VForce is an entirely virtual customer care operation, with each of its more than 50 agents interacting with customers from the quiet comfort of their respective homes across the United States. While many companies have recently started using home agents to some extent, VForce has completely torn down the walls of the traditional call center staffing model and, in doing so, has opened the door to viable employment opportunities for many talented individuals who would otherwise likely remain jobless. The majority (roughly 75%) of VForce’s agents have some type of physical disability that limits their ability to work outside of their home – but certainly not their ability to provide excellent customer care.
“Once we tapped into this labor pool, we learned that it was a win-win situation for everyone,” explains Erin Blunt, COO for VForce, which handles renewal calls for AAA Clubs across the U.S. “This group is hard-working and professional, with fantastic education and skill – and represents a segment of our society that statistically shows an unemployment rate of 70%. The VForce company model is ideal for employees who have disabilities and who are more comfortable or only able to be employed in a work-at-home atmosphere.”
A Socially Responsible AND Business-Smart Staffing Model
VForce is hardly a newcomer to the home agent model. They started using virtual staff as far back as 11 years ago realizing that it would give them the ability to greatly expand their recruiting reach and select from a national pool of high-quality candidates.
What they didn’t realize immediately is how going virtual would enable them to tap a viable and highly underemployed labor pool like that of individuals with disabilities. That all started to change in 2008 when VForce began working with National Telecommuting Institute (better known as NTI), a nonprofit organization dedicated to finding and developing work-at-home customer service and technical support jobs for homebound Americans who are physically disabled.
“Throughout the years, we have established a wonderful relationship with NTI,” says Blunt. “NTI understands the needs of VForce and does a phenomenal job recruiting candidates that fit our employment needs.”
Dr. M.J. Willard, Executive Director and Founder of NTI, naturally likes hearing such sentiments, as she knows that satisfied clients mean more job opportunities for people with disabilities.
"We pay a lot of attention to our employers,” says Dr. Willard. “Making them happy means they hire from our candidate pool first".
Dr. Willard points out that VForce and other customer care organizations that actively recruit individuals with disabilities do so not merely because it is a socially responsible thing to do, but because it is a smart thing to do from a business perspective, as well. In addition to what Blunt has already mentioned about this labor group’s availability, strong work ethic and good education level, there are attractive cost benefits associated with hiring individuals with disabilities. For one, call centers become eligible for a $2,400 Work Opportunity Tax Credit for every agent with a disability they hire. In addition, organizations like NTI receive government subsidies that enable them to price their agents aggressively, and these savings are passed on to their client companies who hire those agents.
Call centers that hire agents with disabilities also stand to reduce the costs and headaches associated with high employee turnover (a problem that has historically plagued the call center industry). This is because, generally speaking, individuals with disabilities tend to remain committed and engaged for years once hired by a good company, as they recognize how few viable and attractive employment opportunities are available to them.
Blunt says she has definitely found this to be the case at VForce.
“I have many employees who have told me that they love their job. More importantly, we have several employees who look at their position with VForce as life-saving/life-changing. Some of our employees never dreamed of ever being employed again. The ability to work and make a difference in life while earning a paycheck has been life-altering.”
Dispelling Myths about Ability, Accommodation
Two common (though often-unspoken) questions among call center managers with regard to hiring individuals with physical disabilities are:
1) Can they do the job as well as their peers who don’t have a disability?
2) Is it expensive/difficult to accommodate these employees?
Those who have bought into the common myths and negative stereotypes surrounding this labor pool are quick to answer the above questions “No” and “Yes”, respectively. However, conversations with managers like Blunt who have actual experience in this area reveal an entirely different picture.
“ALL VForce employees are expected to meet the same performance and attendance expectations,” explains Blunt. “When a disabled employee makes the decision to submit an application, they are prepared to adhere to our goals and expectations. It is our mission to support the AAA brand and do everything in our power to enhance the AAA member experience. We do this by hiring the best work-at-home agents available.”
NTI’s Dr. Willard acknowledges that some agents with disabilities may have stamina issues that might make it difficult to work full-time shifts. However, she adds, this isn’t typically a problem, as most call centers benefit tremendously from the added staffing flexibility of having a part-time virtual workforce in place.
Blunt agrees. “Employing part-time employees works well for VForce.”
As for accommodation, most concerns are unfounded. More than half of the required ADA (American Disability Act) accommodations – including adjusting workstations and implementing assistive office equipment – cost employers absolutely nothing, and another 30% cost less than $500, according to the U.S. General Accounting Office (GAO).
A Virtual Success
Having an entirely remote workforce requires effective virtual approaches to training and team-building. Over the years, VForce has honed its ability to keep home agents up-to-date, in the loop and fully inspired.
“Our training is done using phone-based training combined with web-based training,” explains Blunt. “And we rely heavily on telephone, email and instant messaging for day-to-day communication. We also utilize a company blog and chat for company updates.”
She adds that VForce is big on incentives and recognition, with agents participating in frequent sales contests and other fun “events” from the comfort of their home.
Does the lack of actual face-to-face time with peers and management have any negative impact on agent engagement or performance? Not really, says Blunt.
“For those employees who have never worked from home, there is typically an adjustment period to our virtual culture, but the majority adapt and truly enjoy the independence.”
Hoping Other Centers Emulate
Considering the success that VForce has experienced with its unique staffing model and workforce, it’s not surprising that Blunt encourages other call centers to consider a similar approach. To those who are serious about taking the next step, she recommends partnering with people who have the experience and the passion to help make it happen.
“Work with experts who can guide you through the process. NTI is available to us to answer questions, as well as give support and advice. The ability to consult experts is crucial to managing our employees.”
VForce – the Big Picture
Location: U.S. (100% virtual call center)
Hours of operation: 8:00 am to 9:00 pm Monday-Friday; Saturday 10:00 am to 5:00 pm
Number of agents: Over 50
Products/services provided/supported: Works exclusively for AAA Clubs throughout the
United States, renewing AAA expired members
Channels handled: Phone, IVR, email, chat, web calls
What’s so great about them? They have fully embraced the virtual agent model. In doing so, the company has greatly expanded its recruiting reach and been able to tap the largely overlooked and highly motivated labor pool of workers with physical disabilities to provide excellent customer care.