Note: This post is a continuation of prior posts on complex, adaptive systems. This post focusses on the virtual workplace, the virtual retailer, the virtual employer, and their myriad manifestations in today’s world. These particular complex, adaptive systems will have the ability to rapidly expand or contract based on demand. And this is the point of this post: to explore the notion of “on demand”.
Its so obvious …. but, then again, its not so obvious: “on demand” is the drumbeat of daily life. But the 21st century is putting the notion of “on demand” on steroids!
What is “on demand”?
I want a glass of wine, right now. I either pour myself one, buy one, or ask someone else to pour me one. “On demand”.
I need a hotel room, right now. Hotels inventory rooms. I rent one. “On demand”.
I need to haircut, right now. Barbers are open for business. I visit one. They are not busy so they take me. I buy the haircut. “On demand”.
Note that “on demand” wine needs an open bottle of wine to be available; the hotel room requires a hotel; the haircut requires a barber open for business;
In the 21st century, it seems clear to me that “on demand” will morph into smaller, more flexible slices. Consumers and companies will be able to purchase these slices when they want them, for as long as they want them.
It’s happening at lightning speed! There are so many examples. You can find them everywhere, in:
On Demand Transportation
The point: in the 20th century, you had to rent a car or bike or ride for a day from a business location, and now you can rent it for exactly as long as you want it from a street location.
Uber revolutionized the taxi business when they broke the paradigm and said “Effectively immediately, and car with driver can pick up a passenger and get paid to take them somewhere.” From a passenger’s POV, the result is revolutionary: I can get anywhere I want, anytime I want, by simply alerting a central intelligence on-line that I need ride from x to y at z time.
Every major city now rents bikes. Grab a bike at one stand and leave it at another stand. Take the bike from x to y at z time.
ZipCars are on-demand cars.
On Demand Work
The point: in the 20th century, you either had a job or you didn’t. Now you can have a job for a half hour of your choosing. “Temporary Help” agencies filled any gaps – when the job-holder was unable to work.
LiveOps revolutionized call center management by organizing workers to be available when the client wants the worker, for as long as the client wants the worker. They keep workers trained and on–the-ready, so they can deploy them virtually as needed.
On Demand Work Space
The point: In the 20th century, you worked someplace and employers employed workers in workplaces. Today workplaces are built for flexibility, so many employers can do their work with employees when they need the workplace and how they need the workplace for as long as they need the workplace.
Metro Studios and others are replacing the Hollywood “studio” with a flexible studio. Studios in the past built spaces for their filming needs. Metro Studios works with any client that will rent their massive spaces – for as long as the client needs the space, and not longer. Note that the “Studio” is a big box, easily repurposed to a warehouse or distribution center or big box store if demand shifts.
“Co-working” is exploding, and has revolutionized office work. A co-working space can be sized up or down as demand requires, for as long as demand requires. Co-working can suit the individual virtual worker, who can come in as they wish and stay as long as they wish. But, importantly, more and more companies are using co-working facilities in order to have flex space that suits them.
Self-storage is exploding, giving companies and consumers the ability to get storage space when they want it, for as long as they want it.
On Demand Housing
The point: Hotels, long term rentals and short term rentals will have their place in tomorrow’s economy but ordinary people with extra space in their houses will make places available when, where, and however long they are needed.
AirB&B and VRBO have revolutionized the way we access temporary housing. Go on line, check out who’s offering what, and when, and then make your selection.
On Demand Entertainment
The point: entertainment was made available at a certain time, at a certain place (a concert venue, a movie theater, a movie channel, or a TV channel). No longer. Increasingly, consumers will get what they want, when they want it, for as long as they want it.
Netflix revolutionized on demand movies by letting consumer get what they want when they want it. They started with on-line movie rentals that requires physical shipping of CD’s, but rapidly moved to on-line downloads and streaming. Amazon is chasing them, but with amazing speed.
Cable companies are perfecting “on demand” movies. Select the movie you want and when you want to view it (including immediately), and press “play”.
Amazon is perfecting “on demand” books. Select the book you want, and how you want to read it, and press “buy”. Download and start reading right now. No shipping. No library schlepping.
On Demand Tools
The point: In the 20th century, the norm was “if you want a tool, buy it and put it in a safe place until you need it. The norm is changing to “when you need a tool, order it up for as when you need it, for as long as you need it.”
Home Depot and Loews both have lucrative side businesses that allow businesses and consumers to rent the exact tool they need for as long as they need it.
