By Peter Lyle DeHaan, Ph.D.
There are many benefits to having remote agents as part of your call center. Remote agents can either reside in a secondary, but connected call center, or work out of their home. Among the many benefits of using remote agents, according to Tom Curtin, president of Amtelco, are reducing or eliminating commute time, nullifying the ramifications of traffic problems, and avoiding weather related issues.
Home-based agents are much more open to accept split shifts, being on-call, and logging in at the request of management (Curtin calls them “on-demand” workers). All three of these scenarios are less intrusive to and easier to accomplish by a home-based agent who does not have the issues of a commute or dress code to impede their availability or thwart their responsiveness.
“If you know your traffic patterns you know when you get hit with high call volume,” said Curtin. “By using remote agents you can more economically have on-demand workers that may be part time, but get you through the high spikes in your traffic.” Also, “Remote agents can work nationally and internationally, across many time zones, which will also help with staffing.”
“This leads to more content and productive agents,” said Bob Erdman, Vice President of Qualify Assurance, Amcom Software. Plus, “a certain level of redundancy can be obtained by having multiple application node/agent sites.” Another benefit is “if the call center has reached capacity, allowing agents to work remotely allows for more FTE’s without necessarily having to build out more office space.” This is especially important when space is at a premium or simply not available at the main call center site.
Other reasons to use remote agents include a “desire to capitalize on a wider pool of labor” and reduce overhead, stated Peggy Gritt, Senior Director, Global Market Solutions, Interactive Intelligence Inc. Tax incentives are another benefit she recommends be considered.
Today’s technology, specifically the Internet, has taken much of the uncertainty out of remote agent stations, ensuring that “telephony traffic can be presented to the remote agents as if they are in the main call center, allowing them to access a remote data store for lookup information and to [send] back relevant information, in real time,” said Erdman.
The future is promising for remote agent stations. “Demand for remote agents will grow as employees look for more flexible scheduling and for ways to avoid the daily gridlock that plagues many areas. Employers will increase their use of remote agents as a way to cut costs and increase redundancy and employee productivity,” predicted Erdman. “It will become more of a necessity as our population expands and sprawl continues,” Curtin concurred.
To make a remote station work, there needs to be a provision made to extend audio and data from the main call center to the remote location. There are various ways to accomplish this, each with inherent advantages and disadvantages.
For the audio connection, dialup and VoIP (Voice over Internet Protocol) are common methods. When using dialup, the connection is made at the beginning of each shift. This may need to be accomplished by manually dialing a phone number to access the needed analog port at the main location, though more commonly this is automated and therefore transparent to the remote agent. The VoIP option uses the Internet as a voice transmission path, sending audio, in digital form, over the Internet. In order to achieve quality audio, a high-speed connection, such as DSL or a cable modem is needed (though some vendors recommend avoiding cable modems due to reliability and availability issues that sometimes result on certain systems). The minimum recommended data speeds for VoIP varies from vendor to vendor. In addition to VoIP, Amcom can provision audio to remote agent locations via an ISDN (Integrated Services Digital Network) phone.
In similar fashion, a data path is also needed in order for the remote agent station to communicate with the call center switch and databases. All of the vendors contacted for this article accomplish this using the Internet (generally through a VPN – a Virtual Private Network). Two vendors, Alston Tascom and Amcom, also allow for dialup access as an alternative, but recommend VPN for both speed and reliability. Again, the recommend minimum data rates vary from vendor to vendor, but it is safe to say that, in this case, faster is always better.
Peter Lyle DeHaan, PhD, is the publisher and editor-in-chief of AnswerStat. He’s a passionate wordsmith whose goal is to change the world one word at a time. Read more of his articles or his book, Healthcare Call Center Essentials.
[From the April/May 2005 issue of AnswerStat magazine]