Call Centers Changing Lives

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Rich Tehrani
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Call Centers Changing Lives

I actually felt good writing this story. Like I was contributing to something bigger than anything I have written about previously. I hope you read it, it moves you and you find a way to have your corporation participate in this program.

Please enjoy my unedited High Priority column from the June, 2006 issue of Customer Interaction Solutions.

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I grew up in the call center business and couldn’t be more proud. Call centers have been used for such admirable activities as coordinating live-saving organ transplants to fundraising for virtually all the top charities. More recently call centers have been responsible for adding jobs to regions of the country and world where jobs were once scarce. This industry has given hope to millions – some of which could not find work or were not able to work in other areas.

Millions and millions of jobs are attributable to call centers around the world. Ironically, I had many people in the industry tell me in the late nineties that the Internet would wipe out the call center business. This was common wisdom but apparently was not only wrong but was the exact opposite of what seems to be happening. Sure websites in many cases take the place of call centers but for at least a decade after the Internet started to become popular, call centers have continued to explode with growth worldwide.

I thought I was aware of all the ways call centers proven good for humanity but recently I learned about a new one that I thought worth sharing. I received an e-mail from Ken Smith, Program Manager of the new call center training center supported by the Military Order of the Purple Heart.

I had to learn more. There seemed like a great human interest story here but as I peeled away the layers I found that beyond human interest there is a great call center story – one that could change much of the common wisdom of the convential US call center industry.

How it got started

In November of 2005, the Military Order of the Purple Heart Service Foundation or MOPHSF started its first class of 15 disabled, combat wounded veterans in an online call center training program called Veterans Business Training Center or VBTC.

This training was 15-weeks, 600-hours long and focused on the Five9 dialing platform. As it turns out, Five9 gave this agency very favorable rates for their service and they should be commended for doing so.

The foundation allowed the trainees to use this platform to call prospect donors on behalf of the foundation to solicit contributions in the state of Virginia. The program was a huge success. It has now expanded into 25 states, and the VBTC is accepting applications online at its website.

Ken forwarded me a press release that was issued late last year about this program and some interesting details emerge when reading it. For example there are now over 221,000 veterans who have been deemed unemployable by the VA. In the same release Senator Larry Craig who chairs the Veterans’ Affairs Committee had the following to say,

"It was just a few weeks ago that my committee held a hearing concerning the dramatic increase in the number of veterans deemed unemployable by the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs. I’m pleased that the Military Order of the Purple Heart Service Foundation has stepped up quickly to help veterans with disabilities get the training and support they need to reenter the workforce. "I am sensitive that many veterans deemed unemployable may never return to the workforce. But I believe that there are some, perhaps thousands, who could be helped emotionally and financially by working, and this program is an important step in that direction."

The Purple Heart Foundation's new initiative is called the "Business Training Center" and will provide remote and virtual in-home national training in the near future. The 15-week program will provide 600 hours of training for positions in the information industry.

The idea then was to find a local college the program is located in Annandale Virginia, and Smith had positive conversations with a large community college named Northern Virginia Community College or NVCC.

NVCC accredited the course syllabus and this allows the foundation to have veterans use their educational benefits to attend the training, and furthermore, the Veterans Administration can reimburse the costs of this training. The foundation pays trainees $11 per hour while in training and the total costs of training, including this stipend are $8700.

NVCC will be offering this fall, a 300-hour module that will train a disabled veteran in ways to start, operate and manage a 15-30-seat call center. It will assist these veterans in gaining the required recognition that is needed to compete for the government contracts under DVAAP.

DVAAP

This acronym stands for Disabled veteran affirmative action plan and it requires that the federal government award 3% of all federal contracts to disabled veterans. With the US government doing 2 trillion dollars a year in contracting, the foundation estimates that there are 60 billion dollars worth of DVAAP contracts available.

The point here is that since so many disabled veterans were once deemed unemployable it was impossible to hit this 3% number. However since disabled veterans can now work remotely from their homes many more of them will become employable. So some disabled veterans will be able to start companies which hire other disabled veterans and these workers will be in an excellent position to get work since they will virtually be required by law to be hired.

In addition, the foundation is in communication with FEMA (125 seat virtual call center), Department of the Treasury (325 seat call center), Department of Veterans Affairs (75 seat call center), HUD (50 seat call center), DOL (100 seat call center), Halliburton Corporation, Home Depot, FEDEX, UPS, and a host of 2nd and 3rd tier companies to place veterans.

Veteran Computer Hospital:

Imagine a disabled veteran trained on the use of the Five9 predictive dialer. Then imagine that same vet trained on Citrix. Using his computer to help other veterans with simple computer issues remotely. The foundation envisions this concept to begin with a simple “Emergency Room” visit to their website requesting help with a host of issues.  Using another anticipated partner, XoftspySE, they would be able to run a simple diagnostic that removes malware, spyware and browser hijacking files, and perform this feature from the at home agents desk. At the same time, other “Tier 2” trained agents would handle the more challenging cases and conduct training online to those who wished to progress. All the while offering this service to the city, county, state and federal government all under the DVAAP umbrella.

The veterans who participate range in age from 25 to 65. They encompass all wars; all services and both men and woman are participating. They have bi-lingual veterans and the most important feature each veteran brings is the command of English and the understanding of the geography of the United States. They plan to compete for the business that is currently being offshored.

There are 225,000 qualified disabled veterans that are receiving services from the Veterans Administration today. They plan on penetrating upwards of 10% of those and training them in call center technologies.

One last point is that there is a tremendous incentive for any corporation to hire a wounded veteran. Currently there is a tax credit of up to $7,500 per wounded veteran hired. Apparently there is a complex formula needed to figure out exactly what this credit is.

Here is part of the last e-mail that Ken sent me on the matter. It speaks for itself so I thought I would pass it along as is:

We are asking the staff of Senator Craig (chairman of the Senate veterans affairs), and the staff of Congressman Steve Buyer (Chairman of the House veterans affairs)to clarify the process, and for those veterans who are 100% service connected disabled, (they are currently receiving $26,000 per year tax free), we are asking that this group be awarded a tax credit of $12,500 per veteran ( placing them on a level playing field with Manila, India etc) -- reducing by half the exposure that the government is currently paying. Also keeping that tax credit in place indefinitely, assuring that the company hiring the veteran has an incentive to keep him/her long term.

Mostly everyone is rooting for us to do well, and while we are rookies in this game, we are quick learners, and have approached the problems we are facing from an "operations planning" point of view. We have "lessons learned" from things we did wrong, and would be willing to discuss our strategy with anyone who reads your article.

Could you have the email address ksmith(at)purpleheartfoundation.org and the phone number of 703-340-8763 put into your article somewhere, in case someone is interested in hiring some disabled vets, or wants to have a special class trained (up to 100 at a time can be done).

In closing, I must say I am as proud as I have ever been to be part of an industry bringing jobs to those who were thought to be unemployable. In addition I think what Ken and his team are doing is fantastic for the call center industry, disabled veterans and the corporations who hire these vets. In the long run I hope there is some certification a company can proudly display if a certain percentage of their workers are made up by disabled veterans (and perhaps other groups as well). This emblem could be a sign of the compassionate company doing good for their country and humanity. In the end of course companies primarily focus on profit but if we can find ways to incent companies to not only be profitable but to give back to society, we have a true win/win formula on our hands.


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