On Demand Medicine
The point: in the 20th century, when you needed a doctor, you would call the office and make an appointment. If it was urgent, you would beg for the appointment to be sooner rather than later. We are not yet at an inflection point, but the trends seem clear enough: if you need a doctor, you can get a doctor – when you need it, and through the medium that makes the most sense to you.
CVS and Walgreen’s both are perfecting the mini-clinic. Modeled after the convenience store revolution of the 1960’s, mini-clinics are inside the store, and require a sign-up sheet, and that’s all. If the doctor is available, they will see you.
Telemedicine is taking full advantage of Skype and other two-way video conference platforms. In the best case, a patient’s blood work, vital signs, and medical history can be on-line while the patient is online, so the doctor can have as much context as possible. And when the doctor also has a genetic history, in the future a myriad of risks that cannot be currently understood will be known.
Other examples of “On Demand”
On Demand Meals Fast food showed the way to drive-throughs; Then Domino’s showed the way to pizza “on demand” – when you want it, how you want it. Yesterday, this was delivered to my house: a spaghetti made out of squash, in a coconut curry, with a fresh salad and lasagna for the kids. Costs a bit more, but so worth it!
On Demand Internet There are no good examples at the present time, but isn’t it plausible that the average consumer could summon ultra-high-speed internet “on-demand”? The consumer is just fine most of the day with low-speed internet, for emails and searches, etc. But if they want to watch a movie, an want to avoid slow downloads, or breaks in streaming quality, then they are happy to pay for “express lane service”.
On Demand Inventory This is old news, but further illustrates the mega trend: procurement can now demand that materials and components contracted and scheduled arrive when and as needed, minimizing inventory carrying costs.
On-demand Event Space
There has always been a demand for highly flexible event space. This is the world of clubs, hotels, etc, where it is usual to build a big box in your space that can be outfitted to a client’s needs. Today, though, that has been professionalized through companies like Convene, who specializes in this business.
========================== APPENDIX ==========================
On-Demand Work Articles and Commentary
The New York Times article below refers to a mega-trend: on-demand work. The author refers to it as a “tectonic shift in how jobs are structured“.
The focus of the article is Liveops, but this is only illustrative of this larger trend. https://www.liveops.com. Their competitor is https://workingsolutions.com .
On their front page, LiveOps says: “It’s a highly skilled workforce of virtual agents who flex to meet customer needs.”
On-demand work is exploding in customer service call centers and sales.
Some points I found interesting:
Roughly 3,000,000 Americans find work this way – as independent contractors working on a virtual basis.
Since 2001, apparently the move to outsource call centers to India has reversed. Today, the focus is on quality, and so the new trend is toward employing American workers, on a contract basis, and on a virtual basis.
They are only paid while on the phone. This is roughly 75% of the time they “commit” (“commits” are made in half hour blocks)
Top performers get the first call. “Performance-Based Routing, so the top-performing agents on your programs get more calls. By aligning our agents’ incentives with your goals, each agent who answers the call will be invested in your business objectives. What’s more, you won’t be paying call centers for idle time.”
Clients hire LiveOp. In this article, TruStage Insurance is the client.
Liveops CEO is Greg Hanover. Their competitor, Working Solutions, was founded in 1996. LiveOps says they have 20,000 agents, which they refer to as “Liveops Nation”.
“We hand-pick our agents for their great phone voices and warm and friendly personalities.”
“Scalable and flexible contract center outsourcing – leveraging an on-demand distributed network.”
Plugging Into the Gig Economy, From Home With a Headset
A company called Liveops has become the
Uber of call centers by doting on its agents.
But is the work liberating, or dehumanizing?
By NOAM SCHEIBERNOV. 11, 2017
DURHAM, N.C. — The gathering in a private dining room at a Mexican restaurant had the fervent energy of a megachurch service, or maybe an above-average “Oprah” episode — a mix of revival-style confession and extravagant empathy. There were souls to be won.
“By the end of the day, Kelly’s going to be an agent,” the group’s square-jawed leader said. “Kelly went through the process a while ago, then life happens, now she’s back. Her commitment to me that she made earlier, she looked me right in the eyes and told me she’s going to be an agent.”
Paradise, for these pilgrims, lies at one end of a phone line.
The company behind this spectacle, Liveops, had invited several dozen freelance call-center agents to a so-called road show. Some of them may have answered your customer-service calls to Home Depot or AAA. All were among the more than 100,000 agents who work as independent contractors through on-demand platforms like the one Liveops operates, which uses big data, algorithms and gamelike techniques to match its agents to clients. What Uber is to cars, Liveops is to call centers.
