Why the Next Call Center Agent You Speak to May Be Wearing Pajamas

Mobile, Social and Cloud Cause Contact Centers to Rethink Workforce Management

(This article was originally posted as a two part series on WIRED Innovation Insights) 


On a warm spring evening, Colleen tucked her two young children into bed, and prepared to go back to work for the second time of the day. Thankfully, she didn’t have to get dressed and drive to an office to get down to business. She just strolled over to her spare bedroom, turned on her computer, put on her headset and began taking calls for her job as a contact center agent. You see Colleen is one of a growing number of “virtual agents” who work from home or a distributed office space.

Recently divorced and in need of a flexible job that would leave her free to care for her kids, Colleen discovered her new job on a website devoted to work-at-home moms. Earlier in her career, she worked as an agent and supervisor in several contact centers but was surprised to discover that agents were no longer expected to punch into a “brick and mortar” facility and work shoulder to shoulder with a boiler room full of other agents, supervisors and team leaders.

She applied for the job, underwent a thorough interview process and was then hired, trained and coached, all entirely online.  Every agent and supervisor at Colleen’s company works from home – managers have never even met most of their employees in person.

That night, right after taking her first few calls, the chat window on her screen popped open, it was Barbara her supervisor.

“Hi Colleen, Good evening I just saw that you signed in – would you mind working the ‘Juicer’ campaign – we’re being swamped with calls after the TV promo ran tonight, and we need to get callers off hold tout de suite!”

“Sure Barb, I’ll switch right now”, she replied quickly, typing into the chat window.

Colleen is part of several agent groups that have the skills to sell and support various kitchen appliances.  She now works on both inbound and outbound marketing campaigns switching back and forth between taking the outbound calls placed by the systems automated dialer and answering calls and taking orders from callers dialing the company’s 800 number.

She is well paid and can boost her salary by earning a commission for the sales she makes.  She’s also happy not to have to spend money on gas, wear and tear on her car, clothes and other expenses she’d normally incur with an office job.

When she first started, she was apprehensive about getting back on the phone, especially without having someone standing next to her to give her a hand if she needed it. But she was relieved to find out that the tools and support structure, normally found in an office were all available to her “virtually”.

Colleen was able to sign in from home using her laptop. There was no software and hardware to install – an intuitive agent interface was delivered right through her web browser. Everything she needed was available. She could answer, transfer, and conference calls. Agent scripts popped up when a call came in along with the caller’s records and she could wrap up and “disposition” calls easily. She didn’t need to use her home phone line or have a new one installed, calls were routed through her laptop Internet connection. It was all there in one simple application.

During her first week on the phone, her supervisor was there, listening into her calls, coaching her either by online chat, or by whispering into her ear virtually, unheard by the caller. On one occasion when she panicked and got flustered, Barbara, was able to step in and take over the call.


Remote work is exploding as a result of mobile technologies,
— Michele Rowan, President of Customer Contact Strategies


She also wondered if she’d miss the camaraderie and friendly competition she remembered, with leader boards posted on the walls and agents competing to be top performers.  As it turned out all of this had been replicated in the company’s online social community – leader boards were still there, “at-a-boys”, “high-fives”, the “wall of fame” and an MVP program. She could even socialize, ask questions and get advice from other team members, all online.

Coleen’s story, illustrates how innovative companies like NexRep deliver customer care using a virtual workforce and gain a competitive advantage by removing the geographic barriers that limit most contact centers from recruiting workers outside of an easy driving distance to an office. They also retain more agents in a business that typically struggles with extremely high turnover rates by offering employees the kind of flexibility that is hard to find elsewhere.

These benefits are driving a dramatic shift toward the use of at-home agents.

In 2013, the National Association of Call Centers reported that 55% of U.S. call centers offered some type of work from home option and 70% of those that did, planned to increase the number of at-home agents.

The ability to hire and retain more qualified workers along with the benefits of improved agent productivity and reduce real-estate costs is driving contact centers to rapidly move more agents to at-home work.

As Teddy Liaw, CEO of NexRep, said in a recent presentation “quality matters… and I would argue that the number one problem faced by call centers is sourcing the right people…that’s driving a migration toward at-home agents. It’s a fact.”

