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The Remote Agent Program – Worth the Investment!
By Peter J. McGarahan, Founder and President, McGarahan & Associates

The Time is NOW!

The concept of deploying the Remote Agent has been on every support leader’s roadmap for the last few years. It might have sounded like a great idea, but there were always technical, cultural and management barriers preventing the Remote Agent from becoming a reality. The recent convergence of certain issues, trends and technologies have allowed the managers of call centers, service desks, product support vendors and managed service providers to successfully deploy pilot Remote Agent programs. Faced with numerous staffing, retention and costing issues, companies are looking to the Remote Agent program to help alleviate some of the pains and costs associated with the high turnover rate in the global service and support industry. Thanks to the flexibility home-based agents provide, the current 112,000 number is expected to triple by 2010 according to Framingham, Mass.-based IDC.

Companies embracing this staffing model are either building their business around it (e.g. JetBlue), aggressively pursuing it as a matter of competitive advantage (e.g. Alpine Access Inc.) or they have initiated conservative pilot programs to prove the business case benefits (e.g. Wells Fargo, Verizon Wireless). Simply put, the technology is no longer a barrier to the success of the home-based agent. In addition to the VoIP improvements, the majority of this targeted labor pool has a fast and reliable Internet connection (e.g. cable or DSL) a computer and a phone. In addition, most organizations are supplying their home-based agents with a standard home office setup.

An Undeniable Force

Still, senior management offers resistance to any staff work-at-home programs due to the perception that home-based agents could not possibly be as productive as on-site employees. Equipped with the same measuring, monitoring, industry benchmarking and reporting capabilities, the savvy support leader can consistently prove that the home-based agent is more than likely to be more productive than an office-based agent. Home-based agents site less stress, less distractions, better quality of life, less commute time and management’s trust as key factors for increased productivity and engagement. In a recent Industry Forum, I spoke to 40 organizations that were either using home-based agents successfully, just starting a Pilot program or plan to build and present the business case to their management, legal or HR for receptiveness and buy-in!

There are many driving forces behind the successful deployment of Remote Agents and organizations who are competing for scarce, skilled resources can no longer afford to ignore it. These organizations are facing a retention crisis. They will need to be creative and flexible in order to retain top caliber talent whose priorities and loyalties are not rooted in traditional workplace values. Today’s Millennium work force values the flexible work schedule and the ability to customize their work schedule and environment. This, they say enables them to continuously improve their quality of life, work skills and experiences. The key employee segments of younger employees under 30 and high performing woman all ranked flexible work schedules as their second most valuable benefit. Corporate facilities, public relations, IT and human resources departments are all dealing with creative ways to address:

  • Urban congestion and affordability
  • Environmental “Greening” concerns
  • Work/life balance
  • Realized savings in office costs
  • Enabling a productive, global workforce – round-the-clock
  • Reaching untapped employee segments (e.g. Retired, Mothers returning to the work force, etc.)
  • Business Continuity in lieu of outages, disruptions or disasters

Overcoming Challenges

A remote agents program is not without its challenges and the proof of concept / pilot programs should identify the goals and establish the policy, procedures and program in detail. Experienced organizations recommend getting all the details and questions answered ahead of time before introducing the program to agents. Ensure that your remote agent profile and characteristics set the right people up for success. Many organizations only use it as a reward program for their high performing agents and all of the organizations have a trial period for new agents being on-boarding (at least 6-9 months to establish a baseline of performance, training and trust.

The Tangible Benefits

It’s important to build the business case on tangible benefits that can be continuously measured and proven throughout the Remote Agent pilot and program. Basing your case solely on creating employee goodwill will not stand the test of time nor position the program for success when ‘bumps in the road’ persist and management commitment waivers. Since Remote Agents require very little overhead, at-home agents offer significant cost savings over their counterparts at brick-and-mortar facilities on average of $21 per hour per agent compared with $31.30. Additional benefits range from expanding the available workforce, better flexibility in meeting demand peaks, reduction in agent turnover, mitigating rising gas prices, reducing Real Estate holdings and improved service levels. There are many benefits that strongly make the business case for Remote Agents programs, a few are:

  • They are typically more flexible in extending their working days and volunteering to cover phones when additional agents are needed.
  • Increased ability to acquire and retain top talent when geographical constraints are not imposed.
  • Serves as an effective disaster recovery / business continuity strategy for the organization.
  • Colleague engagement is better facilitated through managed communications / collaboration services such as audio-conferencing and videoconferencing which are more widely used and help to overcome the employee’s sense of isolation.
  • Home-based agents report a higher overall job satisfaction rate than their CSRs counterparts, and their annual turnover rate is just 10%, compared with 50% or more for in-house agents.
  • Employee engagement levels that are 79% higher than those of organizations with low levels of scheduling flexibility.
  • Increased engagement increases the employee’s willingness to go “above and beyond” the call of duty.

