Off Center
Take it from a guy who has been a telecommuter since 1994, there is nothing as inspiring as having the freedom to work in just your boxer briefs. (Actually, my habit of working in just my boxer briefs started even before I started telecommuting, which is why the company I was employed by at the time sent me home to work in the first place.)

Giving deserving agents the opportunity to handle customer contacts from home gives them a whole new life: No more soul-crushing commutes during rush hour; better work-life balance and more time with family/friends; cost-savings associated with not having to buy clothes, shampoo, shaving cream or deodorant; and the highly empowering feeling that the company values and trusts them enough to work so autonomously.

Home agent programs inspire and engage not only the employees who get to actually work from home; they also motivate many of the onsite employees, who will typically work very hard in the call center to earn the opportunity to work outside of it. 

And it’s not like agents are the only party that benefits from a work-at-home arrangement. Call centers stand to reap big rewards from a business standpoint: Higher retention of the best agents; better recruiting results (due to employee demand for home-based work, as well as the ability to expand your recruiting reach outside the immediate region); improved productivity and quality; better attendance; increased staffing flexibility; and decreased facility expenses.

To ensure that your organization experiences such success with its home agent program or pilot, consider embracing the best practices below – but not too hard, as some may be brittle.

Select the right reps for remote work. I have interviewed many home agent managers in my years posing as a call center expert, and just about all of them look for the following criteria when choosing which staff to kick out of the building:  

•  Consistent high performance
•  Stellar attendance record
•  Ability to work independently, with minimal supervision
•  Ability to work in an environment offering no live social interaction with peers
•  A quiet home office environment with few distractions
•  A home with a jacuzzi and/or swimming pool that you can enjoy when visiting

To ensure that there will be minimal noise and distractions in the home, it’s a good idea to select home agents who have no friends and whose only family members are cats. But not too many cats, as studies have shown that constant meowing in the background during phone calls causes a 56% decrease in customer satisfaction.   

Use a formal written telecommuter agreement. Once they select their home agents, top call centers make sure that these lucky stiffs carefully read and sign a formal telecommuter agreement before beginning to take calls naked.

A comprehensive agreement typically covers such things as workspace requirements, appropriate use of business equipment, overtime/on-call policies, and nap times. As part of the agreement, many companies ask home agents to state in writing where they keep a spare house key and their good liquor. 

Tap the power of virtual training and communication tools. Call centers with the best home agent programs utilize e-learning apps, instant messaging and email to ensure that home-based staff stay in the loop and receive the ongoing coaching/training they need. IM and email also enable home agents to interact with their peers and rub in their face the fact that they aren’t wearing any pants while handling calls.

Some centers also use web cams for home agent coaching and meetings, thus adding a nice face-to-face feel to such activities and ensuring that remote reps brush their hair occasionally.

Invite them in every so often. Most call centers don’t rely solely on technology to communicate and bond with their home agents; many centers occasionally invite home-based staff to the facility for training, meetings, events and celebrations. The frequency of such invites often depends on how far the agent lives from the call center, how frequently they bathe, and whether or not they usually bring donuts.

Welcome Home

Quite simply, home agents represent the future of call center staffing and customer care. No other trend stands to have as huge a positive impact on call center performance and employee satisfaction – except for perhaps agent cloning, which has yet to be perfected and requires expensive lab equipment that can make it cost-prohibitive.  

Want to see what real home agent success looks like? Read about how VPI has improved virtually everything by adopting a virtual staffing model:

One of the best ways to increase employee engagement and retention is to give staff the opportunity to apply their unique personal skills and interests while on the job. You see, it’s human nature to want to feel individually valuable and valued, despite knowing that we are naturally mediocre and forgettable.

The most successful call center managers I have come across are able to overcome the general unexceptional nature of their staff and find ways for each agent to make an important and personal contribution to the center’s success.

Here are some proven ways you can do the same with your staff:

Look for the write stuff. If you have a few members on your frontline who were born before 1975 and thus know how to spell, consider letting them create a service-related blog for the company, or give them a column in the departmental newsletter. Or, if your company frowns upon such levels of empowerment, consider at least making the aforementioned literate agents complete your monthly expense report for you.

Use “speech recognition”. Let’s say you have an agent with the innate ability to not shut up. Why not let them speak on behalf of the call center at the next inter-departmental meeting? This is a particularly useful strategy if your center has recently been performing badly and you are expecting a lot of angry questions from senior management at the meeting. 