But mobile, social and cloud technologies are accelerating adoption of remote work by impacting the way workers want to work and way employers need to staff.

#Increasingly Mobile Workforce

According to the International Telecommunication Union  (ITU) and CTIA there are 6.8 Billion mobile subscribers worldwide and 326 million in the U.S. alone. The growing number of mobile subscribers, devices and apps is driving businesses to develop strategies for mobile customer care and to accommodate and increasingly mobile workforce.

“Remote work is exploding as a result of mobile technologies”, said Michele Rowan, President of Customer Contact Strategies and former Global VP of Performance Management at Hilton Reservations and Customer Care. “Having become accustom to the flexibility to work anywhere and anytime using mobile devices and services, workers increasingly prefer more customizable work options, including the ability to work at-home or during non-business hours.”

In a recent survey of 5000 workers by Aruba Networks, they found that 53% would prefer to work from home a couple of days a week rather than getting a 10% raise. Half reported that they were most productive outside of normal 9-5 business hours while 79% surveyed in the U.S. said they got their most productive work done at home. And for younger workers, in the 18-35 demographic the results were amplified.

#Impact of Social Media

Social media has had a huge impact on the contact center. Before the rise of social media customer care organizations could more easily contain problems and complaints. All that changed with social media where a single unhappy customer could express their dissatisfaction publically and then recruit hundreds or thousands of other users to complain publicly along with them.

That is causing contact centers to invest in both the tools and the people who can respond effectively to requests coming not just from 800 numbers but also via social networks as well as email, chat and mobile apps.

Contact center managers must hire and retain agents with both deep product knowledge and the skills to communicate appropriately across multiple channels.  Not only do they need to be able to speak engagingly to customers over the phone, they need to write clear and concise email responses and even understand how to respond in 140 characters over twitter.  To make things even more challenging, many of the more routine service requests are handled through web self-service or IVR applications meaning that agents must be skilled in resolving the most complicated customer care problems.

#Shift to the Cloud

The shift has been profound. DMG Consulting, a leading analyst firm, estimated that in 2008 about 2% of contact center seats were based on cloud offerings. By 2014 they predict that over 18% will have transitioned to the cloud, representing a growth rate of over 40% per year after 2010.

The transition to cloud-based contact center software is being driven by the same types of benefits realized in other market segments, like CRM and marketing automation software. Cloud solutions are just faster to deploy, easier to use and offer greater flexibility by allowing businesses to scale and pay on-demand.

But the proliferation of cloud contact center solutions is also making it easier for businesses to let agents work remotely.  As we saw in Colleen’s example, there was no complicated software, hardware or equipment to set up and maintain - she was able to get up and running with just a computer, headset and Internet connection. While at the same time, the outsourcing company that employs her could easily add or remove agents as they sign contracts with new vendors to sell and support products.

Distributed Models

Although some businesses may find a fully distributed model unworkable for a variety of business reasons, many are still experimenting with hybrid or hub-and-spoke models where a portion of their staff works in a brick and mortar facility while other agents are allowed to work from home. 

Although less aggressive work-from-home models don’t offer the benefits of being able to source workers from anywhere in the country (or anywhere in the world), companies are still racing to implement them because of the benefits they receive in terms of higher job satisfaction, better agent retention, lower real estate costs and the ability to distribute their workforce for higher availability during natural disasters and storms that often take individual brick-and-mortar facilities offline.

And as businesses continue to adopt cloud-based software solutions with less equipment to be maintained at agents’ homes, those ties will be cut, freeing more companies to source workers from beyond the 20-mile limit.

But whether fully or partially distributed the trend toward more at-home agents is progressing at a brisk pace and will continue to be driven by mobile, social and cloud technology adoption. 


Richard Dumas

I have led marketing and product management initiatives for leading technology, media and software companies including Nuance Communications, Sun Micro, Apple Computer and DNN Corp. I received an M.B.A. from M.I.T.’s Sloan School of Management and a B.A. in Cognitive Science from Wesleyan University. I am currently the Director of Product and Solution Marketing at Five9, the leading provider of cloud contact center software .