Most of us remember or have been impacted at one time or another by the offshoring movement that began in the 1980s, when thousands of jobs and countless call center operations migrated overseas as a means for businesses to better control operating and hiring costs, wages, and taxes. I can distinctly recall my first offshore service delivery experience, which was to troubleshoot (unsuccessfully) some issues I had with a new MP3 player I had purchased, and I’m sure that each of you have your own story to tell as well.
While offshoring still continues to some degree, the backlash to the call center industry has been a serious decline in satisfaction from customers who have not taken kindly to the concept of non-native service delivery. Over the last two decades, customers have reported issues with language barriers, failure of offshore representatives to adequately resolve their problems, and concerns about the loss of domestic jobs. The passage of time has not changed those perceptions, which still hold strong today. In fact, a 2010 survey by CFI Group revealed a 21 point drop in satisfaction from 79 to 58 when customers perceived that their call was handled outside of the United States.
Customers have also spoken with their wallets, refusing to spend their disposable dollars with companies that they believe are directly responsible for U.S. job losses through their offshoring activities. The result is that many U.S. call center companies heavily involved in offshoring have seen their revenues decline, forcing many to rethink their decision to migrate offshore.
In response to the consumer outcry against the offshoring movement, a number of companies have focused on bringing contact center business and jobs back to domestic shores. However, the cost disparity between domestic and overseas operations is a barrier that, for many companies, can be hard to reconcile and has hampered efforts to migrate service delivery back their home country.
In the late 1990s, a pioneering effort changed the face of the call center industry forever. It was a revolutionary concept that took customer service to a whole new level with VIPdesk’s introduction of the virtual contact center and work-from-home opportunities that allowed employees to provide services from the comfort of their own home offices. This innovative approach, known as homeshoring, has since been emulated by a growing number of organizations worldwide, helping companies more effectively manage operating costs, allowing for the creation of new jobs at home, contributing to rising customer satisfaction levels, and helping recapture some of the goodwill and revenues lost to offshoring.
This is not to say that the work-at-home concept does not have its challenges. It did when it was introduced and still does today. While forward-thinking companies, their employees, and environmental proponents have been quick to embrace its benefits – improved profit margins, greater work-life balance, and a smaller carbon footprint among other things – many businesses worry about losing control of their operations if they can’t see or maintain close proximity to their team members. For that very reason, telecommuting – an early predecessor of the work-at-home model requiring employers to maintain redundant office space for workers who sometimes worked from home – was slow to take off.
With adaptations to the traditional management model, a willingness by all levels of corporate hierarchies to embrace the new paradigm, and the help of innovative technologies that keep teams strongly connected, concerns about control have largely been overcome. In fact, companies who employ an at-home workforce typically enjoy better retention and have as good or better controls in place to manage their businesses and their teams effectively compared to their brick-and-mortar counterparts.
We still have a long way to go, however, and our work is far from complete. The U.S. remains on the forefront of the at-home contact center model and, if for no other reasons than promoting a greener planet, up to 30% improvement in turnover (Frost and Sullivan, 2009), and realizing improved cost savings estimated as high as $10,000-20,000 per agent per year (Telework Coalition, 2009), we have an obligation to keep spreading the word at home and abroad. Today, hundreds of U.S. businesses, upwards of twenty percent of all domestic organizations, employ more than 330,000 home-based contact center workers and it’s no accident that this number continues to grow by approximately 19% per year (IDC, 2009).
So, has the homeshoring revolution fizzled? As long as customers continue to be vocal and we continue to listen, that’s not likely to happen anytime soon. In fact, a recent study by Gartner Group showed that 41% of all enterprise contact centers surveyed plan to offer some kind of at-home agent opportunities in the near future. That’s music to my ears.