Nearshore Americas

USA At-Home Agents Supervised from a Nicaragua Base: A New Twist on the Nearshore Model

Nashville, Tennessee-based outsourcer Sitel first started utilizing work-at-home agents in January 2008. What began as “an exploratory mission” has since grown into an important aspect of Sitel’s offerings that has brought the company a number of strategic benefits, including greater flexibility and efficiency and a more loyal work force.

As of late September, Sitel had just over 1,700 work-at-home agents and this will rise to between 2,300 and 2,400 by Black Friday (the third Friday of November), Senior Vice President & General Manager Felix Serrano told Nearshore Americas. Sitel’s work-at-home agents are spread across 34 states, although Serrano noted that “there are a few states that just for a variety of labor laws and wage expectations don’t make a lot of sense.”

These agents provide a range of front-office and back-office services, including voice and non-voice customer care, chat-based and email support, complex billing and some technical support and sales. Their clients include businesses in travel and leisure, telecommunications, retail, hardware manufacturing and the beverage industry.

Agents either use computers provided by Sitel or in some circumstances they use their own devices. “We offer a secure connectivity method with the entire kit, where we provide the hardware, although we don’t provide the furniture or chairs,” Serrano explained. “We also have a secure method in which we leverage an agent’s personal computer after it’s gone through some testing on our end to ensure the capability. So we have the ability to deploy both and we do actively deploy both.”

Work-at-Home Benefits

At a basic level this is a mutually advantageous model in which the company saves in terms of rent, energy and sometimes hardware costs, while workers save commuting time and expenses.

Beyond that, Serrano noted that the work-at-home model made it much easier for Sitel to find and recruit agents than when hiring conventional “brick and mortar” agents. “With respect to actual performance on the phone, on average we’ve seen a productivity that reaches 15% to 20% better than the equivalent brick and mortar agent, and what that means is logging in on time, taking breaks at the exact timeframe, leaving at the end of your scheduled shift, and an overall reduction in the nonproductive time that occurs on calls,” he added.

“Work at home agents just generally tend to be more efficient and more proficient in the work that they do and a lot of that has to do with the generations that we hire,” Serrano continued. “We have a mature labor force with an average age of about 36 so they have prior professional experience whereas in brick and mortar you’re generally looking for someone who’s 21, 22 or 23 and it could be their first professional employment or their second, but generally there’s not a lot of maturity there.”

Serrano also noted that job satisfaction tends to be higher among work-at-home agents, as reflected in the lower attrition rates. “You generally see brick and mortar attrition ranging from 7% to 10% per month, depending who the provider is, whereas with work at home agents it’s about 5% per month,” he observed.

Furthermore, leveraging work-at-home agents enables Sitel to be more flexible and selective in the hours that it services clients. “We don’t specifically hire in the peaks and troughs. What we generally look at is where work at home can complement the enterprise, or where we need to staff people to be as efficient as possible,” Serrano said. “Sometimes call volume requires them to work traditional hours but what we generally find is that there are few sectors of the industry that have static volume so it’s a bit more erratic: a bit of morning work, midday, evening work, sometimes more on the evenings – it really just depends on the client and their customer patterns.”

Is This The Future?

While Serrano expects the work-at-home model to become more common and even predominant in the western world in the years to come, he does not envisage a time when it will completely replace conventional call center operations. “There’s always going to be a time and place for both solutions,” he said. Younger generations’ demand for virtual, on-demand flexibility means that “brick and mortar will become less predominant and there’ll be a role reversal where fewer people will be in centers and more people will work at home,” Serrano continued. However, “I don’t think that we’ll ever see the brick and mortar ever completely go away for a variety of reasons. Quite simply we have clients who – irrespective of the performance that work at home has – will always want to be able to go into a physical site and see the employees.”

The work-at-home model presents relatively few drawbacks, Serrano said, but he acknowledged that these operations are just as susceptible to market conditions as traditional models. “We generally try to look for a very mature labor force often in rural areas of the United States so we’re susceptible to a lot of different changes in the market place,” he explained. “For example, as fracking has become more dominant in 2014 that brings a sector that pays very well into regions that historically haven’t had those kinds of employment opportunities. So when you see that in rural America where a large organization comes in and they’re paying two or three times more than the minimum wage in the area it also affects us.”

But in general, Serrano insists that Sitel has had few difficulties finding the workers it needs in rural areas. “We’re supporting these communities by providing employment opportunities and it very much allows us to leverage a labor force in the U.S. that for some reason or another hasn’t been tapped into, so we can keep a few more jobs here onshore,” he said.

