In 1998, virtual call center staffing company Alpine Access opened its doors. All of the staff taking calls with Alpine Access — now totaling about 3,000 customer service representatives — work from their homes. In this interview, Alpine Access co-founder and current managing partner Jim Ball shares some insights from the company’s twelve years’ experience of working with a distributed workforce.
Thursday Bram: How have Alpine Access’ methods of managing staff and working with telecommuters changed since the company started? What important lessons have you learned?
Jim Ball: When we started Alpine Access, we knew we didn’t know what we didn’t know. We also knew that the only way to make the model scalable was to implement as much technology-driven “management” as possible. Putting those together meant we needed to test our unique operational processes manually until we were comfortable we had them right. Only then did we build systems to support and automate them. So, with time, we’ve implemented a great deal of technology that allows us to manage many of the day-to-day functions in a highly automated fashion, leaving our human resource to manage by exception. We’ve been very careful, however, to make sure we maintain an appropriate level of human touch so as to ensure our agents have the sense of community and culture that is so important to Alpine Access.
The lessons? Automating a bad process just amplifies the mistake. Make sure process drives technology — not the other way around.
Thursday: How has Alpine Access scaled working with telecommuters, when many companies seem to struggle with working with just a few telecommuters?
Ball: The most common problem I’ve seen most companies make is that when they decide to implement a telecommuting program, they assume they really don’t have to change the way they do business. That is, they often focus on nothing more than providing their telecommuters with the technical tools they need to operate from home. Not much else changes. Have you ever been on a conference call where most of the others were together in a conference room? If so, you’ve undoubtedly experienced the inevitable head-scratching as a result of muffled side-conversations or speakers who rely on hand-waving or other activities that don’t translate well over the phone. It’s often simple things that make the difference.
Alpine Access started as a pure home-agent company. By design, we’ve never had a physical call center. This has forced us to ensure that every aspect of an agent’s relationship with us is centered around the fact that they are not in a common office. Recruiting, training, operational support, coaching — even extracurricular activities all are designed specifically for remote workers.
Thursday: What sort of infrastructure do you use to manage 3,000 telecommuters? Is it custom built, or have you found tools that scale well?
Ball: In keeping with the “don’t let technology drive process” theme, we were forced to custom build much of our infrastructure for the first few years. As appropriate commercial solutions have come to market in recent years, we’ve been able to replace many of our custom solutions. Even in those cases, we generally find ourselves making fairly extensive modifications to those commercial systems in order to keep them true to our needs.
Thursday: What approaches can smooth the process of working with a virtual staff? Are there any tips or tricks you can recommend?
Ball: Probably the strongest suggestion I can make is to have the people who are designing the program actually live all aspects of the experience. There really is no way to effectively simulate that experience in a safe (from a fall-back standpoint), sterile office environment. Make sure your virtual staff feels fully-engaged and that the technology they are using is essentially invisible.