Although a delicate matter, opportunities to offshore or outsource customer contact have increased. In Europe, the volume of outsourced calls is around 12 percent. Fastest growing model is homeshoring.

By Erik Bouwer

Increasing economic pressure encourages companies to look for innovation: inventing new ways of developing, organizing and producing. In customer contact, price has always been a dominant factor in deal making. Outsourcing customer contact in order to lower costs has therefore an negative effect on budgets for innovation. As a result, companies are not using the full potential of technology.
Offshoring is widely accepted as a solution for cost saving, but offshore resources are often limited and setting up a captive (a company owned operation abroad) is time and effort consuming. On the technology level there is even less to win: the contact center of the future is SaaS-based, VoIP offers manu opportunities to organize customer contact in a smarter way. So the question is, how to add value by means of new business models? The solution is not in technology, but in putting people to work in a new way.

Blended approach
More and more companies are making use of a blended approach; in which local centralized contact center capacity is supported by additional capacity of home workers. Homeshoring is a real challenge for contact center managers. First, with the homeshoring model they might be able to tackle labour market obstacles. In every labour market a large group of people is waiting for a parttime job offer that responds to a proper balance between working time and travelling time. The disadvantage of job for 20 hrs each week, for which employees have to travel two hours per day, is no longer relevant if employees are admitted to work from home. At home, they can combine child care and work, resulting in a better work/personal life balance. With VoIP you can bring your contact center infrastructure (hardware, software, voice and data) almost anywhere. What you need is a quiet place to work and a high speed internet connection.
The biggest challenge is to let go the command and control culture that is lying beneath the traditional contact center. Managers should build their homeshoring model on trust rather than on controlling people.

In the US homeshoring is common sense. The additional advantages as illustrated above are well recognized and the results are good. Homeshoring contact centers are successful in cost cutting, in particular in overhead costs. Per hour an American agent will cost approximately 31 USD, a homebased agent only 21 USD, according to analyst IDC. US companies also report other advantages: homebased agents show higher loyalty, ending up in lower attrition rates. When operational, they also show better productivity and quality compared to output in a regular office setting.

Homeshoring is used as an instrument to scale up or down by means of small and flexible 15 minute shifts. US based flight company JetBlue runs its reservation centers with 1.400 homebased agents. American companies are discovering a new labour market group: high educated men and women, who are staying at home because of obligations or restrictions. Making use of this concept, many companies see new opportunities to widen up their operating time span, e.g. increasing their opening hours, adding evenings and Sundays. By spreading call volumes throughout the week they improve their service levels and service quality. Third party contact centers can offer new flexible solutions to their customers – like 24/7 emergency services, back up agents or second line assistance.
Making use of homeshoring concepts is good for your corporate image. Homeworkers do not travel and therefore contribute to a sustainable operation.

Different mindset
Although the homebased agent only needs a softphone, the contact center manager needs to adapt his traditional view on running a call center operation. Not every person has the competences to work as a responsible and self correcting individual without direct supervision. Some employees choose to work in an office because of social aspects – like meeting other people of being part of a visible team.
Employees as well as managers, team leaders and supervisors have to learn to live with distant working, including distant management. Direct control is possible only by means of data exchange (e.g. monitoring conversations and output data) and by means of a camera connection. In a managerial sense, managers should lead home based agents on output (which is compiled of customer satisfaction and call quality) rather than on throughput (which is compiled of ACD data). Managers should rely more on goal setting and incidental call monitoring. Management by walking around is impossible, as is management by making use of the traditional hot seat.
Another procedure that should be revised is the scheduling methodology. When choosing for small time intervals of 15 minutes, the retaining contact center organization (i.e. the local contact center office which makes use of the blended model) should work with these intervals too. Furthermore homeshoring demands highly developed systems for knowledge management, like intranet and internet availability. Homebased agents have to have the skill of self starting; they should have well developed analytical and problem solving skills.

Homeshoring might solve some long lasting problems of the conventional contact center operation. It requires a new approach to call center management. Not merely in the technological sense, but primarily in people management.

Erik Bouwer is now partner of Essentials, chiefeditor of Intellectueel Kapitaal, chiefeditor of Outsource Magazine.