Written by Patty Rasmussen Tuesday, May 29 2012
Snapshot: Kim Houlne, President & CEO of Working Solutions
Kim Houlne knew she wanted to be in control of her own destiny but wasn’t sure what that would look like, career-wise. Turns out, it looks like Working Solutions, the Plano, Texas-based company Houlne founded in 1996. Working Solutions provides companies looking to control costs in tech support, customer service or other customer interactions with virtual contact centers staffed by a network of qualified, well-educated, independent home-based agents.
In creating Working Solutions, Houlne tapped into several business trends; corporations’ out-sourcing and off-shoring of customer contact centers, emerging technology — especially the internet and the desire of workers, particularly women, for more flexibility in their working schedule. The result is an innovative business model leaving more than a few people shaking their heads asking, “Why didn’t I think of that?”
Houlne, the company’s president and chief operating officer, led Working Solutions on a remarkable growth trajectory — over 40 consecutive quarters of positive net income — with no signs of slowing down. Clients include Dell and Office Depot, among many others. She was named one of “25 Women to Watch” in 2007 by Women for Hire magazine and lives in Plano with her husband, Tim, the CEO of Working Solutions, and two children.
Womenetics: What inspired you to start Working Solutions?
Kim Houlne: I began as a marketing and product development consultant, leading product development teams across the country for major health care carriers. I thought if I could lead remote teams, maybe there was something more to it. This was back in the early 1990s when the Internet was just kicking in. My husband (Tim) worked for a company that had access to some technology that would allow us to direct calls to remote agents in their homes. My first thought was, “Who is going to want to sit around and answer the phone all day long?” but I was sorely mistaken — to my advantage. I put up a website looking for folks who had professional experience and a higher level of education. I went into labor with my first child and when I came back, I had over 500 people who were interested in the work. I thought, “Well shoot. I guess I need to find some customers!” That’s how it all started.
Womenetics: Where did you find your customers?
Houlne: I used the avenues I could, which at that point meant going through municipalities and states (governments) that were looking for women contractors. I found a fantastic project with the city of St. Louis. We did a market research project for them, determining whether a proposed “Live, Work, Play” development would be successful in a traditionally underdeveloped area. We looked for agents in the St. Louis area who could survey folks - their own neighbors, if you will — to find out whether it would be a success. The presentation (including Working Solutions data) was successful, and I believe that area has been fully redeveloped and is thriving. I feel pretty proud that we were part of that. It was our first sign that this business could actually work. After that it was, “What’s our next project?” We held on to agents who were very loyal to us, and I felt very committed to finding more work for them. Things just blossomed from there.
Womenetics: Your business, creating virtual call centers using home-based agents, was a new idea. Was it a hard sell?
Houlne: I’d say it wasn’t a hard sell because we worked ourselves into a niche. When we started in 1996 there were some areas of the country that had very low unemployment. Businesses were having trouble finding people to do market research or telephone surveys or whatever the task happened to be. That was what we were able to do - find very talented, well-versed people all over the country to process information. That was the value. Because we were working with a large labor pool of independent contractors, using a database of agents from all over the country, we were able to match talents with various projects in the queue. By providing that match, clients were happy with the work that was done. We went through different phases. About four or five years into our business, large businesses began cutting costs and sending things off shore, so that was another element.
Womenetics: How did you fund your start-up?
Houlne: I love answering this question. I am very conservative with cash. I would much rather go to Marshalls and find the best deal ever than spend money at Neiman Marcus. I get much more pleasure out of finding a great deal. That’s how I operated the business. We only spent money we had. In terms of initially starting the company, it was [built] by the bootstraps. I leveraged a lot of credit cards. We talked to many investment bankers and, again, this was back in the day when a service was not sexy and attractive. You had to have the latest cool Internet gadget that may or may not be successful; people were making money off of concepts. I actually had a business that was thriving and went down that road to try to acquire capital but found it to be too time-consuming. It took me away from the customers, the agents. I decided the route we’d take was to develop a very strong banking relationship, and that’s what we did. We interviewed banks to find out who could be our banking partner. We still have that same partner after all these years. They latched onto what I was trying to do and stood behind it and have supported us.
Womenetics: How do you plan? What sorts of trends do you look at to plan for the future?
