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Doing Good in the Call Center

Turn on your favorite news program or flip through your morning paper this time of year, and you're sure to find a story or two about companies giving back or working for the greater good. I'm duly inspired, but usually only truly impressed when the effort reaches beyond the bounds of the holiday season and reflects a way of doing business year round.

So when a press release about Direct Interactions crossed my desk, I decided to give it a second look. This Seattle-based call center outsourcing company, I read, creates home-based jobs for military families and people with disabilities. In other words, doing social good is part and parcel of its corporate mission--and not just a seasonal platitude.

Direct Interactions is built on a goal of inclusiveness, I learned in a phone interview with CEO Jonas Nicholson. "We're about using technology to create U.S.-based jobs for people who often have been left out of business or job opportunities," he said.

Outsourcing at Home
Nicholson and his business partner, president Matt Storey, are longtime call center industry veterans. Their history dates back to the late 1990s, when they helped launch one of Microsoft's earliest offshore support centers in India. They came together again in 2007 amid shifting attitudes toward offshoring call center operations and the recognition that people with disabilities could prove to be valuable call center agents domestically. For its first client, Direct Interactions hired people of deafness to provide support via chat interactions, he explained.

From that first client, the duo ramped up Direct Interactions with the goal of creating a people-first outsourcing--or more specifically, home-sourcing--company in the States.


Today the average Direct Interactions call center agent is 37 years old, and most are female. The agents are typically new to the job market or have struggled to maintain jobs within the workforce over time. If they have a disability, it's most commonly cerebral palsy, fibromyalgia or multiple sclerosis. If they don't have a disability, they're typically providing care for a child or adult who does. About 20 of the 140 or so call center agents are military spouses, and a smattering live in rural areas that offer little in the way of employment opportunities, Nicholson said.

"The broad umbrella is that we work with people who have a good reason to work from home or who share our corporate vision," he added.

Intuitive Tools
Direct Interactions assigns each agent to a specific company client, and finds that nearly all training it does relates to the client rather than the call center tools. Direct Interactions uses 8x8's cloud-based Virtual Contact Center technology to route calls to its home-based agents.

Key capabilities Direct Interactions required in a call center offering were support for adaptive technologies such as headband pointers or screen readers, which give those with vision impairments the ability to receive an audible reading of Website text or functions over which a mouse hovers, and a call recording feature that worked well with such adaptive technologies. The latter was an imperative for quality assurance purposes, Nicholson said.

When they sign in for a day of work, the agents log in to the call center via their browsers. They then do a test call--mostly over landlines--and then begin their days. Agents working with clients who demand a higher level of security also must log in using a fingerprint scanner.

Camaraderie From Afar
Direct Interactions balances agent schedule requests against client needs using some "fairly sophisticated" forecasting software that analyzes call arrival patterns pulled out of 8x8's system, Nicholson said. "Particularly for people with disabilities or caretakers, flexibility in scheduling is one of the things they like best about the job. They like having the opportunity to say, 'Hey, something came up with my kid and I have to split. Is that OK?'"

And it is OK, because agents are willing to be available on standby and Direct Interactions has no trouble meeting its service-level agreements, he said. "That's a hard attitude to get from a traditional call center agent--most agents wouldn't care that another agent is having trouble at home. But here most everybody realizes the importance of being able to leave work unexpectedly and so they'll pitch in. That adds value to our mission."

To further build company spirit, Nicholson said he and Storey take two annual trips, one east and one west, to visit workers. "That's some of the most fun I have all year--stopping in small towns, meeting them and their families, and taking them to lunch."

Because agent turnover is low, Direct Interactions can be highly selective when hiring. A job posting might draw thousands of applicants, and the company will use personality and affinity testing to select the best suited among them, Nicholson said. It hires only about 1.4% of applicants, he added.

A happy workforce provides a competitive advantage, which Nicholson said the company is parlaying into growth. Direct Interactions has grown in terms of number of employees at about 100% a year for the last three years, and expects to double again in 2015, to 400, and then again by the end of 2017. Longer range, it hopes to grow the number of agents to between 1,500 and 2,000 by 2020, he added.

At the same time, the company is growing the size of its installations. Early on, the number of seats for a client was around five to 10. Now the minimum is at 25 seats per client, and Nicholson said the company hopes to add three or four clients that have between 25 and 50 seats this coming year.

With the help of 8x8, which Nicholson said has been a good partner/evangelist, Direct Interactions is fulfilling its mission of using technology to provide domestic work opportunities for those who typically aren't considered employable: "We've grown this business into a social enterprise."