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For today's contact centres, there is good and bad news when it comes to saving money and reducing carbon footprints, says Jeff Marshall, lead technical consultant at worldwide IT consultancy Dimension Data. On the one hand, they have moved to voice over IP (VoIP) and saved a lot of money by getting rid of all the old iron, the old PBX, which was in their closet. That's a step in the right direction.

"But now when management comes and says we need to increase efficiency, call centre managers often say, 'I've already done that,'" Marshall says. These managers are not really resistant to change, they are just focused on whatever business metrics the centre is measured on. Unfortunately, this often comes at the exclusion of cost savings and more substantial environmentally friendly methods.

But in fact, he says, call centres offer more opportunities for organisations to save money on operations, increase both call centre agent retention and satisfaction, and decrease the organisation's net carbon footprint by going "virtual." With VoIP and pervasive high-speed Internet connectivity, the infrastructure is in place. The key ingredients for success include presence software and a willingness to maximise the benefits of remote and flexible working arrangements.

The result is a virtual call centre space on the Internet that can support agents working from home or remote sites anywhere in the world that have high-speed Internet and can support VoIP. This results in faster, easier access to Tier 2 and 3 supports from across the IT organisation.

Presence and unified communications

Electronic presence technology and unified communications, blending elements such as Cisco VoIP with Microsoft Communicator to show who is available and how best to contact that person, are the key to this. "Using [collaboration software], when call centre agents get a call, they can see on their screen that, for example, Jeff Marshall is available and how to best contact him, via work phone, mobile phone, IM, e-mail and more," Marshall says.

An electronic presence allows the call centre to substitute physical commuting with high-speed Internet and a phone connection, which in itself reduces the carbon footprint of the organisation in the larger sense, although generally commuting is not included in an organisation's carbon calculations.

Marshall says it has other advantages for the organisation as well as the agents, chief among them is greater retention of good agents.

According to Marshall, remote agents are generally happier with their jobs in part because they can work more flexible hours and, of course, don't have a significant part of their day taken up by sitting in traffic. Dimension Data's ninth annual Global Contact Centre Benchmarking Report, a survey of contact centres around the globe, states that: "Pursuing such flexible and sophisticated schedules will attract a wider variety of potential staff members." Aberdeen Group reports "it was found that over 35% of [best-in-class] companies currently have seen a greater than 10% improvement in customer satisfaction upon implementation of remote agents."

Benefits of agent retention

Employing remote agents not only allows an organisation to cut expenses by maintaining a smaller physical call centre, or perhaps no physical centre, but it also cuts recruitment and training costs to replace agents who now are more likely to stay with the organisation. It allows the organisation to take advantage of more flexible scheduling to cover off-hours and busy periods more efficiently.

This is not just theory, says Marshall. The industry has recognised companies like JetBlue Airways, which has a 100% remote call centre staff working from home, and has seen far above-average retention and realised the other benefits.

However, he says, "Creating a remote call centre workforce requires more than saying, 'Here you go Mr. Agent, use your home computer.'" Team leaders need to be trained in the techniques of managing a remote workforce. Agents have to be equipped with adequate computer and telephone equipment, and the corporate infrastructure will need to be extended to support the remote agents in an efficient and secure manner.

Security concerns

The organisation doesn't want to open doors to malware when it extends its infrastructure onto the Internet to connect its remote agents. And from an ecological standpoint, the organisation should also encourage its virtual agents to institute energy savings measures in their home offices, for instance, using more efficient fluorescent rather than incandescent lighting. But all of these things can be managed in a cost-effective manner, Marshall says.

Electronic presence can be applied to improving Level 2 and 3 support. This requires that the organisation build a database identifying the specific expertise of the individuals in the IT organisation, for instance, who has full Cisco network certification. Then the manager needs to identify the specific skills required to answer the question and consult the electronic presence system to see who among those with the needed knowledge is available and what is the best way to contact that individual.

"We are blurring the lines between contact centres and knowledge workers. So a contact centre comprises pools of knowledge workers, not just a bunch of agents out there, or something like an HR team to respond to internal or external requests," Marshall says.

"This builds off the VoIP infrastructures we built for companies years ago, and we can now extend systems without destroying the value of the old cube farm. We are just melding the existing infrastructure into this presence centres to retain its value as we extend it around the globe."

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