Off Center
Those of you familiar with my writing know I’ve long been a proponent of the home agent model. So you may be confused by the title of this post and are likely thinking one of two things: 1) Greg is extremely wishy-washy; or 2) Greg is about to unleash a satirical blog post where he only appears to be against the use of home agents, to help readers see how effective the work-at-home model actually is.

Wishy-washy or smart aleck – which one could it be? I’m sure the suspense is killing you.

So, without further ado, here are the five reasons why you and your contact center should NOT embrace the home agent model:      

1) The increased agent retention means you won’t get to meet as many new and interesting people. If you are the kind of manager or supervisor who loves to meet and interview new people every month and who gets bored when surrounded by the same talented employees for years on end, stay away from the home agent model. In my (somewhat) recent study on home agent staffing, nearly every participant said their use of home agents has had a ‘very positive’ or ‘positive’ impact on agent retention. Fewer people quitting means fewer new folks for you to meet, and fewer people for you to get to know a little better several days or weeks later during their exit interview.

2) The sound of joy in agents’ voices will be disorienting. When you have grown accustomed to hearing agents sounding exhausted and apathetic during interactions with customers, hearing those same agents suddenly perking up and caring about customers is very jarring to the system. Such increases in happiness and engagement have been known to distract those who conduct quality monitoring to the point where they cannot focus and end up forgetting to fill out the monitoring form. This is just the kind of problem you can expect if you are silly and brazen enough to embrace the home agent model and give agents the kind of work-life balance they crave. Keep in mind, too, that sudden rises in agents’ spirits and performance can also be very disorienting for customers, who, upon hearing an authentically warm greeting and inspired efforts to assist them, may very well hang up assuming they have dialed the wrong number.

3) Hiring decisions will be too hard due to the overabundance of talented applicants. You may not have a lot of job openings after implementing a home agent program (since current agents won’t be quitting), but expect to be inundated by high-quality candidates whenever there is an opening. Once word gets out that your contact center uses home agents, applicants will come out of the woodwork in hopes of snagging a job where they’ll have a chance to work in their underpants. The real pain is that many of these applicants will be talented individuals whom you would be crazy not to offer a job. But good luck making the best selection when there’s only one agent position open and 50 candidates with solid college degrees, good references, and no police record to speak of. Who needs that kind of stress?

4) You’ll no longer have a good excuse for low service levels during storms. Senior management never likes it when you fall short of your service level objectives, but at least they are somewhat forgiving whenever a snowstorm or flood is to blame for it. If you implement a home agent initiative, you can forget about such leniency during severe weather situations. “There are 200 calls in queue because half our staff couldn’t make it in” doesn’t hold water when you have a team of home-based agents in place. Once you go virtual, it’s your workforce management and training skills that will be to blame – not the weather – if service dips when a blizzard hits. Better to keep all your staff on site to ensure that your managerial shortcomings aren’t fully exposed.

5) Your center may be suspected of using performance-enhancing drugs. Many contact centers with home agents in place win awards for customer service excellence, but those same centers are often accused of pumping staff full of PEDs in order to achieve such accolades. You can’t really blame folks for being skeptical. I mean, when you see a center suddenly increase agent engagement and retention, productivity, customer satisfaction, staffing flexibility and operational costs, it’s only natural to suspect that center of cheating somehow. And while you – if your center implements a home agent program – may know that the aforementioned improvements came naturally from going virtual, are you sure you’re ready to face such serious and hurtful accusations? And are your agents willing to undergo random blood testing throughout the year?   

One other reason not to embrace the home agent model is the searing envy experienced by agents in your center who are NOT selected to work from home. There’s even a famous song (at least in MY mind) about this: (scroll down to the third song on the page, titled “On the Phone at Home”, to hear a sample).

If the key call center metrics were to form a rock band, Forecast Accuracy would most likely be the bass player – less flashy and famous than its fellow members like C-Sat, FCR and Service Level, but no less critical for an effective performance.

Forecast Accuracy is sometimes referred to as “forecasted contact load vs. actual contact load”, but only by managers who like to make things more painful than necessary. The metric shows the percent variance between the number of calls (or chats) predicted to arrive during a given period and the number of contacts that the call center actually receives during that time. Most managers consider a 5% variance to be acceptable, though they naturally shoot for better (a lower %) than that. Those that regularly achieve a 15% variance or worse are sent directly to workforce management prison.

Missed it by That Much

So how exactly does one go about tracking Forecast Accuracy?

I’m glad I asked.

Call centers can retrieve data on forecasted contact load from whatever system or tool they use for forecasting (e.g., the center’s WFM system or Excel spreadsheets), then compare that to the data on the actual contact load received, which comes from the center’s ACD, email/chat management system as well as other report sources. The best call centers report forecast accuracy at the half-hour or hour interval level, rather than across days, weeks or months, as interval-level tracking gives a much clearer view of how horribly you botched the forecast.  

Accurate forecasting is paramount in any call center that gives a darn about customers, agents and cost efficiency. Without a measure in place to gauge the effectiveness of the center’s forecast, under-staffing can often occur, causing queues to fill with furious callers, furious callers to verbally eviscerate innocent agents, and innocent agents to throw fists through expensive equipment. Of course, all of this adds expensive seconds and minutes to wait and handle times, causing irritated executives to cut budgets and rescind their promise to add a window in the call center. 

Inaccurate forecasting may result in costly over-staffing, as well. And while this may make customers happy, it will certainly ire senior management -- as well as give agents too much free time between calls to think and figure out that they could probably earn more money making balloon animals for children in the park.

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