Toll-free call centers are a ubiquitous part of the "virtual" economy. But call centers themselves are almost always centralized operations, which creates lots of problems. Robert Camastro, former director of planning for worldwide reservations at United Airlines, has built a call-center company with a distributed workforce. Its six centers, all based in New Brunswick, Canada, shift calls among various locations—allowing each operation to be smaller and more personal. In just three years, Virtual-Agent Services has grown to 500 employees and 20 high-profile clients.
President and COO, Virtual-Agent Services
Additional Team Members:
Neri Basque - Executive VP of Operations
Nancy Strickland-Lewis - VP of Customer Relations
Doreen Csarman - Director of Operations and Planning
FROM ROBERT'S ORIGINAL ENTRY:
Tell us what you do (or what your team or organization does) and the specific challenge you faced.
I was the Director of Planning for United Airlines Worldwide Reservations for 12 years, and am now co-founder and President of Virtual-Agent Services, an Illinois company with call center operations in New Brunswick, Canada. Throughout the last 20 years, call center consolidation was and has been seen as the "ideal call center model." The more agents you could pack into a building and on a common switch, the more efficient the operation. But when heavy demand started putting pressure on the supply of qualified labor, the quality of service began to degrade. The industry painted itself into a high-cost, low-quality corner it could not escape—a problem largely self-inflicted, due to the myopic and relentless pursuit of cost savings through the physical consolidation of work groups into ever larger call centers. In theory, the more calls routed through a single telephone switch in a given center, the less down time there is for front line employees. For the theory to succeed, however, employees have to work harder. Working in a call center became a low level job with poor incentives. Cubicle farms and factory-like centers caused people to lose their individuality and influence on the operation. Staffing, retention, morale and service were problems.
What was your moment of truth?
I realized the consolidation model was seriously flawed. The growing labor problems could only be solved by reversing the trend: distributing the work into smaller centers and finding new sources of qualified labor in untapped markets such as small communities. This idea shocked the economy of scale model and the momentum of those who were building even larger centers. Late in 1992, when the FCC issued a new technology mandate that opened all existing call center contracts to re-negotiation, a colleague commented, "You have one of the largest long distance bills in the country. If there's anything you ever wanted a telephone company to do for you, now is the time to ask." A light bulb switched on that would ultimately change my career. I knew the solution lay in the location of the telephone switch. What if the switch resided in the long distance network rather than in each center? Then calls could be distributed from a central point to the next available employee regardless of were the employee was sitting. You could have any number of centers, of any size, in any location, without losing any scale. You could bring the work to the people in labor markets with quality people to employ. Smaller work groups would allow individual performance to shine through, increasing job satisfaction and fostering improved retention, morale, and quality.
What were the results?
Three years ago, I co-founded Virtual-Agent Services (VAS). Our Distributed Workforce Concept brings jobs to areas with high quality, work-ready labor forces networked under a common telephone system. Our workforce is distributed among small communities throughout the rural areas of New Brunswick, Canada. Utilizing a network switch developed exclusively for VAS by Aliant Telecom, our virtual operation maintains the economies of scale sought with large consolidated operations. In the past three years, VAS has grown from a vision to a thriving call center business with six centers, over 500 employees, and over 20 high-profile clients. We plan to grow to 20 centers throughout the province within the next three years. Compared to an industry with attrition often in triple digits, we experience turnover at unprecedented rates of 10-15%. Skilled and dedicated employees are plentiful in our locations, and each center is a pleasant place to work with its own sense of community and team spirit. This year RealMarket awarded our Distributed Workforce Concept a Gold Best-in-Class honor for "The Most Effective Customer Relationship Management Product, Based On the Judgement of the End Users" in the category of Contact Center Tools—a testimonial to the quality of our employees. "Thank god you're here," is what the Mayor of Sussex, New Brunswick said at the press conference announcing that Virtual-Agent Services would replace 100 of the 500 high-paying jobs lost when the community's main employer closed.
What's your parting tip?
The world needs better ideas. I didn't give up on mine. Don't give up on yours.