Dave Paulding (UK) - The Best Way to Run a Contact Centre is not to Have a Contact Centre

When a customer needs to contact a company or a government body, the over-riding demand is that the query should be answered fully, accurately and promptly. The agent answering the phone should respond instantly, be friendly but clear, and know all there is to know about the organisation and its products and services.

The agent in the contact centre - who quite clearly cannot know everything about the organisation and its users - appreciates that instant access to data is the difference between a swiftly completed call with a happy customer and yet another dissatisfied tirade.

So it is in everyone's best interests to resource the contact centre with the best possible technology and the best possible staff.

And I want to propose a radical solution: the best way to run a contact centre may be not to have a contact centre. With universal access to broadband you can put the information anywhere, and with voice over IP telephone technology you can route calls seamlessly. So why not have your contact centre staff work from home?

The advantages to the staff are clear. Commuting time and stress are eliminated, as indeed are the costs (and for the company the reduced emissions look good on the green audit). Staff working unsociable hours no longer have to worry about travelling to otherwise deserted industrial areas in the middle of the night.

Eliminating commuting also makes them immune to transport disruption.

More important, they can plan their hours around their lifestyles. People can return to work after career breaks, and may be happy to work split shifts to cover peaks, something that is virtually impossible when people have to "go" to work.

Research suggests that an employer who can offer home working attracts staff with a wider pool of skills; the ability to work flexibly attracts staff who are better educated. The retention rate for home-based staff is boosted too: typically call centres see a 20 per cent annual turnover, which is halved when you allow staff to work from home.

Does this work?

A successful US company called VIP Desk offers customer care for premium brands. Its client companies sell to affluent, educated customers who expect to deal with similarly well-informed staff if they need support. It has no call centre: all its staff work from home. It attracts the best staff and saves the cost of a bricks and mortar call centre.

What are the downsides?

Managers are inevitably going to be worried about what their staff are doing. Are they meeting their hours? Are they being productive? In short, can they be trusted when they are out of sight, out of mind?

In reality, supervisors do not manage staff in call centres by standing over them with stop watches. Built into the technology platform are sophisticated algorithms for presence management which provide detailed metrics on staff performance. Provided the technology platform is extended to the home worker the same metrics will apply.
For some staff the inverse worry may apply. "If the manager cannot see how hard I am working," goes the theory, "how will I be recommended for promotion?"

Confidence in the presence management system has to work both ways.

In all of this, the technology is actually the easy part. Unified communications can link workers, wherever they are, over a single connection - in an office or contact centre that would be through the local ethernet; for remote workers a single broadband connection carries both the voice and the data.

Security can be layered on to the connection without impairing performance: we have clients working on sensitive military projects, for example.

That means the same technology can be used for mobile staff as well as home-based contact agents. Salesmen or consultants on the road can connect into the corporate network from a client's premises, a hotel room, an airport lounge or a Starbuck's. Given a broadband connection they can work just as if they were in their home office.

Flexible working is good for businesses, good for staff and good for the environment. The technology is ready: all that is needed is the trust and conviction of good management.

Dave Paulding is Interactive Intelligence's regional sales director for the UK, Middle East and Africa



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