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DSC Tech Library

Call Center Solutions

telecommunications software solution This section of our technical library presents information and documentation relating to Call Center technology and Best Practices plus software and products. Since the Company's inception in 1978, DSC has specialized in the development of communications software and systems. Beginning with our CRM and call center applications, DSC has developed computer telephony integration software and PC based phone systems. These products have been developed to run on a wide variety of telecom computer systems and environments.

The following article relates to call center technology or customer service best practices and techniques.

Call center refines work-at-home model for employees

Knight Ridder News

Many employees consider it the perfect job: working from home, picking the hours you want to work. No commute. No office politics. No daycare for the kids.

What's more, many corporations consider them the perfect workers: They pay for their own equipment, their own office, their own training - and the company compensates them only for those minutes that they work.

If they're busy from 9:57 to 10:01 a.m., fine, pay them by the minute. If there's nothing to do at 10:02, no pay. And, of course, they get no benefits in any case.

That's the business model for Miramar, Fla.-based Willow and its 1,200 cyberagents. Over the past decade, despite huge hopes, the company has frequently struggled, with disgruntled clients and angry agents. Several teams of management and investors have searched in vain for the right formula.

Now it appears Willow may have found it. Under the helm of a veteran call-center manager, Basil Bennett, Willow has grown to serve 25 clients - including Office Depot, Alamo Rent-a-Car, Oceania Cruises, General Electric and a half-dozen AAA auto clubs.

Many of these clients praise Willow lavishly for the way cyberagents handle their customers' calls, and the company is expanding to include agents in the Orlando, Fla., and Phoenix areas.

"A lot more things like this are going to be happening," said Thomas W. Malone, a professor of management at Massachusetts Institute of Technology whose book, "The Future of Work," is to be published in April.

"We're going to see tremendous changes. More and more jobs basically can be done anywhere. ... People can live at ski resorts or beaches or small towns," said Malone.

"Future generations may look back and see a change has taken place that was as profound as the changes brought by the industrial revolution."

Willow, a pioneer in this field in the early 1990s, now has plenty of competition. Alpine Access in Golden, Colo., Working Solutions in Dallas and West Corp. in Omaha employ thousands of agents.

A survey by Gartner, a research and consulting firm, found that as many as 14 percent of U.S. employees are "teleworking a majority of the time."

One example: Jet Blue has all 800 of its reservations agents work from their homes in the Salt Lake City area. "It's been absolutely great," said airline spokesman Gareth Edmondson-Jones. "There's a lot of employee satisfaction, and when you have happy employees, you have happy customers."

That's not to say that this futuristic work life is agents easy. Willow's still endure a minute-by-minute, ever-changing life, with clients coming and going. Office Depot, the firm's biggest client, just dropped its pay from $1.49 a call to $1.15.

"The business model is solid, but this is a very competitive marketplace," said Bennett, Willow's chief executive officer.

The biggest threat is India. The technology that allows a cyberagent to work from Pembroke Pines, Fla., also allows her to work from Bombay, where agents get paid as little as one-fifth what Americans get.

To counteract this threat, Bennett emphasizes the quality of his work force - many of whom have attended college. They average in age between 35 and 40, compared to workers in the average American call center, where the average age is in the early 20s.

Willow is also aiming calls for AIG. Bennett is toward specialties that overseas competitors can't match, such as hiring 20 licensed insurance agents to take also thinking of going into the virtual health-care business, having at-home nurses handling patients' questions for health insurers. Experienced travel agents are being trained to handle calls for airlines and cruise lines.

Willow assures the quality of recruits by administering a test on how they operate computers. About 30 percent fail the first time, but they're allowed to retake it.

Background checks - paid for by the agents - are also run on all applicants, looking in particular for things like credit-card fraud.

"I am very careful to not bring new people on until we have work for them," he said, eliminating an old complaint by agents that there were too many of them and not enough calls to keep them busy. Bennett's goal is that working agents should be on calls about 75 percent of the time. When a Herald reporter visited Willow headquarters, a screen in the control room showed the activities of 15 agents working at that moment for Office Depot. Thirteen were taking calls. Two were waiting.

Bennett said the four top agents last year earned about $65,000 each. They did that by working 50 or more hours a week. Cyberagent turnover now is only 8 percent a year, he said. In conventional call centers, annual churn often exceeds 100 percent.

Bennett has also insisted that cyberagents incorporate, so that the relationship with Willow is clearly one of corporation and independent contractor. In no way are the agents to be considered employees, for both legal and psychological reasons.

In most cases, cyberagents handle the overflows that companies' call centers can't take during peak periods, or late-night or weekend work that full-time employees either don't want or would take only at premium pay.

However, when a driver is stuck in a Minnesota snowbank and calls the American Automobile Association for assistance, AAA first routes the call to Willow, and only if its cyberagents are busy does the request go to an AAA call center in the Midwest.

"Their customer service is phenomenal," said Ron Siegmund, an AAA vice president. "It's caused our own people to rise to their level."

Before Willow agents started, said Siegmund, AAA Minnesota-Iowa ranked 67th of 88 AAA organizations in customer satisfaction. Now, it ranks 19th. "Yet I've been able to cut costs," said Siegmund. "Thanks to Willow, I've probably eliminated 50 positions in the call center. It's the most phenomenal thing."

Office Depot, Willow's largest client, considers Willow "probably one of the best things we've ever done," said Tim McGrath, who handles the firm's customer service. "I've been totally impressed with their agents."

Even so, when a Willow competitor offered to take Office Depot's calls for a considerably lower price, the office supply firm asked Willow to cut its rates.

Bennett did so. Standard rates for Office Depot will drop in February by 23 percent. "This is maybe the most difficult thing I've had to do at Willow," he said. "A competitor says we'll give you the exact same quality. We don't think that's true, but it's hard to prove to a client."

Even so, Bennett said, when Willow sent out a notice for a new Office Depot training class, even with agents knowing the reduced rates, all 70 slots were quickly filled.

Because of this growth, Bennett expects Willow to finally start paying for itself. The privately held company doesn't release its financials, but by June or July, he believes it should start regularly showing a profit.

Bennett knows that might mean more competitors entering the field, but they will not find it cheap to do so. It would cost "tens of millions" to set up a competitor, he said, primarily because of the expenses involved in networks and the complex software needed to track agents and to encrypt all data.

For those who do come, he adds, "we are confident there is plenty of work for all of us. We just need to make this pie bigger."