Nearshore Management

Outside of the United States, Sitel also has work-at-home agents in Canada, France, Germany and the United Kingdom. The agents are managed remotely from the company’s centers of excellence in Nicaragua, the Philippines and the UK. These locations were the result of Sitel asking “Where can we find the best talent?” and “How can we leverage it within our global model?” Serrano said.

When searching for the right managers to supervise its work-at-home-agents, Sitel was drawn to Nicaragua not by low costs, but by the characteristics of the local labor force and the success of its existing operations in the country. “Education has been one of the primary reasons why we decided on Nicaragua,” Serrano said, noting that Sitel had “access to an extremely educated labor force” there.

“We wanted to showcase the fact that no matter where you are globally, you can have a full career with us,” Serrano added. While call center jobs may be considered a short-term source of income in the United States, Serrano noted that in Nicaragua – and in much of Latin America in general – “this is considered honorable work that you can make a living from but it’s more than just a means of paying your bills, it’s a profession.” When Sitel was searching for managers to supervise its work-at-home agents, it was “looking at folks that are considering this as a long-term career move, and Managua just happens to have great availability of resources that meet these criteria,” Serrano said. “The labor force in that market is very much looking for stable, long-term career opportunities.”

Leveraging Local Operations

The fact that many local workers already had experience working in Sitel’s local contact centers also influenced the decision to pick managers from the site. Sitel launched its operations in Managua, the capital city, in April 2008, Nicaragua Country Manager Val Vandergrift told Nearshore Americas. “The key advantage we had when we arrived in Nicaragua was the fact that there really weren’t any other international contact centers located here,” he explained. “There were some smaller local operations and Sitel was looking for a location where the English-language labor market wasn’t saturated like it is in Costa Rica, for example, or Panama and Guatemala which had also become very competitive.”

Today, Vandergrift said, “there’s probably about 4,000 English-speaking agents engaged in the market and Sitel right now has about 2,500 of them.” Of these, almost three dozen workers have been supporting the work-at-home agents in the United States for the last five months. “This is a relatively new format,” Vandergrift explained. “We’re still kind of in a trial basis but right now we have 34 members of staff providing support. We have three operations managers, eight coaches or supervisors and the rest are quality assurance individuals.

In order to succeed in their roles, Vandergrift said these mangers “need to have really good English skills and they need to have good familiarity with U.S. culture. The majority of these people have actually lived or worked in the U.S. for some time, they all have excellent English skills that they’ve proven over time working on other campaigns in Nicaragua, and the supervisors and operations managers have to have solid managerial experience or supervisory experience.”

All those who manage and support the work-at-home agents were carefully selected after coming through Sitel’s training programs in Nicaragua. Vandergrift believes this preparation is essential in order for this nearshore model to work. “In the U.S. it might be a little easier to go outside and recruit somebody but here in Nicaragua we want people who have evolved in our track training programs in the areas that we need,” he said. Recruiting from within also helps reduce attrition rates, Vandergrift noted: “These higher level positions pay more than the agent-level positions and they help us to retain employees because they have more of an opportunity to move up and make more money.”

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So far, management of the work-at-home agents has “been a huge success,” Vandergrift said. This has been helped by the fact that of the four campaigns managed in Nicaragua, only one of the clients does not operate in the country. Sitel already serviced the other three clients from its operations in Managua, meaning that the local staff already have experience that can be leveraged.

Areas of Concern

Despite the distance between the work-at-home agents and their managers, Vandergrift and Serrano both insisted that there have been no difficulties in terms or motivating or communicating effectively with the agents. “They don’t physically come in contact but it’s pretty much person-to-person through every other form of communication,” Serrano explained. “The same though, can be said of the U.S. It’s the same exact method of interaction and management,” he added. “We have all the technology that we need there for our agents and … they’re interacting with their respective peers and teams by video, by conference bridge, by email, by chat in real time – through all of the traditional forms of communication minus face-to-face.”

Moving forward, Vandergrift noted that the only concern for Sitel is that “right now in Nicaragua we have excellent performance but we have more demand for a skilled English labor pool than exists.” Several competitors have moved into the Nicaraguan market since Sitel first arrived and now “we are beginning to find the limits to our ability to recruit higher-level people with adequate English skills,” he said.

In a bid to rectify this, Sitel is working with the government and the International Development Bank (IDB) on improving the supply of English-speaking workers. The company also runs its own pre-hiring English-language program, which provides a three-month course for people with reasonably advanced English skills but insufficient to meet Sitel’s requirements. “We graduate and hire on average 80% of the folks that go through that,” Vandergrift said.

Duncan Tucker

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