The agents are part of a tectonic shift in how jobs are structured. More companies are pushing work onto freelancers, temps, contractors and franchisees in the quest for an ever more nimble profit-making machine. It is one reason a job category seemingly headed offshore forever — customer service representatives — has been thriving in call centers and home offices across the United States, supporting roughly three million workers.
While critics of the arrangement cite rising insecurity, some of Liveops’ star agents — like Emmett Jones in Chicago, who knows of his rivals primarily as numbers on a leader board — say the opportunity has been transformative.
The earnest gratitude of the agents assembled here, not far from the Raleigh-Durham Airport, affirmed that. To them, Liveops is a sustaining force, a way to earn a living while being present at home. A few had driven hours to attend. Many brought friends and family members who were considering joining “Liveops Nation,” too.
There were icebreakers (“Liveops Nation Bingo”). Gift-card raffles (“$150?” the chief executive quipped. “Who approved these things?”). Free enchiladas. Everyone was invited to schmooze.
“John, I heard your story about how you got to us is pretty great,” said the master of ceremonies, an impossibly sunny woman named Tara. “Would you mind telling all these people?”
When the mic came to John, a former insurance claims adjuster with a gray beard and several earrings, there was a sense of imminent revelation.
“I was working in another glass box over near here for six years,” he began. “I reached the point where it was either jump off the roof or walk out the front door.” The other agents laughed knowingly.
He continued: “My commute now is I walk down the hall, close the bedroom door behind me.” More laughter.
Then John’s voice softened: “This is good, this is good. I get paid for when I’m working, instead of souring when you get paid for 40 hours and work some more. So, I’m here.”
“Awesome,” Tara said, applause drowning her out. “I feel like John’s story mimics a lot of what we hear from people.”
According to Greg Hanover, a longtime Liveops official who became chief executive this summer, the company’s goal is to make agents feel as if they’re part of a movement, not just earning a wage.
“Where we want to be with this is what Mary Kay has done, multilevel marketing companies,” Mr. Hanover said, referring to the cosmetics distributor and its independent sales force. “The direction we need to head in for the community within Liveops Nation is that the agents are so happy, so satisfied with the purpose and meaning there, that they’re telling their story.”
It’s an ambition that feels almost radical compared with Uber, whose best-known exercise in worker outreach is a video of its former chief executive berating a driver. It was heartening to discover that on-demand work could be both financially viable and emotionally fulfilling.
That is, until I began to speak with Mr. Jones and some of his Liveops competitors. The more you talk with them, the more you detect a kind of Darwinian struggle behind the facade of community and self-actualization. You start to wonder: Is there really such a thing as a righteous gig-economy job, even if the company is as apparently well intentioned as Liveops? Or is there something about the nature of gig work that’s inescapably dehumanizing?
Just the Right Tone
Mr. Jones, who lives in Chicago, was the top rated Liveops agent for an insurer called TruStage for much of this year.
An AT&T technician for decades, he decided that he needed to be at home not long after his wife was diagnosed with vertigo in 2008. “I can’t work and be worried about how she’s doing,” he said.
A few years later, when his daughter told him of a friend who worked with Liveops, he was eager to sign up — but refused to send in his required voice test until it was close to perfect. “I must have did the voice test four or five times,” he said. “I wanted to make sure I gave the right tone that they were looking for.”
As a Liveops agent, Mr. Jones sells life policies to callers, often those who have just seen a television commercial for TruStage insurance. He estimates that he works roughly 40 hours each week, beginning around 8 most mornings, and that he makes about $20 an hour. He is such a valued worker that TruStage invited him to its headquarters earlier this year for a two-day visit by an elite group of agents, in which executives pumped them for insights about how to increase sales.
Roughly two decades ago, Liveops and its competitors typically connected callers to psychic hotlines, and in some cases less reputable services. Such businesses had frequent spikes in call volume, making it helpful to have an on-demand work force that could be abruptly ramped up.
“The only thing people were interested in was the abandonment rate” — that is, the number of people who would hang up in frustration from being kept on hold — said Kim Houlne, the chief executive of a Liveops rival called Working Solutions, which she founded in 1996.
The call center industry took a hit during the 2001 recession, when cost consciousness unleashed a wave of outsourcing to India. But within 10 years, many companies decided that the practice, known as offshoring, had been oversold. The savings on wages were often wiped out by lost business from enraged customers, who preferred to communicate with native English speakers.
“People don’t feel comfortable,” Ms. Houlne said, alluding to the overseas agents.
