The Biggest Obstacle to Finding Good Hires: Our Office

Last Updated Jun 7, 2011 6:14 PM EDT

By Jim Ball, Co-Founder, Alpine Access, Denver, Colo.

While running operations for a traditional brick-and-mortar call center in the 90s, I ran up against the same challenge that almost everyone in the industry faces: Acquiring and retaining high quality customer service representatives is a constant struggle. Attrition rates were high. Almost every employee lived within 15 miles of the call center. Once we had tapped the pool of nearby candidates, there were few places to turn.

If one, central office was the problem, I wondered if I could solve the recruiting and retention problems by allowing employees to work from their homes. So, in 1998 I started Alpine Access, the first virtual call center in the country to hire employees to work from their homes.

Here's how I turned a traditional business model upside down and planted the seed for a $100 million company with a network of 4,500 workers

A narrow field
In the early- to mid-90s, brick-and-mortar call centers were the only kinds around. The biggest problem with the model was that it meant that you had a shallow pool of talent to draw from to fill around 500 seats at each location. Employees aren't usually willing to commute more than a few miles to work.

What's more, because we were drawing from such a narrow field, we couldn't be selective in our hiring. It was difficult to find committed employees whose skills matched our clients' needs. Not only did the service suffer, but attrition rates topped 90%. My solution, then, was to stop trying to devise ways to bring people to work and instead, bring the work to them.

Flipping the model
With Alpine Access, we flipped the traditional call center model upside down. Rather than building a physical call center and hiring people to work there, we simply went looking for the employees we wanted. We invested significant time and capital building out new business processes with the idea in mind that we would not rely on any of the systems traditionally used in call centers. We wanted to make sure that nothing we put in place ever required an employee to come in to a physical call center. All they needed was a phone and a headset.

We record 100% of the calls our agents handle, which can include both voice and screen activity. Our quality assurance team can listen to recorded agent phone calls or watch their screen activity via a web portal to monitor agent performance.

Once we cut ourselves loose from one particular location, our access to talent jumped astronomically. The surplus in candidates allows us to be extremely selective in our hiring process: We can choose employees with the right skill sets and personalities to best fit our clients' needs. Our ability to specialize, in turn, allows us to take on larger clients doing complicated technical support, financial billing calls, and even work in the healthcare industry.

We recently began handling calls for a major healthcare provider and were able to find an entire staff of call agents all with healthcare backgrounds -- many had been nurses, claims processors, or medical office managers. So we were able to spend time training the employees on the specifics of the client's needs, rather than general healthcare issues or language.

From curiosity to trend
Our model has gone from a curiosity many speculated wouldn't work to a fast-growing trend in the call center industry. Because of our low overhead costs, we operate at far lower costs than traditional call centers and we're able to take on more qualified employees. This year our revenue will top $100 million. We now employ 4,500 agents in 42 states and recently expanded into Canada.

Raised in an Air Force family, Jim Ball lived in more than a dozen cities before heading to college in the Rocky Mountains. There, he became an avid skier and has been a Colorado Rockies fan since the team's inception.
-- As told to Alex Coppola