The Case Against Being Timid: American Express and Home-Based Agents

In countless conference presentations and webinars, I’ve advised attendees to “put a toe in the water,” by gradually expanding their home agent programs. And now I’m thinking I need to reconsider that advice.

Last month at the Remote Agent Summit in Dallas, Stuart McReynolds, Vice President and General Manager of Service Delivery at American Express, advised against a gradual transition. Why?

First, a bit of background. Stuart’s team consists of 3,000 remote agents in 14 countries. Three-quarters of their agents in the U.S. (and about half globally) are home agents. They have closed 36 brick-and-mortar locations in the past 3 years. Imagine the cost reductions achieved by those closures!

Now, let’s look at the reasons America Express advises jumping in wholeheartedly.

Of course, the cost reductions achieved by closing all those sites happens quickly rather than over a period of time. For American Express, lower real estate expenses meant more money in the company’s coffers.

Morale improved. There was consistency in how agents were treated; every agent went home, not just top performers. Before-and-after metrics showed marked improvement in agent engagement and loyalty. Turnover decreased by 50%. Customer satisfaction soared.

Related article: Telecommuting Used To Suck. Today’s Technology Makes It Awesome.

One point of clarification, though–when Stuart advised against a toe-in-the-water approach, he wasn’t suggesting sending every single agent in your company home immediately. Of course, you would want an initial test group to iron out processes, equipment, training, and all those potential gotchas.

Rather, what American Express found worked best was to avoid splitting teams. All in-office agents on the same team go home at the same time. No one feels slighted because they’re not allowed to participate.

Home agents aren’t wistful about missing team lunches and get-togethers. In-office agents aren’t disgruntled because they’re fighting traffic on a snowy day while thinking about their peers who are cozy and warm in home offices. Everyone is in it together. All are treated equally.

Another interesting note is that one of their centers initially had home agents come into the office one day a month. Defying conventional wisdom in yet another area, American Express deemed it a waste of time. Likely the agents enjoyed it, but from a business perspective, it wasn’t effective. Perhaps once a month just doesn’t do much from a water-cooler perspective.

So, it looks like American Express would tell you this: If you’re just dipping a toe, or standing beside the pool eyeballing the water, jump in! And if you adhere to Stuart’s advice, just make sure your whole team jumps in with you.

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