By the early part of this decade, quality was in fashion. The enormous amounts of data that companies like Liveops and Working Solutions collect allowed them to connect callers to the best possible agent with remarkable precision, while allowing big clients to avoid the overhead of a physical call center and full-time workers.
Today, in addition to sales calls, Liveops agents handle calls from people trying to file insurance claims, those in need of roadside assistance, even those with medical or financial issues relating to prescription drugs. The agents must obtain a certification before they can handle such calls, which sometimes takes weeks of online coursework.
Liveops goes to great lengths to attend to their needs, addressing technical-support issues, even answering agents’ emails to the chief executive within 24 hours.
Mr. Jones, like many of his fellow agents, thinks of himself as helping others in need. He said that many families will gather around a table after a loved one has died to discuss the burial. If the deceased relative had no insurance, he said, “A lot of times that table is going to clear.” If, on the other hand, he had even $2,000 in life insurance — the minimum that TruStage sells — “the family members are more inclined to say, ‘He did what he could, let me see what I could do to help out.’ You end up with $5,000 to $6,000. You can do a decent burial rather than none at all.”
Still, there is undeniably a brass-tacks quality to the work. Shortly after we hung up, I turned my attention to an assignment due that afternoon, only to receive more calls from Mr. Jones’s number. When I finally answered, he apologized for interrupting me, then came to the point. “I have a question for you,” he said. “Do you have life insurance?”
‘Where the Price Point Is’
Like Uber, Liveops expends considerable effort calculating demand for its agents. For example, if an auto insurance company is running a commercial on ESPN, Liveops will ask the company’s media buyer — that is, the intermediary that placed the ad — to predict how many calls such an ad is likely to generate. Liveops will adjust that prediction, using its own data showing how many calls similar ads have produced from similar audiences during a comparable time of year.
And like Uber, the Liveops focuses on “utilization” — in the Liveops case, the percentage of working agents actually on a call. Depending on the client, Liveops strives for rates of 65 percent to 75 percent. Lower than that and the agents, who make money only when they’re on a call, will complain that they’re not busy enough. Significantly higher and the system is vulnerable to a sudden increase in demand that could tie up the phone lines and keep callers waiting.
Liveops asks agents to schedule themselves in half-hour blocks, known as “commits,” for the upcoming week. If the company expects demand to be higher than the number of commits, it sends agents a message urging them to sign up. (Uber does something similar, except without formal scheduling.) Sometimes it will even offer financial incentives, like a bump in the rate earned for each minute they’re on a call, or a raffle-type scheme in which people accumulate tickets for the giveaway of an iPad or a cruise.
Again like Uber, Liveops relentlessly tests the effectiveness of these tools. Referring to financial incentives, Jon Brown, the Liveops senior director of client services, said, “We’ve zeroed in on exactly what we need for an agent to go from 10 to 15 commits, from 15 commits to 20 commits. We know where the price point is, what drives behavior.”
And then there are the performance metrics. Liveops agents are rated according to what are called key performance indicators, which, depending on the customer, can include the number of sales they make, their success at upselling customers, and whether a caller would recommend the service based on their interaction.
Liveops makes clear that its agents’ ability to earn more money is closely tied to performance. “You’ve heard the term meritocracy?” said a Liveops official named Aimee Matolka at the North Carolina event. “When a call comes in, it routes in to that best agent. Yes, our router is that smart. You guys want to be that agent, I know you do. Otherwise you wouldn’t be here.”
It allows the agents to track their rankings obsessively through internal leader boards. (Liveops officials say that while the pressures of the job can preoccupy agents, it is up to them how much time to invest.)
“I lost the No. 1 spot, now I’m No. 2,” Mr. Jones said in early August, acknowledging that he checks his ranking frequently. “I thought about researching to find out who it is — you always want to know who’s the competition — but I said leave it.”
He added: “I’m a competitive person. We just toggle back and forth. If they see me jump back in, they work harder. They want that spot back.”
‘This Is My Phone Call’
My flight to Bangor, Me., was due after 9 p.m., and apparently sensing my unease with the North Country, the firefighter seated next to me asked if I had to far to drive when we landed. “About three hours north,” I confessed. “Watch out for moose,” he said. I assured him I’d driven around deer before. He stopped me short: If you hit a deer, you’ll kill them, he said. If you hit a moose, they’ll kill you.
I found Troy Carter, the agent who had recently surpassed Emmett Jones, at his home in Fort Fairfield the next day, wearing jeans, a button-down short-sleeve shirt, and a New England Patriots hat. There were no shoes on his feet, only white socks.