The Tools and Technologies

There is no more critical component to the successful Remote Agent program than the technology and tools utilized by the Remote Agent and management. Corporations today are enhancing their network infrastructure and adding IP-enabled IT Service Management and CRM applications, paving the way for the virtual office and the remote agent. Now, a broadband connection to the home has the same bandwidth as company networks, eliminating dedicated circuit requirements. The price of VPN-capable routers, high-speed Internet connections to the home, and VOIP technology has plummeted in recent years. The cost to connect a Remote Agent to their employer's intranet and telecommunications system has become negligible when compared with the operating costs of conventional offices.

Today, most organizations have implemented quality VoIP phone networks that offer the same numbers, features and voice-mail capabilities as the phone system in the office. Today, voice switches are built with the ability to route unlimited calls to agents, either in a center or remote location over a single phone line. VoIP also allows for calls to be directed down the same line as the data application, further reducing infrastructure costs and complexity. Choosing to build your remote agent ACD into the network creates flexibility and redundancy for your existing center, while maintaining management reporting capabilities required to run your operation. Carriers and ASPs have introduced products that enable you to operate internal or remote call centers without procuring any infrastructure, allowing you to pay “per minute”, “per seat”, or a fixed cost per month.

There are many configurations and technology options for the organization looking to offer Flexible Work schedules, telecommuting capabilities and Remote Agent programs. The successful Remote Agent has the following technology configuration at-home to best contribute to their chances of increased productivity:

  • A reliable and fast Internet connection (DSL or Cable).
  • The right level of Security / Access / Authority.
  • VPN access to the corporate network with access to Email.
  • Connectivity to Incident Tracking tool and access to information, data bases, systems and other necessary tools to facilitate first call closure.
  • Teleconferencing tools.
  • Presentation-sharing tools.
  • Applications that work remotely.
  • An instant-messaging (IM) client on which the team standardizes.
  • Cell Phone.
  • Printer/Fax/Scanner

Lastly, it strongly recommended that the service and support operations implement and use a Quality Monitoring tool to ensure a consistent, quality customer experience across all agents (at-home and in-office). Quality Monitoring provides management with vital information regarding the quality of service each employee is providing customers by recording sample calls or all calls that come into the contact center. It provides supervisors with a tool to score employee customer interactions based upon user definable criteria. The reports produced clearly show employee call interaction strengths and weaknesses indicating to managers where additional training is needed. Quality Monitoring records calls, and optionally PC screens, to be evaluated during a time best suited to the supervisor's schedule.

Successfully Managing Remote Agents

Managing Remote Agents requires that you already have formal quality control processes incorporated into your organization’s procedures. This ensures that the same high standards of your in-house group are mirrored with your remote agents. In surveys conducted on what makes a successful Remote Agent program versus a failed one, the strength and the maturity of the manager was overwhelming factor.

Key attributes of a successful Remote Agent include:
  • A self-starting discipline
  • Personal motivation
  • A dedicated interest
  • Experience in your industry
  • Flexibility to schedule themselves for all hours
  • Punctuality
  • An overwhelming desire to succeed.
  • The most successful remote agents view their work as a profession and not just a job.

Quality surveys, real-time remote monitoring capabilities, and instant messaging are all essential tools for managing externally. Workforce management tools can track any agent (internal or remote) effectively. Today’s applications can also provide remote agents with easy access interface for scheduling, the ability to monitor schedule adherence, and to improve their efficiency.

The key to remote agent success is to structure your compensation plan properly and focus your management strategy on the process, not the individual remote agent. Emotionally, trust is a key issue for remote agents requiring managers need to treat their telecommuters with respect.

No Pressure!

Deploying and managing a Remote Agent program at your organization will allow you enormous staffing and scheduling flexibility to help address peak demands, emergency situations and service disruptions and adhering to aggressive service levels. It will reenergize and reengage your staff and allow you to attain and retain top performers. Take your time to do it right the first time by leveraging all necessary resources to address all concerns, cover all the angles and get unwavering management commitment. The long-term success of the program is in your hands – no pressure!

About the Author
Peter McGarahan is the founder and president of McGarahan & Associates and acting Chairman of the IT Infrastructure Management Association. Pete’s value to the service and support industry is his thought leadership. As a practitioner, product manager and support industry analyst and expert, he has influenced the maturity of the service and support industry. His passion for customer service led the Taco Bell support organization to achieve the Help Desk Institute Team Excellence Award. IT Support News also named him one of the “Top 25 Professionals in the Service and Support Industry” in 1999. Support professionals voted McGarahan “The Legend of the Year” in 2002 and again in 2004 at the Help Desk Professionals conference for his endless energy, mentoring and coaching and his valuable contribution to the support industry and community. You can reach Peter McGarahan at or 714.694.1158.