American Cancer Society on the Benefits of a 100% Remote Workforce: CCW Nashville

Expand your talent pool and reward top agents while maintaining QA



Kindra Cooper
02/11/2019

Remote workforce

Working at a contact center for the American Cancer Society is a rather high-stakes affair, given the nonprofit’s stated mission to “free the world from cancer.”

Agents at the National Cancer Information Center field calls and live chat requests from patients, survivors and caregivers, offering day-to-day advice and emotional support on treatment options, coping strategies, managing pain, cancer prevention and incentives to quit tobacco, which accounts for 30 percent of all cancer deaths.

Headquartered in Austin, TX, the ACS contact center adopted a 100 percent virtual staffing model last summer to stay competitive in a local job market cornered by tech mammoths like Apple and Dell.

“Historically, we’ve always relied on our mission and the impact we make on individual lives [to attract talent],” Reid London, managing director of operations for ACS, said in a panel discussion at CCW Nashville. “But in this day and age, that can’t be all it is.”

London said going virtual enabled the company to hire talent in markets where it didn’t have a physical footprint, such as San Antonio and Las Vegas, while conserving overhead costs.

 

1. Reward your highest-performing employees and woo prospective ones

 

The typical contact center agent profile at ACS is more specialized than the industry archetype: the Society only hires full-time staff given the 9-week training investment required to qualify new recruits to counsel callers about cancer, and they typically hold a bachelor’s degree in social work.

Even so, as a nonprofit, the compensation wasn’t on par with lavish remuneration packages touted by the private companies setting down roots in the Austin area. To differentiate itself as an employer, London’s team started by transitioning 15-20 percent of their 425 cancer specialists into hybrid roles entailing working three days at the office and two at home.

Only agents in the top performance quartile earned work-from-home privileges, as well as those demonstrating a predisposition for remote roles, such as the ability to work independently and effective communication skills.

From 2010-2017, when the contact center started the process of shifting its agents into hybrid roles, London says attrition dropped to less than 5 percent, and the hiring pool vastly expanded by tapping into the San Antonio and Las Vegas markets, where cost of living is lower. “From a compensation perspective, we can be a very attractive partner within that market and still be able to manage our organizational costs.”

2. Expand your talent pool

The work-from-home model sits very well with the predominant demographic of the ACS contact center workforce: fresh graduates, many of whom don’t want to be tied down to one location, retirees, who want to be able to work from the comfort of home, and military spouses, who typically face difficulties in securing employment because of how often they decamp to different military outposts to be with their spouse.

“It really afforded us the opportunity with that demographic specifically to follow them wherever they wanted to take their personal life,” Reid says of the fresh grads. “They can start in Austin, San Antonio or Las Vegas, but once they’ve proven to be successful with us they can say, you know what, I’ve never lived on the West Coast or in the Northeast; I’d love to be able to do that.”

3. Conserve overhead costs

Initially, ACS had two separate contact centers, one in the southeast and another in the northwest. “It became very apparent that having two physical facilities made no sense,” said London.

Staff moved into one consolidated facility in 2008, and stopped keeping its offices open overnight while continuing to offer 24/7 customer support 365 days a year.  

“We have a very small overnight team and that was an obvious quick opportunity to have these individuals work remotely instead of having our 75,000 square foot building open at night,” said London.

ACS preserved the hybrid model for about five years before realizing some gaping cost inefficiencies. Requiring staff to move between the office and home created an equipment redundancy; instead of hauling headsets and recording equipment back and forth, they needed an extra set of each. It became one of many justifications for having a fully virtual contact center.

“There’s some upfront investments that first year from a technology perspective just to make the move into that virtual space,” explained London. “But the amount of money you’re able to revinest because of the savings from not having the overhead [costs] of a physical space like security and AC are the bigger, long-term sell.”

4. Handle seasonal fluctuations without hiring extra staff

A stronger selling point for going completely virtual was the seasonal fluctuations in call volume tied to awareness campaigns and events. “Colorectal Awareness Month is coming up in March, Breast Cancer Awareness Month is in October. We certainly get a lot more traffic during those periods,” said London.

Even though ACS continues to hire only full-time staff, agents who work from home tend to be more willing to work a few hours of overtime a week to tide things over during high-traffic periods. Calls also surge 2-3 hours before Saturday morning events such as the Making Strides Against Breast Cancer fundraising walk or Relay for Life, but once the event starts the contact center doesn’t really need extra agents on hand. 

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“In Austin, I don’t want to drive 30-45 minutes to work a two-hour shift and then turn right around and go home,” said London. “What we found with the virtual model was that it was an opportunity to garner some goodwill from our staff to help us in this situation.”  

By expanding into the west coast, they were also able to offer the less attractive evening shifts to those situated in a central time zone.

5. QA, engagement and performance metrics stay the same

A major concern surrounding the virtual agent model is its effect on employee engagement and quality assurance. London says that with the right tools and training, a fully remote CS team delivers the same output as they did on-site. They now run 100 percent of their staff meetings virtually, so that rather than 10 people in a conference room listening to the disembodied voices of two people on a staticky conference line, all staff are equipped with their own desktop cameras so they can all video conference at once and see as well as hear each other.

“As we talked to different organizations about what made a successful work-from-home environment, we realized introducing a camera was a huge part of that connection and engagement,” said London. “In the past, when I was at home, even if you heard me you didn’t see me, you didn’t know how engaged I was with the conversation.”

Agents connect remotely to an automatic call distributor each day, and 100 percent of their calls are captured using QA recording software, just like it used to be when they worked at headquarters. Management also captures 20 percent of their screens, the same ratio as it used to be. Contrary to popular opinion, the work-from-home model doesn’t turn dedicated agents into slackers, London says. The 2-3 percent prone to slacking by, say, taking extra time for their breaks, were the same offenders who did it on-site.

“It was all about the trust and the relationships that we built between the supervisors and the specialists that we felt were critical in maintaining those effective productivity measures.”

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