Like Mr. Jones, Mr. Carter said Liveops had been a blessing, allowing him to earn a living in a part of Maine so remote that my cellphone carrier welcomed me to Canada shortly after I pulled into his driveway.
When I told Mr. Carter that I had been in touch with his top competitor, he quickly pulled up the latest monthly rankings of Liveops agents selling TruStage insurance. He pointed out that while Mr. Jones, whom he recognized only by his identification number, 141806, had more sales — 87 to his 82 — he had far fewer paid sales, charged at the time of purchase rather than by invoice.
“The real thing is the paid application rate — they want it around 95 percent,” Mr. Carter said. “He has 87 sales, but only 65 percent paid, compared to my 94 percent.” This, he explained, was why he enjoyed the right to call himself the top agent for the month.
Mr. Carter is what you might call a serial entrepreneur. He once started an art supply website that folded within a few months, and a penny auction site called Bid Tree that foundered for lack of a marketing budget.
He sees Liveops, on which he spends 40 to 50 hours per week, as of a piece with these entrepreneurial efforts. In fact, it is something of a family business. His wife, Lori, handles incoming calls while he’s busy with customers. “I’m a housewife/secretary/receptionist,” she said. Even Mr. Carter’s 9-year-old son, Logan, plays a role. “At nighttime, he says the last part of his prayer based on how many sales I did today,” Mr. Carter said. “If it was a lot of sales, he’ll pray, ‘Dear Lord, help my dad get the same amount of sales tomorrow.’”
Though Liveops agents work from a script, Mr. Carter, like Mr. Jones, adds his own flourishes. Before asking a caller’s gender, as he is required to do, he will say, “Now I already know the answer to this question, but please confirm if you’re male or female.” Upon receiving the answer, he will pause momentarily before saying, “I told you I already knew the answer,” and break into a laugh.
He might make this identical joke, with identical timing, dozens of times in a workday. “It’s like a comedian has a little pause before a joke,” he told me. “It relaxes them right off.”
Even with these touches, results can vary widely. Two days earlier, Mr. Carter had made seven sales, only a few shy of his record. The day I turned up, he managed only one. He said some callers had the impression they could receive $25,000 of insurance for $9.95 per month — the commercial mentions both figures — and begged off when Mr. Carter told them that
Mr. Carter has done research on how to comport himself, including watching an instructional YouTube video by the former stockbroker who was the subject of the movie “The Wolf of Wall Street.” He believes the key is to come off as the alpha presence. “The one that asks the most questions is the one in control,” he said. “If they ask me questions — ‘How are you doing?’ — I’ll come back, ‘The question is how are you doing?’ This is my phone call, as much as I can make it.”
But on this day he repeatedly ran up against the limits of his powers. Even those who remained interested after 10 or 15 minutes of painstaking back-and-forth often demurred when Mr. Carter asked them for payment information. “This one guy was outside in a wheelchair,” Mr. Carter said of a caller who couldn’t produce his credit card. “He didn’t want to go in and get it. I said, ‘I’m fine waiting,’ but I can’t push him.”
These setbacks only seem to make Mr. Carter focus more. At one point, he made a swiping motion between his face and his headset with his index finger and middle finger. “They recommend that you keep the microphone two fingers away,” he said. “I’m always doing that — checking that it’s two fingers. I’ll do that for the rest of my life.”
It seemed, all in all, like a grueling way to make the slightly more than $30,000 that Mr. Carter estimates he takes in before taxes. “The good thing is he can take hours off,” Lori told me. “But then he can lose his spot. It’s always a fight for the top.”
I was reminded of the Alec Baldwin monologue from the movie “Glengarry Glen Ross,” except that the prize for having the most sales wouldn’t be a Cadillac, it would be a set of steak knives, because the Liveops analytics team had calculated that agents would give nearly as much effort for a prize worth a small fraction of the cost.
Of course, unlike the salesmen in that movie, the Liveops agents can’t really be fired — the third prize — because they weren’t employees to begin with.
A while later, Mr. Carter described a recent initiative in which agents were promised a bonus if 95 percent of their collective sales were paid up front. “I knew it wasn’t going to work as soon as they said it,” he told me, because a handful of agents with low paid rates could ruin everyone else’s chances.
“They did do a pullover sweatshirt for the top two,” he added, brightening. “I was second, so that’s coming.”
A version of this article appears in print on November 12, 2017, on Page BU1 of the New York edition with the headline: Paradise at the End of a Phone Line. Order Reprints| Today’s Paper|Subscribe