Tap the sadness. Maybe you have some employees with a penchant for being deeply depressed. If so, allow them to mentor some agents who are only mildly depressed and just watch how quickly the latter group starts to feel better about themselves, which will translate into better service for customers and lower outpatient mental health costs for your company.

Rage against the (Marketing) machine. Do you have some agents with anger management issues and a tendency toward physical violence? Put them together on a special task force responsible for seeking vengeance whenever Marketing forgets to tell the call center about a promotion that causes a 75% spike in call volume.   

Give staff starring roles. Got a couple of folks on your staff with some community theater experience? Encourage them to teach the rest of the frontline to act like they care about customers and are being paid a living wage.

These are just a few suggestions – some of which I’ve seen work in actual call centers, and some of which simply popped into my head last night while sipping my third scotch. There really is no limit to the ways you can empower your staff in a personalized manner when you start to think outside the bottle, I mean box.

So the next time you start thinking that you are burdened with a bunch of ordinary – or, worse, neurotic and unstable – agents, remember that with a little creativity you can find ways to help each of them make you look like a much better, more productive manager than you actually are.

Plenty of call center professionals pat themselves on the back for maintaining a “world-class” first-call resolution rate (in the 85% and higher range). However, sustaining such a stellar FCR percentage is really only something to be proud of if your center: a) measures FCR in a comprehensive and accurate manner (no simple task); b) evaluates the full customer experience during the call in question; and c) isn’t continuously wasting resources to achieve a high FCR rate.

Yes, improved first-call resolution has been shown to have a direct correlation to improved customer satisfaction and lower operating costs. But that doesn’t mean that elevated numbers on an FCR report automatically equate to elated callers and better bottom lines. I’ve seen call centers with sustained FCR rates in the “world-class” range that, upon closer inspection, are mediocre at best..

How can that be, you ask? Here are several scenarios that reveal how sometimes a high FCR rate doesn’t really mean jack:

1) The case of poor measurement tactics. In Bob’s call center, the sole method for gauging first-call resolution is via a software application that tracks whether or not a customer calls back within a couple of weeks regarding the same issue they initially called about. According to reports from this application, the FCR rate at Bob’s center is around 86%, causing Bob to frequently kiss himself in the mirror and to quit taking his antidepressants. What Bob fails to realize is that 10% of those callers who aren’t calling back on the same issue actually aren’t going to call his center on any issue ever again. Why not? Because they recently defected to the competition upon realizing that several of Bob’s agents are about as fit to handle calls as Lindsay Lohan is to lead a rehab group.

Lesson: You should supplement your tracking solution with a post-contact survey that asks callers (immediately following their interaction) if they feel their issue has been resolved, and whether or not they felt the urge to punch the agent in the face at any time during the call.

2) The case of unnecessarily painful resolution. In Susan’s call center, they do a decent job of accurately measuring first-call resolution (via a combination of tracking technology and asking customers directly if their issue was resolved), and the center reports an enviable 83% FCR rate. However, they don’t spend much time evaluating customer-agent interactions (quality monitoring), thus rarely notice just how badly some agents mishandle calls before eventually resolving them. It’s important to note that many who call Susan’s center are active military personnel or public school teachers – people trained to tolerate exorbitant levels of pain and suffering without giving up – thus they are willing to endure excessive incompetence and abuse prior to getting the answer they seek. Needless to say, the center’s high FCR rate is not an accurate reflection of the quality or the efficiency of service provided.

Lesson: Be sure to incorporate a strong QA program into your FCR measurement practices, particularly if a notable percentage of your callers carry guns and/or are trained to subdue 8th graders with A.D.D.      

3) The case of wasting agents and revenue. Bill’s call center has won multiple awards for its FCR achievement, averaging an eye-popping FCR rate of 92% year after year. What the emcees at the award ceremonies always fail to share is that 50% of the calls that Bill’s agents receive are from callers wanting to know the directions to the nearest bank branch. Such routine and repetitive calls do nothing but skew FCR results while driving costs up and agents insane – and could be virtually eliminated with a little “find a branch near you” self-service savvy on the part of Bill and his IT team.

In a vehement attempt to end Bill’s long and undeserved reign as FCR king, I recently opened my own one-man call center where people all over the world can call and ask me if they are going to die. While many callers are displeased by the uniform – though correct – answer I provide, my current FCR rate is 99.9%. (It would be a perfect 100%, but among my callers was Mickey Rooney, whom I had thought was already deceased. This threw me off, and I was forced to hang up and call him back after doing some off-phone research.)     

