Work-at-home agents part of a shifting tide for West Marine

With an aging contact center infrastructure and an expiring building lease, West Marine shifted its call center agents to a work-at-home model with some innovative approaches.

Looking for a way to help transition centralized contact center representatives to the work-at-home agent model?

Take them bowling. That's what West Marine did -- it took its agents virtual bowling. Innovative use of a Nintendo Wii helped the Watsonville, Calif.-based boating supply retailer transition a mature workforce from a central contact center to a team of work-at-home agents.

A year ago, West Marine was looking at replacing an aging ACD system. Faced with what was going to be a significant expense, the company began researching all its options for its two call centers. Along with the aging ACD, West Marine had to replace legacy hardware systems, an outdated call routing system and software that was reaching end of life, said Matt Wise, senior director of shared services.

The company looked at replacing the systems, consolidating the two call centers into one or outsourcing before it ultimately decided on using software from LiveOps to have their agents work at home.

"We thought why be forced to deal with one geographic area when we can draw from boating resources throughout the country," Wise said.

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As a boating retailer, West Marine's business is seasonal, seeing big spikes in call volume during the summer months. Additionally, finding agents with boating expertise limits the pool of applicants. Add to that the fact that the lease on the building that housed the Florida call center was coming up for renewal. The timing made West Marine's operation well suited for the work-at-home model.

Yet, the company still needed to be cautious in its approach. The average age of the 150 agents in the call center was 54, making some less comfortable with Internet-only environments. Enter the Wii.

In order to help agents in the transition from a centralized call center to working at home, Wise and call center management installed a Nintendo Wii in the call center. Agents set up their own "Wii Miis," 3D avatars of themselves to get accustomed to virtual environments. Agents played golf and bowling games on giant screens which had traditionally been used for performance dashboards.

"It was a great example of an electronic ice breaker," Wise sad. "Walking them through it was entertaining and it dropped some of the barriers."

West Marine launched the LiveOps system two months before they left the building and undertook other preparatory initiatives like a "no supervisor day" and having agents communicate only by Instant Messaging (IM) or email.

"It went very smoothly because of that," Wise said.

The cost savings were evident immediately, saving on building and general expenses, but also saving money for many of the call center agents themselves. Some were commuting an hour and a half to the contact center.

To begin the program, West Marine sent everyone home with a computer, preconfigured with all the applications along with a one-year warranty. New agents were expected to provide their own computers.

It has not all been trouble free. West Marine has had to overcome a few issues with technical support for their work-at-home agents, particularly new agents bringing aboard PCs with the Vista operating system, Wise said.

E-learning, training and call monitoring are all done remotely. In fact, there are a few supervisors in the California facility, but most supervisors work from home as well.

"A bigger challenge is keeping a sense of community. That is something we will focus on," Wise sad. "It's been three quarters now. In Q4 and 2010, we're really going to focus on keeping that sense of community. It's tough. You lose those water cooler discussions."

West Marine is using the IM capabilities within the LiveOps application but had to make a few changes to cut down on "the noise," Wise said.

While turnover is less of an issue during a recession, the new system does bode well for when the economy picks up. Once word got around that West Marine had a work-at-home option, the company was able to hire former employees when they needed extra staff for the ramp up season.

"Luckily there were people who had been part of team in prior years and heard about work-at-home and got in touch with us," Wise said. "The team was really great. They went in knowing it was work-at-home, they knew the requirements. Seasonal staffing was pretty painless because we had people that were [here] previously."

Extending the call center to work-at-home agents

Now that the system is up and running, West Marine is piloting a program to have store associates available as customer service representatives two days a week and working in the store the rest of the week. The company's 4,000 retail stores see most of their business during the weekends, leaving store associates with down time during the week. By adding store associates to the customer service work force, West Marine can ramp up and down. While giving the associates more hours, it is providing some scheduling challenges.

"We have to work closely with managers to avoid overtime," Wise said. "It is a bit of a challenge to schedule that. Right now it's really ad hoc."

The transition from traditional contact center to a work-at-home model gave West Marine the opportunity to re-examine the call center, an exercise Wise recommends any company going through.

"The one thing that I found was a huge opportunity, I knew I was transitioning, so it's a great time to re-think how call center operates," Wise said. "Anywhere from phone queues to how you rate your agents to performance expectations. It's a great opportunity to revamp how you do things."

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