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How The Coronavirus Is Impacting Business Process Outsourcing—And The Future Of Customer Service Agents Working From Home

Chuck Ciarlo

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Back in the early 2000s, a company called Liveops did something radically different in the business process outsourcing (BPO) space.

As a call center, they were one of the first to have thousands and thousands of independent contractors working from home. This was a decade and a half before “WFH” culture began to grab hold, and before BPOs started to see this approach as being an effective business model—delivering a high-quality service without needing to move offshore. And even two decades later, they are still doing very well as a company.

The reason I mention Liveops as a company is because, for many many years, a distributed workforce in the BPO space was both uncommon and a bit frowned upon.

For companies in sensitive verticals, such as financial services or insurance sectors, compliance and quality is paramount. If a multi-billion dollar company is going to outsource any of their business processes, they want it to be to a brick-and-mortar call center where everyone is under close scrutiny, training is handled strictly within that type of environment, and client confidentiality and security is protected with heightened sensitivity.

However, this industry (like many others) has been affected by the coronavirus pandemic, in the sense that BPOs all over the world have been forced to go remote. They’ve had to send all their agents home. For example, I talked to a BPO the other day in the Middle East, and even though many of their clients are in financial services, all of their agents have had to quickly pivot to working from home. Same thing with another BPO I know of in Europe. 

The strange benefit to all of this, and where I believe this means the industry is going to move next, is that this stigma of clients requiring BPOs and their agents to be in a brick-and-mortar situation is going to loosen and eventually vanish. And overall, that’s good for the BPO industry.

Especially right now during this pandemic, as some call centers do begin to bring teams back under one roof, they will have to do so in waves, alternating empty desks in order to practice social distancing. This, of course, will negatively impact margin as facilities are used less efficiently. 

Remote will become the “new normal.”

So, what has kept this shift from happening in the past? And what will be the things BPO companies will need to start focusing on in order to prepare themselves for a more distributed future?

1. Work-from-home solutions

We forget that the age of Zoom is still relatively young. 

Ten years ago, video calls were few and far between. Today, they’re happening millions of times a day. Many of our new favorite work-from-home solutions are fairly recent innovations, and it has taken a while for these tools to become part of everyday life. For the most part, this is what has held back not just BPO companies, but all different types of businesses that have needed to be within the same building. 

Fast-forward and the future of the BPO space is going to be very virtual. Now that this has gotten us past some of the trust issues companies had with agents not being in a dedicated location, stronger arguments can be made for cost-cutting and remote employment.

2. Productivity tracking tools

The age-old argument for why companies should have a physical office has always been productivity.

There is this belief that by working alongside your fellow coworkers, you will get more done by being able to quickly turn to one of them, ask a question, and move along. But again, with tools like Slack, Zoom, and especially BPO-specific efficiency tools, the productivity argument doesn’t hold a lot of weight anymore. Working from home is just as easy as working in an office.

The real challenge is how to work from home and still feel like you’re part of a cohesive company culture.

This is where the BPO and the broader contact center space will have a lot of room to grow. Cultivating those interpersonal relationships between thousands of agents all over the world, and between managers and their teams, is not as simple as making sure everyone has a Slack account. It’s about rethinking the way an industry has organized itself for decades, and doing so in a way where people feel just as productive without feeling less connected.

3. Security

When clients imagine outsourcing anything, they imagine it being “housed” (literally) within a brick-and-mortar building.

Obviously, technology has advanced this to the cloud, but mentally, clients still want to know their information is being closely looked after and guarded. 

In order to maintain an appropriate level of security for clients, many BPOs actually use a variety of software applications to closely monitor the activity of each and every agent. This is what’s known as Desktop and Process Analytics, meaning the company can track what applications are running in the foreground, the background, what tabs are open in a browser, etc. This sounds a lot scarier than it is—it’s really just a way to measure employee performance during work hours, on a work computer, in an organization that employs tens of thousands of agents.

If the future of BPO companies is to work remotely, then this is where things will also need to be redesigned. Agents would need work-specific computers at home because a personal computer would cross too many red lines. Agents dealing with any customer’s personal information, like credit cards and social security numbers, would need to use processes and technology to ensure that information was not seen or overheard by any third parties. 

The good news is that all these problems are solvable. 

And now is the perfect time to start looking into the technology and processes to better manage your WFH workforce.

For the past 40 years, I have been starting and building service and technology based businesses—two of which were successfully acquired. My first venture was a full-service direct marketing company called U.S. Business Services. This business ultimately inspired my second venture, 800 Direct, which was a BPO that provided 24/7 contact center and customer relationship management services for Fortune 1000 companies—including Sprint, Hallmark, Bose, Barnes & Noble, Hasbro, and many others. After learning the ins and outs of the BPO world, I saw an opportunity to bring a workforce optimization solution to the market to make contact centers more efficient. So, in 2002, I founded Monet Software to do just that. For the first 10 years operating Monet, I identified partners and outsourced software development to companies located in India and Bulgaria, where I traveled frequently. I then decided to launch my own engineering and development center in south eastern Europe. Over the next two decades, Monet became a global provider for contact centers of all sizes and, with Monet WFO Live, delivered a complete cloud-based suite to automate workforce management, call recording, quality assurance, agent analytics, and more. In 2019, Monet was acquired by enterprise leader Verint Systems, where I continue to run the day-to-day operations of Monet. I am a passionate entrepreneur, senior executive, and investor.

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