Are Home Based Agents the Future of Call Centers?


Good help is hard to find.

Like so many clichés, this one has a ring of truth to it, especially in an economy that is turning around. In today’s market, many companies are faced with one of the most daunting limits to growth — finding people ready, willing and able to meet the demands of customers.

At Kelly Services®, a 66-year-old company that essentially invented the staffing industry, helping customers do just that has become something of a science, albeit one that involves managing people — with all their unpredictability.

Through its comprehensive customer contact center product group called KellyConnect®, Kelly Services® offers a home based agent (HBA) program that today has as many as 1,000 employees delivering home-based customer care services, seamlessly and in a highly flexible and customized environment, from some 39 states in the United States as well as Canada.

But make no mistake: this is no easy feat. Rather than manage brick and mortar facilities, Kelly® is able to focus its energy on what it does extraordinarily well, which is access and manage talent.

“We’re able to create an environment where we capitalize on 15 to 20 years of providing staff to customer care centers,” explains Kimberly Sokol, a strategic development manager with KellyConnect®. “Just last year we had nearly 25,000 temporary employees working about 11 million hours for call centers, and more than 13,000 KellyConnect® employees were directly hired by our clients to work in their centers. We know how to access the talent our customers seek for their unique environments.”

KellyConnect® has also earned its stripes managing entire call center operations within various customer facilities for more than 10 years, a solution it refers to as “Rightsourcing.”

It was four years ago, however, that KellyConnect® launched the HBA program for an energy sector client based in Houston, an area of the country where weather has been known to wreak havoc with day-to-day operations. “When bad weather hit, like Hurricane Ike, we were able to step up and bridge the gap between agents who couldn’t make the commute to the local center and our home-based team by providing a robust business continuity solution and handling the extra call volume,” notes Sokol.

Today, the HBA program remains a dedicated solution, meaning a KellyConnect® HBA is focused on a single client at a time.

Successfully managing home based agents

Successfully managing teams under the HBA umbrella hasn’t happened by accident. According to Vicki Brackett, herself a work-at-home KellyConnect director based in Denver, successful implementation for some of the world’s most recognizable companies takes a very focused approach and a keen understanding for what working at home can be like at a practical level.

“We call it ‘virtual shock,’” says Brackett, talking about what happens to someone — anyone — who begins working at home, especially if they’ve previously been in an office environment. “They don’t know what’s happening to them, but they know something’s wrong. So what do they do? They think a change in schedule will fix it, but that generally isn’t getting to the heart of it.”

That’s where the leaders at KellyConnect® come in, says Brackett. “We see it immediately,” she notes, adding that it might take as long as eight to 12 weeks for a new “virtual” worker to get through the transition.

“It takes a leader to get them through that period,” says Brackett. “One of the keys is recognizing what is going on and investing in the social tools we have available.”

Eventually, she says, HBAs do “find their stride.”


Creating a virtual community

But creating an environment where there’s a sense of community among team members who may be hundreds or even thousands of miles away involves a new set of strategies that have been made possible with the kind of technology KellyConnect® continues to bring to the table. “What we’ve been able to do, very successfully in fact, is build and maintain an environment where our teams feel they’re connected with their leaders and other members of their team,” says Brackett.

Whether it’s through video or other forms of electronic chat, including virtual “water cooler” type technologies that create a sense of community, KellyConnect’s® managers work hard to create the same kind of energy that would normally flow in and through a team that is based in a single location. “If you don’t do it, your attrition is way too high,” notes Brackett.

Delivering flexibility in the type of tools people use to maintain a sense of community is also part of what makes the organization successful. “People gravitate to the kind of social media they like,” says Brackett. “If they want to talk, that’s available. But so is online chat or group chat. It’s really up to them and what they’re comfortable with.

“How much “virtual face time” an HBA is going to require will also depend on an individual’s personality and preferences,” she adds. “Our job is to make sure it works best for everyone, and that’s always a work in progress.”

Jeff Christofis, a senior director with KellyConnect® who oversees day-to-day program operations, says the method of training that KellyConnect® provides to its agents sets the company apart from the competition. “What we don’t use is the traditional ‘spoke and hub’ model,” says Christofis. “In fact, the only physical interaction we have with agents is when they complete their I9 at a local Kelly® branch located in every major city. All other hiring paperwork is completed virtually. Training is also done virtually, through instructor-led training that uses a tag team approach with two instructors alternating at no more than 90 second intervals. What that does is keep the interaction lively and the level of interest higher than ever before.”

