommended by environmental experts and embraced by top green organizations:  

Create a contact center Green Team.  No single person has all the knowledge and solutions when it comes to making the contact center and the enterprise more environmentally responsible. Green success requires a collective mindset and a team effort. 

The primary focus of your contact center’s Green Team should be to investigate the latest green practices and educate employees center-wide – strike that, organization-wide – on all that they can do to soften the company’s impact on the environment. Be sure to involve agents on the team; having come of age amidst the green frenzy of recent years, members of Generation Y tend to be a little more environmentally savvy and, thus, will likely be able to enhance your organization’s carbon-reduction efforts. Further, including agents on such an important team is a great way to increase morale and engagement, and add job diversity to a position that is cloaked in repetition and routine.   

“Employee involvement is a critical, key element,” says DeSalles. “Smart contact center managers have quickly realized that their agents and employees often come up with some very creative ideas.”

Start with “quick wins.” Going all-out green is a daunting – albeit crucial – task; the list of possible measures one can take to be more environmentally friendly is practically endless, and many can be prohibitively expensive for some organizations. To avoid drowning in a sea of green options and initiatives, start out by picking the low-hanging fruit – doing the simple things that require little effort and capital but that have a profound environmental impact nonetheless. This might include the following, which is far from an exhaustive list:

•Recycling plastic bottles, paper, cardboard as well as office equipment like old computers, keyboards, phones, headsets, etc. 
•Buying recycled office supplies/equipment
•Using energy efficient light bulbs
•Turning off lights in rooms/areas that are not in use
•Unplugging electrical devices that are not in use
•Keeping thermostats at steady, reasonable levels
•Keeping air conditioning and heating ducts clean
•Analyzing and controlling water use
•Replacing traditional fax with e-mail (where possible) or an e-fax system.
•Printing documents double-sided
•Creating synergies with other departments to share and consolidate resources   

Implement a home agent program. This is one of the greenest things a contact center – especially a large one – can do. Enabling agents to telecommute reduces not only air pollution, greenhouse gases and gasoline consumption by cutting out the morning car or bus commute for home-based employees, it cuts down significantly on the power needed to heat, cool and light large buildings and operate IT equipment. 

In addition, telecommuting programs enable contact centers to add agents as the business grows without having to expand existing facilities or build new ones. Any kind of construction reduction is a good thing; according to research by Frost & Sullivan, buildings in the U.S. account for: 

•65% of electricity consumption
•36% of energy use
•30% of greenhouse gas emissions
•30% of raw materials use
•30% of waste output (136 million tons annually)
•12% potable water consumption

“So, clearly the built environment has a profound impact on the country’s natural environment, economy, health, and productivity,” says DeSalles. “…IT departments world-wide are embracing hosted, thin-client contact center technology to leverage the distributed “anytime, anywhere” agent model and reap the environmental benefits.”

Add to the environmental benefits the fact that most contact centers with a telecommuting program in place report that the program makes it’s easier to find and retain high caliber agents – agents who are more productive and who achieve higher quality than onsite staff (according to the ICMI 2008 Contact Center Operations Report) – and you’re looking at a green initiative that simply cannot be ignored. 

Embrace e-learning.  E-learning is green learning. First off, it’s paperless, and when you are talking about large contact centers with upwards of 500-1,000 agents, eliminating the need to continually print and distribute paper-based training materials can save forests of trees, not to mention beaucoup bucks.  

E-learning also cuts down dramatically on the amount of travel that staff – particularly home agents – need to do to receive the training and development they need. For example, at World Travel Holdings (WTH), the contact center uses an internal e-learning site (WTHUniversity) and webcams for coaching and training with it home agents, who represent roughly 40 percent of the center’s workforce. 

“Having such tools in place enables home agents to rarely have to visit one of our physical call center locations,” says Drew Daly, senior director of sales for WTH. “All coaching and training is conducted remotely, with a dedicated team of virtual coaches working daily with home agents.”

E-learning can also help make supervisor and management development greener. Instead of always hopping on a plane to attend offsite conferences and seminars, supervisors and managers can receive much of the same valuable information via webinars and other distance learning events/courses, as well as via web-based training modules. 

Reducing air travel has a bigger impact on the environment than you might think. According to Sightline Institute, a Seattle-based not-for-profit think-tank focused on sustainability, flight is one of the most fuel-guzzling forms of passenger transportation. While it’s true that airlines aim to compensate for their high fuel bills by packing passengers into their planes, the fact is that, per mile, powering a jet uses almost as much energy, and emits almost as much climate-changing carbon dioxide, as each passenger would use driving alone in an average car. 
Rick Nigol, co-founder and senior consultant for eLearn Campus, an organization dedicated to helping others achieve better e-learning results, admits that only recently did he recognize the ecological benefits of e-learning. Now, however, he is pushing that aspect of it.

