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Outbound Customer Contact - tougher to recruit and retain - Does it have to be that way?
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Outbound Customer Contact - tougher to recruit and retain - Does it have to be that way?

September 11, 2008

We all know the importance of recruiting and retaining the very best people throughout the contact center industry. Not only are they key contributors for providing high-quality service, first contact resolution, customer satisfaction, and an ongoing positive relationship with customers, but they are also especially difficult to retain for outbound work.

Outbound contact center work requires talent that is courteous, yet tenacious; flexible, but firm; detailed and factually oriented; while at the same time maintaining a professional decorum and a results-driven acumen beyond the skill levels of inexperienced representatives. Programs of limited duration such as product recalls, political or customer preference polling, and direct sales campaigns add to the challenge of finding, training, and managing effective talent. During periods of economic downturns, reminder calls on account obligations to financial institutions are especially difficult areas for representatives to address and resolve successfully.
In fact, outbound has on occasion been categorized as …not for the ‘faint of heart’, requiring specialized training and resolute skills by those who take on the responsibilities. That makes outbound contact center work one of an HR department’s most difficult assignments to fill. 
Does it have to be that way?
What if you had access to a sizable group of individuals with demonstrated remarkable levels of unwavering decorum, who are relentless in the pursuit of excellence, who are driven to succeed, and most importantly that would take extreme care to abide by all of any program caveats, legal requirements, nuances, rules, and subtleties? These individuals would most certainly be on the top of your list of people to recruit and retain!
Well there is such a group of remarkable, highly capable, and available individuals: those with disabilities, especially service-disabled veterans. They have the proven skills, loyalty, tenacity, and the will to succeed.
Quietly for a number of years, some companies have been utilizing those with disabilities as part of their work from home programs. These and other inclusive virtual work environments create an atmosphere for success by eliminating the need for commuting to a traditional office setting. These opportunities enable them to be with and close to their families, loved ones, and support structures, including their doctors and medical facilities in their communities, without travel or relocation.
Despite the accessibility improvements required under the Americans with Disabilities Act, commuting to offices remains extremely challenging and often humiliating for many disabled people. Try facing down the stares and ignore the groans of other commuters at rush hour when the bus driver has to get out of their seat to operate the wheelchair lift: provided it is working. Or experience the helplessness of being in that wheelchair, suspended over the sidewalk and street.
Making it possible for service-disabled veterans and other disabled people to work effectively at home are technology improvements. Every day, broadband communications, VoIP solutions, systems software, and applications programs become more sophisticated, secure, and dynamically interactive.  
In the ‘Information Age’ we no longer need to force workers to travel to centralized facilities where the equipment is located. As the tragic events on 9-11-01 clearly demonstrated, decentralizing information, human capital, and work resources provides the best means to avoid disasters, rather than trying to recover from them. Placing significant geography between the corporate assets, employees, and their supporting infrastructures mean that the destruction of or damage to any node will not prevent the enterprise from operating. Rather, the cost of recovery and human misery will be minimized while essential customer service and support is maintained throughout an event.
The biggest obstacle to tapping this skilled, brave, and willing labor force via telework is institutional. Many organizations make excuses and comments that include:
  • We deal with ‘sensitive information’- or our information is too sensitive…
  • How do we know they are working? Can we trust them?
  • We need the people ‘here’ so we can deal with crises – What if there is a problem?
  • Our managers need to be assured their people are working by wandering about to keep them on their toes!
  • How else can we mentor and train new workers than by pairing them with more seasoned workers and watching them?
  • We have union contracts that require workers to be in specific locations at specific times.
  • We want to protect our facilities investments.
  • The IT staff needs to be centrally located as we continue to consolidate data centers, server locations, and reduce communications expenditures.
While the gap between revenues and costs is becoming more challenging these “excuses” are sounding silly. During 2008, not only has the global economy received some “wake-up calls” from what were once trusted institutions, but also from the ways in which Industrial Age models, management, and human resources’ policies, practices, and procedures or P³ have failed to keep-up with technological advancements.
Employees are now writing their employers suggesting that they are willing to take a reduction in salary, or forgo a few years’ merit increases to work full-time from home. In one specific instance for a Fortune 50 company, new hires are coming onboard for 13 percent less salary to work full-time from home. Factoring payroll and income tax avoidances, that percentage is an even greater reduction in the largest single operating budget line item: direct salary. 
According a Yankee Group (News - Alert) survey of 350 U.S. and Canadian call centers conducted during August 2006, 24 percent or 672,000 North American agents were working from their homes at that time. The Telework Coalition estimates that percentage to have grown to 30 percent today, as measured by the growth in our customer contact membership organizations over the past two years.
Back office functions beyond transactional contacts (direct order taking or problem resolution/collections) are increasingly well suited to the distributed work environment for service-disabled veterans and others with disabilities.  These additional job family groups represent an enormous opportunity for the contact center industry (which has pioneered much of telework’s technological advancements) to create value for additional segments within enterprises, as well as enhance career pathing for work at home representatives.
The ‘blessing’ in the ongoing energy crisis, along with a growing realization that we can’t keep polluting this planet with transportation-caused emissions, if we hope to survive, is that those who would not see the benefits of working ‘from anywhere’ are reconsidering due to the compelling business case and employee demand for telework.
The community of people with disabilities has thus far in 2008 only achieved modest results from the ‘New Ways of Working’ primarily because both public and private sector organizations, the law (federal state, and local), and status quo management preferences have lagged 15 or more years behind the reality of today’s technology.
Additionally, there are those newly disabled from the Afghanistan and Iraqi conflicts who are trying to enter the work force after overcoming the obstacles presented by their injuries. Not only are they extremely motivated to re-enter the workplace, but they are often more capable than their competition.
For those with transportation disabilities, those for whom inclusive technologies provide the opportunity for sustained employment using their voices and brains, and for those who have given so much to protect the freedoms of others, we should make a much higher priority effort to take advantage of this older, better educated, and largely untapped labor pool now.
The Telework Coalition challenges corporate thinkers and policy makers to ‘make a friend of geography’ by aggressively hiring those with disabilities, as well as able bodied people everywhere, to work without a commute.
(The author is a service-disabled Vietnam veteran, having served as Major, U.S. Army Signal Corps)

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Edited by Stefania Viscusi

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