Lesson: I have far too much time on my hands.
Unlike most journalists in our industry, I like to dig a little deeper to uncover the story behind the story behind the story. While others are busy writing puff pieces about speech analytics and maximizing customer relationships, I’m busy bribing unethical vendors and call center professionals who don’t mind paying a pretty penny to keep me from writing about their scandalous activities.

Then I write about a couple of the juiciest stories anyway. I can’t help it – it’s just how I roll.

Here are what I consider the two biggest news stories you likely didn’t hear about in 2010.

Major Health Insurance Company Confesses that Your Call Is Not Important to Them

After nearly 20 years of telling customers that “your call is very important” while they are busy waiting on hold, Pilfer Insurance, Inc. has decided to come clean. Ralph Shires, director of member services for Pilfer – third largest health insurer in the U.S. – stated that it has all been a big fat lie. Says Shires, “Not only is your call NOT important to us, but we don’t like the sound or the tone of your voice, either.”

The frank confession came as a shock to the thousands and thousands of Pilfer customers who every day loyally and patiently wait on hold for a live agent to answer their call and politely deny their claim.

Long-time Pilfer customer, Kathy Baxter, is still recovering from the dismaying news of the health insurance giant’s confession. “After you’ve had major surgery and are coming up on five minutes waiting for a human to answer the phone, it just makes you feel so special when you hear that automated voice assure you that your call is very important and courteously ask you to stay on the line so that somebody can assist you. But then you find out that the machine really didn’t mean what it was programmed to say over and over, and it’s like your whole world comes crashing down all around you.”

Over the years, several studies have delved into whether or not your call is, in fact, important to the companies you call, but no conclusive evidence either way had ever been uncovered. Pilfer’s admission has shed ample light on what for years has perplexed researchers.

Ironically, Pilfer’s pioneering brashness and honesty is expected to win the hearts of millions of people who have grown sick of corporate rhetoric and propaganda. As a result, experts predict that hundreds of other customer care organizations will come forward and admit that they, too, would rather take a hot stick in the eye than have to continue spending the time, money and resources needed to handle your phone call in an efficient and friendly manner. 

Leading Consultant Allegedly Kidnapped by Vendor after Announcing that FCR Cannot Be Accurately Measured

When renowned and outspoken call center consultant Bob Salducci recently insisted that true first-call resolution is nearly impossible to gauge, it made a lot of waves in an industry that has become obsessed with the FCR metric. However, Salducci hasn’t said a whole lot since then – it’s tough to talk when you are bound and gagged.    

According to sources, Salducci was kidnapped by several members of the sales team at Kaneta Inc., a leading provider of customer care solutions whose bread and butter solution purportedly measures FCR at both the center and agent level.

Several witnesses say that they saw Salducci being forcefully whisked into a van outside his office in downtown Phoenix by five men and women wearing Kaneta’s trademark purple, aqua and gold polo shirts. Further tipping off witnesses that Kaneta was behind the abduction is the fact that the van into which Salducci was forced was also purple, aqua and gold, and had “KANETA” written on both sides and the back in two-foot tall letters.

A spokesperson for Kaneta vehemently denied the accusation that Kaneta was involved in the heinous crime in any way, stating, “Kaneta is a leader in customer care technological innovation. We were smart enough to come up with the industry’s first FCR algorithm, so I’d like to think that, if we decided to kidnap anybody, we’d be smart enough to use a less conspicuous vehicle.”

When asked to explain, then, how half a dozen witnesses all reported the same details of the crime, the Kaneta spokesperson replied convincingly, “Kaneta is a leader in customer care technological innovation.” He denied to answer any further questions, but did take the time to hand out free cocktail tickets that featured Kaneta’s booth number at the next major contact center conference.

Details of the crime emerged after one of Salducci’s consulting partners, John Reynolds, received an email featuring a picture of Salducci tied up and wearing a purple aqua and gold gag. The email message stated that if Salducci Consulting didn’t rescind Salducci’s slanderous FCR statement immediately, the abductors would torture Salducci by making him write a whitepaper entirely in Latin.

The email itself provided even more incriminating evidence against the aforementioned number-one suspect in the case, as the sender’s email address was

Consulting has not yet decided if it will agree to the kidnapper’s terms for Mr. Salducci’s safe return, explaining that the firm has been considering making some staffing cuts anyway due to the lagging economy.