For more than a decade, maverick groups of corporate managers, technologists and consultants have promoted the idea that a decentralized network of workplaces might serve the needs of employees and companies better than a large central headquarters.
But the idea usually failed to catch on because managers typically like to see their employees working at their desks.
Gradually, many different types of firms are displaying a more open mind to the possibilities of “teleworking.” Some businesses are reconsidering their employee work options, taking a closer look at the so-called distributed workplace and studying the handful of companies that have chosen to adopt it.
As little as three years ago, ARO Call Center faced a tight labor market and increased competition when trying to keep its experienced call center customer service representatives. ARO provides both inbound and outbound customer service agents (CSAs) to its clients, primarily in the insurance and health care industries. But with a major upgrade of switching equipment, ARO had the option of connecting both a voice and data line to a worker’s home and allowing that person to basically be tethered via a long extension cord to the call center.
“We decided that offering a ‘work-at-home’ option would give us the best chance of retaining our employees,” says Michael Amigoni, COO for ARO. “These people are highly trained and each represents $10,000 in training. We can’t have them leaving us and lose our investment, “he says.
Teleworker Agents Fulfill A Unique Customer Niche
American General is a term life insurance carrier for Merrill Lynch Financial Advisors. When the financial firm identifies a potential customer, American General hands that customer off to ARO for telephone follow-up. ARO then forwards the information to an AG representative, who is able to provide that customer with an accurate quote for coverage and rates and then writes the policy.
“Our employees who do this follow-up work must be well-trained and highly-skilled in order to know what questions to ask and recognize what the potential insuree is telling them,” says Amigoni. “They also need to be licensed.”
At various times, the company hired a number of different call centers to do this follow-up work, says Chris Schrimpf, director of American General’s InsureDeskÆ. “We service many agents and generate lots of volume for them. We need people who are licensed. And the call center industry by its very nature doesn’t lend itself to employee retention. We had to find a company that looks ‘outside the box’ to retain its experienced employees,” he explains.
Offering a Better Way For Insurance Companies
ARO has been managing a telework CSA operation for three years and has come to some interesting conclusions about its workforce that fit hand-in-glove with its client’s needs.
“This is basically a gypsy business with high turnover rates,” sys Amigoni. “But by offering the telework option, we’ve found that in addition to low employee turnover, our people are probably the most experienced in our industry. Many have over 10 years of CSR experience, and we’re receiving employment applications from people who have been in this business for a long time. A lot of our employees are baby boomers; and most of them have had offers to go work elsewhere, at some central location, but have declined. We’re attracting and retaining the cream of the crop, which allows us to offer CSAs who are very good at what they do. This enhances our client offerings.”
According to Schrimpf, American General has found the holy grail in ARO. “The company injected its fluid business process into our vision of how the work should flow. And the result has been a more streamlined process for both our customers and us. Its experienced, licensed call center employees are the answer for us,” he says.
This value has translated into ARO’s adding firms such as American Express, Citicorp and Edward Jones to its cadre of clients.
Raising The Bar On Client Flexibility
In addition, ARO’s service model offers a great deal of flexibility in resource allocation. Call patterns aren’t necessarily consistent. Variability in the amount of activity (and to what customer) can have activity spikes.
“Flex resources are an important element of any call center’s success,” adds Amigoni. “Traditional call centers need to line up their people ahead of time and get them in-house, maybe only for a few hours. All we have to do is flip a switch, and the necessary number of our home-based representatives is on the case. Then, when they’re finished after a few hours, we flip another switch and they’re representing a different client. We have very little concern about our flexibility,” he continues.
Neither does American General. “Our activity has an ebb and flow to it, sometimes there’s a lot, sometimes less. But ARO always has just the right amount of professionals for us at any given time,” says Schrimpf. “This strategic partnership has opened the door to American General to market other attractive demographics and develop new distribution channels.”
Lessons from the Outsourcing Journal:
- A mature CSA outsourcer has a high level of experienced employees and low turnover rate.
- Call centers that have greater latitude in offering “flex resources” and have quicker turnaround in allocating those resources, offer better value to the customer. The longer it takes to plan and then fulfill those flexible services, the more difficult it is for that call center to meet the changing needs of its customers.
- A call center that takes the time to learn your business processes and displays the flexibility to mold their practices to your infrastructure is a valuable resource
- The quality of a call center is found more in the sum of the whole and the results generated, not the number of bodies you might see manning the phones in a centralized location at any given time.