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Support.com Changes the Equation in Tech Support by Bringing the Call Center Home

In January 2008, a software company with a novel idea set up tables at job fairs and open houses in Austin, TX, making their first seven hires for what was then perceived as a radical concept: creating a virtual call center staffed entirely by work-at-home North America-based agents. It proved to be a microcosm of how Support.com has done business ever since: a blend of cutting-edge thinking mixed with common-sense traditional methods.

The result has been a phenomenal success story. While bucking the industry trend of outsourcing technology support to India, Support.com has grown over the past four years  into a $140mm market cap company with more than 1,000 agents. They deliver their services direct as well as through leading broadband service providers, software vendors and PC OEMs including Comcast, Sony, Time Warner, Office Depot, OfficeMax, Staples and many others on a proprietary delivery platform.

“We ramped up our staff amazingly quickly,” said Paul Vaillancourt, Support.com Senior Vice President of Contact Center Operations. “We went from seven to 100 in just a few months, and then realized that it was going to take way too long to hire people geographically.”

The solution? “We adapted an online hiring system being used by a company we acquired called YourTechOnline,” recalled Vaillancourt. “They only had about 20 people at the time, but we scaled it up to the point where we can funnel in tens of thousands of applicants and rapidly filter them. It begins with a multiple choice test which eliminates a large group of candidates. This is followed by an essay test that is scored by people not programs--which brings the pool down by 80%.”

Those who pass the first two phases are given a technical interview, followed by a non-technical interview with a supervisor. ”People who do well in these interviews are rarely not hired,” said Vaillancourt. “We’re looking for people who are comfortable with working from home, people who are articulate and capable of doing research. We flip the screening process upside down and don’t even look at resumes: we evaluate the person, not the skill set.”

The proof of the success of this process is in the annual attrition rate, an impressive 17.5% which is far below industry standards. Vaillancourt noted that majority of drop-off comes in the first month when agents are adapting to the Support.com way of doing things and some discover that it’s just not for them.

And as Support.com refined their methods of recruiting a qualified and motivated workforce, they also tweaked the process of determining what they needed to provide superior at-home service. “At first, we provided a hard router and a hard phone,” said Vaillancourt. “Then we dropped the router and later, dropped the phone. Now we only ask that our agents have a PC and an ISP connection that meets our standards. The only equipment we send them is a $20 headset.”

Over time, they developed a blended technology that completely integrates CRM ticket management with a guided workforce tool that gives tech leaders and supervisors full access to all remote control interactions. “The platform was created by us, for us,” said Vaillancourt. “We employed cloud-based ACD because it integrated so well. We also employ heavy use of chat rooms and person-to-person IM which empowers on-the-spot coaching.”

How did Support.com convince a skeptical business world that it all would work? “We sell a service at a wholesale rate—it is not entirely cost-based,” explained Vaillancourt. “Our clients want the quality and ability to relate to customers of North-American based agents.”

Of course, there were doubts to overcome. Companies feared that the turnover rate would be high, that the technology wouldn’t hold up and were just plain afraid of the lack of control of not having people in a brick and mortar building. But Support.com’s voice quality and dropped call level compared favorably with any physical contact center. And as they proved their capabilities, business grew exponentially.

Vaillancourt still runs into his share of unbelievers. “I spoke at conference last year,” he said, “And when I finished outlining the facts about the success of virtual contact centers, and how we lowered costs for creating a virtual, work-at-home agent team, several executives came up to me afterwards and said ‘I’m sorry: I just don’t think that what you’re saying is really possible’.”

But it is working and continues to improve. Even though its entire agent staff is made up of at-home agents, Support.com runs a tight ship. They meticulously maintain schedules and develop volunteer lists to ramp up when call volume demands more available agents, such as on Black Friday for a major retail account. “Our customers don’t care that they work at home,” said Vaillancourt. “Just that they’re there and they perform well when the calls come in.”

And the agents themselves continue to enhance their work and free-time experience. They have set up Facebook-like communities for musicians, car collectors, even bacon lovers, creating a virtual water cooler for Support.com personnel. “Our agents who are geographically close tend to get together on their own,” said Vaillancourt. “I’m the only person in the contact center who goes to an office.”