Jim Ball is the co-founder of Alpine Access, as well as the pioneer of the home-based model. He currently serves as chief technology officer and managing partner of Alpine Access Consulting. Jim also works with the senior management team as the company expands to offer services in new lines of business.
Alpine Access pioneered the employee-based virtual at-home model in 1998. It is a technology-empowered, services company focused on delivering improved customer satisfaction, loyalty and profitability to clients through the use of home-based agents. Alpine Access has operated in a 100% virtual world from inception and uses cloud-based technologies to power its outsourced services. It has been repeatedly recognized for record growth and industry leadership.
MO: What inspired you to create Alpine Access? How has your background and experience helped contribute to the development and success of the company so far?
Jim: I’d been working at a traditional call center company for about three years when I was asked to help open a second facility in order to recruit more staff. At that time, the standard operating procedure was to put up a building and then compete with other centers to hire qualified employees within a 30 mile radius. When the market was tapped out, we then opened another costly facility in a different location.
Maybe it was because I was relatively new to the industry, but I couldn’t understand why everyone kept using this very inefficient process. I started to wonder “why do people need to come into the office to answer phones?” So I sketched out a plan to create a home-based agent model, which has completely turned the call center market upside down. The ability to hire the most skilled agents regardless of their locations has allowed virtual call centers to deliver better business results, create job opportunities for people who otherwise couldn’t support themselves, preserve the environment and help the national economy by keeping outsourced customer service positions in the U.S.
MO: You first pioneered the employee-based virtual at-home model in 1998. What was the development process behind the model and how much has it evolved since the company’s inception?
Jim: When we developed the at-home model, we were creating a completely new way of doing business, so there was no roadmap to follow. We had a vision, but no formalized development process or clear path to get there. There was one basic ground rule – we would not use or develop any process that would require agents to come into a facility. I felt that as long as we didn’t break that rule, we could learn the rest along the way. It’s still the mantra behind Alpine Access today.
As Alpine Access has continued to grow, we’ve needed to find innovative ways to automate many processes that were done manually when the company was smaller. For example, over the past five years Alpine Access has made a significant investment in time and money to ensure our security systems and processes meet the most stringent industry standards. This wasn’t as much of a concern 10 years ago, but today our clients need partners that meet PCI DSS Level 1, HIPPA and HITECH Act data security requirements.
MO: Why are leading Fortune 500 companies bringing their calls back home? How is that decision going to impact our economy?
Jim: For the past decade, companies have been lured to offshore call centers by promises of low-cost services. Wages in some developing countries are indeed lower and provide a low-cost service that is sufficient for some call types; particularly those not requiring specific product or cultural connections. However, recent economic and political instability, as well as quality issues and consumer backlash, have many business leaders rethinking their offshore decisions.
When the expense of managing foreign sites, losing customers, and regaining loyalty from a dissatisfied customer base are factored into the equation, the inexpensive offshore option actually can be the most costly. For these reasons, less than 10% of companies now see offshore centers as a positive way to reduce operational costs, and only 4% have plans to offshore in the next three years, according to recent research by Ovum.
However, companies bringing services back onshore are reluctant to return to the expensive and inflexible traditional brick-and-mortar (B&M) model. The high fixed costs of these centers are what caused companies to move offshore in the first place. Fortunately, the home-based model, known as “home-shoring,” is giving these companies a new solution, one that uses domestic-based agents to deliver top-quality service at a low overall cost.
By providing a new customer care alternative, Alpine Access is helping companies bring jobs back to the U.S, thereby stimulating the economy. These companies are also stronger, benefiting from the additional revenue and customer loyalty that comes with giving consumers the highest level of service.
MO: How is Alpine Access reinventing the customer care model?
Jim: I call this phase of evolution, Call Center 2.0. By bringing the work to the people, rather than the people to the work, Alpine Access has literally turned the industry on its head. Operating a virtual contact center is much more efficient in every aspect. From recruiting, hiring and training to management and advancement, every process is 100% virtual. We know exactly how an agent will perform in a virtual environment because that’s how they’ve been trained and evaluated.
MO: Why isn’t allowing employees to work from home not as easy as just giving them a laptop? What other systems need to be in place for working from home to be a success?
Jim: The physical equipment is just the “tip of the iceberg,” so to speak. We have security and connectivity requirements for an agent’s work-at-home environment, but it is really the business processes that are the most important when creating and managing a virtual workforce.
Any company considering an at-home team must have processes in place that allow management to know exactly what at-home employees are doing at all times. For example, at Alpine Access, if an agent isn’t answering a call when he or she is scheduled to work, our workforce management system detects the problem and notifies a manager who then adjusts staffing appropriately.
Every process must be re-constructed for a virtual environment. When done correctly, companies can actually have more insight and control than in a B&M center. Unfortunately, businesses get into trouble when they try to use or retrofit existing B&M processes.
I’d also say that culture plays an extremely important role in successfully operating a work-from-home team or company. The fact that employees work from home should not diminish their opportunities for advancement within the organization. In fact, at Alpine Access we’ve found that promoting from within is a tremendous advantage. Fortunately, the demographics of at-home agents tend to be slightly older, which means many agents also come to us with previous management skills.
MO: What’s the most exciting thing on the horizon for Alpine Access in 2012?
Jim: My vision for Alpine Access has always been that our work-from-home employees can be just as effective as if they are in the office. This means that the underlying technology is invisible, but provides all the necessary support and communication tools needed for people to do an outstanding job. In 2012, Alpine Access will continue to make significant progress toward this goal with a major infrastructure redesign. The improved infrastructure will provide agents with a better work experience and help us respond even more quickly to client needs. It’s a big undertaking but necessary as the home-based model continues to become the solution of choice for companies throughout the world.
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