Being able to work as a team goes well beyond creating a virtual community, says Christofis. “Most of the subject matter experts and coaches were agents themselves at one point, and they all work from home, so they know what it’s like for the people they’re working with.”

In addition, having a team that provides “real time coordination” means being able to keep ahead of challenges an agent may be facing, often before they end up reaching out to their coach for help.


Finding the right people

The size of the teams in place at KellyConnect® will largely depend on the complexity of the service being provided to the client. “It’s definitely not a ‘one size fits all’ type of environment,” says Brackett.

It’s also a continuously changing environment — one where KellyConnect® is actively growing new leaders in-house.

“It’s because we’re growing so fast,” says Brackett. “It’s hard to find people who have experience in a virtual call center management environment, which means we put a very high emphasis on growing leadership internally.”

Based on the number of people who stay with KellyConnect® once they’re selected for leadership, the approach is working.

“Our attrition at the leadership level is almost nil,” notes Brackett. “We have some people who’ve been promoted three times in one year. In a performance-based organization like ours, if they’re able to absorb the training we provide, if they demonstrate they can become a great leader, they’ll stay.”

Finding those people in the first place is also key to the success of KellyConnect®. One of the tools the organization has been able to utilize comes from Furst Person, a Chicago-based consulting firm that delivers customized talent acquisition software as a service system to Kelly®.

“Our software gives KellyConnect® a very powerful tool for improving the measurability of the competencies a virtual worker is going to need to be successful,” says Jeff Furst, CEO and founder of Furst Person. “What we’re able to do is help Kelly® better define on a competency basis what the client needs and then feed them the people who are most likely to succeed.”

The result, says Furst, is KellyConnect® being able to raise the bar for its clients. “The software we provide gives Kelly® an additional set of screening, specifically with what the client’s needs are for a given project. And because we’ve built the software specifically for the kind of environment that KellyConnect® has created, they’re more likely to hire the best person no matter where they are.”

Since it is continually being updated with real-time data, the software keeps getting better, according to Furst. “We’re becoming more and more precise in our ability to screen candidates,” he says.

Flexibility on the part of KellyConnect® has also led to a wider net being cast for its call center employees. “We don’t have any predisposition on the type of employee that’s going to succeed in our Home Based Agent program,” says Brian Poelman, senior director for the KellyConnect® Center of Excellence. “We have every type of staff person imaginable, from stay-at-home moms, to students to seniors who want the kind of flexibility that comes with the work. It really runs the gamut.

“Whether they’re full time or part time, the key is knowing what’s going to work for them within the environment that is going to deliver the best possible solution for our clients,” adds Poelman. “Taking that approach, where people can pursue their individual passions while making a key contribution in their work life, is always the best way to manage an organization.”

And delivering the kind of environment that’s sensitive to an individual’s need for flexibility is also generating long-term benefits, he says. “The loyalty tends to be higher when people understand they have a unique opportunity.”

Poelman agrees that the isolation factor people face is a challenge, albeit one that KellyConnect® both understands and is able to manage effectively. “Working from home sounds good, but people coming in need to be prepared to take advantage of the tools we offer,” he says. “Certainly we’re looking for people who are self-sufficient and self-motivated, but the need for a sense of community can oftentimes be overlooked.”

Still, Poelman says the time is right for the call center industry and companies with a need for a flexible workforce to embrace the virtual call center world.

Additionally, being able to keep jobs in North America is something that’s increasingly attractive to KellyConnect® clients. “They’re able to take advantage of a cost-competitive solution and higher quality than what might be available overseas,” says Poelman.

“What we offer is a true outsourcing solution, not just labor,” says Jim Bradley, senior vice president overseeing Kelly’s® global outsourcing and consulting group’s operations. “Yes, we can find that labor, but because we focus on managing people in a highly effective manner, we’re able to provide our clients with an unmatched level of flexibility and productivity. Our competition simply can’t do that as efficiently as Kelly®.”

According to Bradley, its focus on creating a virtual community is one of the key reasons KellyConnect® continues to succeed. “It’s one of the biggest challenges we face in the Home Based Agent program, but we’re successful because we know and understand what those challenges are and we have the tools and strategies in place to manage those effectively.”

— J.D. Booth