“I heard from two vice-presidents who said that replacing a lot of classroom-based training with various e-learning approaches will help them meet their strategic focus of becoming an environmentally sustainable company. This was something of an ‘Aha!’ moment for me. It is so obvious now, but I never really stopped to consider it before – e-learning is a green industry!”

Offer advanced self-service options. While self-service will never replace the need for live agents in the contact center, advanced Web self-service and IVR applications can certainly cut down on the number of transactions – especially routine ones – that require live agent assistance. Some may call it a stretch to categorize self-service as a green tactic, but it is good for the environment – reducing the number of agents who need to commute to the center, reducing the number of workstations that are in use at any given time, and reducing the noise pollution caused by agents screaming in frustration after handling the same basic call type 20 times in an hour. 

Among the Web self-service apps that enhance your center’s chances of weaning customers from more resource-draining channels are online search engines that feature “natural language” capabilities and powerful knowledge bases (thus enabling customers to type complete phrases or sentences to quickly find what they are looking for); dynamic FAQ applications that evaluate past knowledgebase queries and responses and provide lists of potential FAQs to include on the Web site; and CRM-powered customer portals that are, in essence, personalized Web pages where customers can access and view their account information – and personalized product/service offers – by simply entering their username and/or password.   

As for enhancing the center’s green initiative via IVR-based self-service, contact centers should look toward advanced speech recognition (ASR). ASR-based IVR apps use natural language processing to reduce the number of steps callers must take to get what they need during IVR transactions – some can even gather and store specific data about individual customers and use that information to customize responses and speed transactions with callers during future interactions.

Use green vendors. It’s important not only to be green yourself, but to be green by association as well. When choosing vendors and suppliers go with companies that are as environmentally conscious as your organization is (or would like to be). Where possible, contract with technology vendors committed to recycling equipment, paper suppliers that offer quality recycled paper, and outsourcers that embrace all of the green tactics and practices covered in this article. In fact, if you do outsource customer contacts, why not go with a virtual outsourcer (a.k.a., “homesourcer”) that is staffed extensively or entirely with home agents? Examples of such organizations include LiveOps, Arise Virtual Solutions, Alpine Access and Convergys (see sidebar on Convergys).    

Celebrate successes! Even though being green is our responsibility as humans on this planet, it isn’t always easy or convenient, which is why Earth is in the troubled state it is in. It’s important, too, to celebrate your successes internally. Smart centers track their green initiatives, publicize the progress the organization is making (via meetings, memos, the corporate intranet, bulletin boards, et. al.), and hold parties or special meetings to celebrate the center’s key achievements and to recognize those who have gone the extra mile for the cause. 

Such celebrations not only give credit where credit is due, they create a collective consciousness and pride among employees in the contact center and inspire everyone to work together to do all they can to minimize the organization’s carbon output. The impact of such a commitment on the environment and the effectiveness of your business is undeniable – and necessary.       

Convergys Getting Its Green On
Convergys Corp. began its green journey about five years ago after receiving a sobering directive from the company’s CEO. This very large customer care outsourcing company believes that going green begins with building teams to better understand what other divisions are doing and to find ways to align efforts and realize synergies. Convergys looked at what could be done from both the IT department and the corporate real estate perspective. 

Corporate Real Estate  
It starts with the easy things first:

•Turning off lights
•Using common set points on thermostats
•Deployment of assets – redeploy, re-use and re-ship

Very few items are thrown away at Convergys. Every item from agent desks, chairs, and phones to PCs and training materials moves within the organization until it has fully expended its useful life. This policy cuts down on capital purchases for new equipment and ensures that items don’t end up unnecessarily in landfills.

Environmental control
As Convergys builds and renovates buildings, the company has an international commitment to install the right-sized equipment and automation systems – ones that guarantee that facilities are operated in the most energy-efficient manner possible. This includes air-handling units, power supplies, energy-efficient lights and chillers, for example.

IT initiatives
•Adopted a company-wide virtualization, data storage and server consolidation strategy. The 2008 goal to double the reduction of servers from last year, realizing significant savings in emissions and costs on power consumption.
•Plan to double the number of concurrent home agents within the next year. 
•Continue to reduce the number of printers, and will focus on the savings from a centralized network printing policy. 

For Convergys it’s a continuing, evolving process in developing a roadmap for how to be greener through the application of best practices.

Source: Frost & Sullivan

Greg Levin is Community Services Manager for ICMI. [email protected]