Houlne: The biggest point in our plan right now is scaling. For 15, 16 years we’ve done a great job of servicing the customers we have, and we have some fairly large accounts. Now I’ve got to go up against the IBMs and Xeroxs of the world - companies who know what they’re doing and are doing it well. We have to strategically plan to make sure we’re able to scale flawlessly.
The one trend we’re preparing for are the changes in phone consumering, or people using the phone to complete a transaction. New interactions are taking place - texting and the use of social media. We have to be prepared to move into that phase of our business. That’s where we’re spending a lot of time right now. You or I may pick up the phone to call customer service or tech support, but my 16-year-old son is going to reach out to Facebook. Or he’ll Bing it or Google it to find out his answer, which usually is found on YouTube.
Womenetics: What about training your agents? How do you make sure they’re staying up on everything they need to stay up on, or is that something they do on their own?
Houlne: They come to us with the know-how - tech support for example, or customer service or sales. We prepare them on that specific client and the client’s request for how to process and service their customers. Most of our prep for agents is done through web interaction — live web meetings. We do screen sharing. Everything that’s done in a classroom can be done virtually. Technology is a wonderful thing.
Womenetics: Since they’re working at home, how do you maintain the quality of the agents once they’re vetted and trained?
Houlne: We’re very clear on setting our objectives up front. Agents know what they need to do to perform well. If it’s a sales role, they know what we’re expecting from a prospective or close ratio perspective. If it’s delivering customer service, they know what the customer satisfaction scores should be. In tech support, they know how many cases they should resolve. Following through, individual clients can listen in on phone conversations or monitor chat sessions; customer satisfaction scores are passed on. Our biggest priority is making sure the agents knows what the goal is up front, and more often than not they can reach those goals.
Womenetics: What is the essential element in your business — the idea was certainly unique at the time, but how do you keep it fresh?
Houlne: Two or three things come to mind. We are committed to bringing our clients the “best of the best.” We have some front-end processes we go through in terms of screening and vetting to get the best agents for that client. Creating a great fit and a great partnership brings wonderful rewards. The other piece to keep it fresh is staying on top of changing technology - bringing the “latest and greatest” technology to our clients and delivering it in such a way that it’s not cost prohibitive. And most importantly, we are committed to our agent community. We’re always looking out for their best interests, and because we have a great partnership, they’re going to continue to do great things as a unit.
Womenetics: It sounds like an exceptionally good business for working moms. How many women agents do you have?
Houlne: I’d say 60 percent of our agents, or greater, are women. The primary reason they choose to work in this environment is flexibility. We offer a flexible option that many women can’t find in today’s workforce. Many are caring for elderly parents, or they require the flexible hours to meet the needs of their family. We allow agents to set their own schedule. If they need a kind of crazy schedule, that’s okay with us. We have a scheduling process that works backwards. We throw out the open hours, and agents pick and choose what they want. There are no two people alike. Everyone has a different schedule.
Womenetics: Is there a personal or treasured item that you keep in your workspace? What’s the story behind it?
Houlne: I’ve kept every thank you card I’ve ever received since I’ve been in business. I have a collection out right now. After about a year, I’ll put them in the credenza and recycle the collection. It means so much to me that someone says thank you.
Womenetics: How do you unwind? Do you have hobbies?
Houlne: I love playing tennis. I’ve played with a group of ladies in a league on Saturdays for a long time. So I look forward to Saturday morning, playing tennis then going to lunch. And I love flower gardening, love watching them grow through the spring and summer, tending the garden. It’s something I can control. I can’t control my kids anymore, but if I water a flower it will grow.
Here are a few more women to watch as they climb the ladder of success:
Delia Champion went from being a waitress to making her dreams a reality with the creation of two successful restaurant brands.
After spending 30 years in the U.S. Navy, Mary Evans followed a new path, leading her to become the President and CEO of the American Red Cross.
A native of Venezuela, Sonia Clayton made it her business to create and head her own successful IT company, Virtual Intelligence Patterns. Learn more about how she's living the American Dream.
Patty Rasmussen is an Atlanta-based freelance writer. She spent 12 years covering the Atlanta Braves for ChopTalk Magazine and has written for Major League Baseball publications, Georgia Trend magazine, WebMD and Blue Ridge Country.