Virtual Contact

Updated: April 30, 2009

It's like having your cake and eating it, too. A virtual call center spares businesses the costs and headaches of operating a brick-and-mortar facility. Besides lowering expenses, a virtual call center can also streamline day-to-day management chores while providing enhanced flexibility.

The Basics

A virtual call center uses agents that are geographically dispersed, rather than fixed at workstations inside of a central building. Virtual call center employees may be situated in groups at a number of smaller call centers, but most often they work from their own homes. According to technology-research firm IDC, the number of at-home agents in the United States is set to triple by 2010.

Emerging technologies, such as SaaS (software as a service) and VoIP (Voice over Internet Protocol) are making virtual call centers practical for a growing number of businesses. Vendors such as Contactual Inc ., UCN Inc . and Five9 Inc . offer the technologies that help businesses build virtual call centers from scratch.

The Benefits

Most businesses contemplating a virtual call center are drawn to the concept by the idea of cutting costs. In fact, a virtual call center can create substantial financial benefits, ranging from lower capital expenses to increased productivity and efficiency .

Most importantly, home-based agents spare businesses the expense of building or leasing a physical call center. Companies also sidestep costs associated with servers, furniture, heating and cooling, cleaning, and other infrastructure expenses.

Virtual call centers can also generate substantial productivity improvements, since home-based agents are ready to begin working as soon as their shift starts. Workers based at home are less likely to call in sick or show up late for work because of traffic jams or bad weather. Distractions are also more easily controlled in a home environment, since co-workers aren't hovering around workstations gossiping or creating noise.

From a strategic standpoint, virtual call centers let businesses position agents in key locations around the world, ensuring 24/7 service without the trouble or added expense of recruiting late-shift workers. The approach also enables businesses to recruit agents on the basis of their abilities rather than on their physical location.

Virtual call centers really prove their value when trouble arises. Since agents aren't all bunched together in a single location, virtual call centers remain open and operational even when a natural or man-made disaster strikes a particular city or region.

The Challenges

While virtual call centers offer multiple benefits, the technique also presents severalchallenges. Work-force management is perhaps the biggest concern. With agents scattered across the landscape — without any on-site supervision — it can be difficult to ensure that everybody is working at maximum effectiveness.

Most businesses address this issue by appointing a headquarters-based call-center manager. This individual is typically charged with monitoring agent performance, providing training and support, distributing scripts, and generally liaising with the virtual work force via phone calls, emails, Web conferences and other communications tools. As in a brick-and-mortar call center, the manager uses call-monitoring software to track the number of calls per agent, the length of each call and other critical metrics .

Finding quality agents is another critical challenge. Face-to-face interviews are impossible when job candidates may be located half a world away, so hiring managers need to be able to assess skills via a phone interview (which, considering the job in question, is really a pretty good idea). Businesses also need to ensure that agents have access to reliable broadband connections as well as to the computer hardware, software and accessories needed to handle the work.

Just about any business can benefit from a virtual call center, but the approach is particularly appealing to growing companies serving a national or global market. Such firms usually find that a virtual call center can help them keep costs under control by enabling them to scale their call-center resources in step with demand.

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