Coronavirus has officially kicked the work from home (WFH) trend into a permanent reality — and the call center is no exception. At the outset of the pandemic, as families rushed to stock up on toilet-paper and canned goods, contact center leaders were scrambling to transition customer service agents to remote status.
Now as many as 80 percent of call center agents are currently working from home. At the same time, many businesses have observed unpredictable spikes in demand for support services. Total contact center conversation volume has increased by around 20 percent from mid-February to March, with the most directly-impacted industries, such as airlines and hotels, experiencing call growth of 96 percent and 130 percent respectively. The ability of organizations to meet this demand — to pick up the phone when their customers needed them most — has been directly contingent on how well they’ve been able to make the pivot to WFH.
Many call centers, reliant on rigid policies and on-premise technology, have struggled to turn the ocean liner. The longevity of the pandemic, however, has provided the focus needed to invest in the right mix of people, process, and flexible cloud-based software to better ensure business continuity — not only for two or three more months of remote work from home operations, but for the foreseeable future.
7 Key Strategies to Setting Up Work From Home Call Center Agents For Success
While some customer experience (CX) organizations may have had the necessary contingency plans, IT resources, and infrastructure flexibility they needed already in place, most haven’t been so lucky. According to CIO.com, many have “[struggled] to replicate their CX working environment, including the proper hardware and software necessary to provide call support” in a WFH context.
To overcome the challenges of managing a remote workforce, while maintaining the customer service experience for your customers, you need the right technologies and policies in place to support your teams as they navigate the transition. Here are seven tips for elevating the call center experience for both your remote call center agents and your customers:
1. Be human.
Contact center leaders need to account for mental health difficulties during today's socio-economic challenges. As a supervisor, you should be aware that even agents who have never needed help in the past may require it now. Your call center agents won’t expect you to have all the answers, but empathy, encouragement and transparency will go a long way. Be proactive about providing emotional support, listening to concerns, and clearly communicating organizational goals. That level of authenticity can generate trust, loyalty and engagement within your organization — translating to a positive customer experience for your call center channels.
2. Don’t micro-manage agents. Macro-manage the customer experience.
While it can be frustrating to lose direct visibility into how call center agents are spending their time in a work from home setting, it’s ultimately topline CX metrics like C-Sat and NPS — not any given agent’s keystroke count or time spent browsing Reddit — that speak to your performance. Most front-line customer service reps are doing their genuine best to keep the aforementioned adversities from hindering their ability to serve customers. Rather than breathing down their digital necks — as many businesses now seem to be inclined to do — focus instead on day-to-day customer support KPIs for your call center, like interaction quality and customer satisfaction.
3. Give agents structure and agency.
Forrester has observed that following the pandemic and the move to remote work, companies have had success using “online video game leagues” to “improve social cohesion for at-home agents.” Gamified performance reporting and leaderboards — when properly implemented via contact center tools like Lifesize CxEngage Scoreboard — give remote call center representatives clear goals, recognition, and much needed structure. And because gamified systems are on-demand, they provide a sense of autonomy and control in an otherwise uncertain time.
4. Ensure your virtual call center technology (as well as your people) can adapt to change.
Carefully designed work at home policies do little good if your contact center agents can’t access the tools they need to do their job. It’s critical that contact centers continue to embrace cloud-based solutions that give them the flexibility they need to rapidly bring on new remote agents wherever they may be — and to ensure those solutions equip their agents with the functionality they need to succeed in their remote job.
5. Provide continuous, individual feedback.
Leaderboards are great, but nothing can replace 1:1 feedback. Call Center supervisors need to devote time to personally connect over video, reviewing customer interactions — recorded via quality management tools — to both reinforce that agents are valued, and that their individual performance matters. But remember: for call center agents already working under extreme conditions, knowing they are being closely monitored — especially while at home — can cause additional stress. Be sure to communicate that coaching is a tool to identify where they need help, give them the resources they need, and make them more successful.
6. Video can humanize interactions for agents, as well as customers.
There have been several reports suggesting that video calls can alleviate feelings of social isolation in situations where physical contact is limited. By equipping call center agents to interact with customers over video, you not only provide customers with a more human experience; you provide your agents with one as well — easing cabin fever and WFH isolation. The ability for the customer to turn on their camera opens up a wave of new use cases and support capabilities that heretofore were not possible.
7. Maintain team culture.
For customer service representatives used to taking calls in the contact center — where they can always bounce ideas off their peers in the breakroom or wave over a supervisor when they need help — it can feel daunting to suddenly find themselves working alone. It’s important for managers to find the right combination of group video calls, online chat and low-stress virtual events to continue promoting cohesion and connectivity across their WFH teams.
The Future of the Contact Center
Even as some national and local governments loosen lockdown restrictions, it’s clear that remote work and the distributed workplace is here to stay.
Over the past few months the world’s largest, most successful companies have been making WFH a major part of their organization strategy. From agile tech titans like Google, Facebook, and Apple to stalwarts like U.S. federal agencies, leaders are signaling that they will be allowing — if not requiring — employees to work remotely well into 2021 and possibly beyond.
Call center jobs are also changing. In fact, some employers have taken advantage of this WFH shift to identify new sources of talent that can come online to help handle call volume bursts. The New York Times recently reported that some remote call centers have started to tap into people with disabilities. Which, through the help of organizations like the National Telecommuting Institute, has been creating new opportunities for a historically under-represented population. As companies look for responsible ways to scale their customer support demands to new normals in call volume, people seeking full-time and part-time positions — and equipped with the tools to work from home under a flexible schedule — are finding new opportunities.
Covid-19 has expanded the workforce pool to new geographies and demographics. And organizations' that have invested in the installation of new cloud technologies and call center services are able to expand their contact center reach globally — with the ability to turn on agents anywhere in the world while maintaining or improving their customer service experience.
The ramifications for contact center leaders are clear: those that maximize the benefits and minimize the downsides of managing a largely WFH workforce will attain a distinct competitive advantage in terms of delivering a superior customer experience in a post-coronavirus world.
Work From Home is Accelerating the Need for Cloud Migration
The final takeaway from the WFH exodus is that CX organizations need to become more adaptable — not only to better support remote agents, but to align their methods of customer support to ongoing paradigm shifts in communication. For most organizations, that starts with rethinking their technology strategy. A contact center's reliance on older, on-premise software systems — often requiring on-site staff to physically rack servers in a corporate data center in order to support new demand — has been the primary factor hindering a call center's ability to provide exceptional call center customer service via remote agents.
Prior to the pandemic, contact centers had been “one of the last bastions of on-premises technologies,” as one analyst put it. But that seems to be changing. In 2019, cloud-based Contact Center as a service (CCaaS) was expected to be the preferred deployment model of just 10 percent of organizations, according to Gartner. In 2020, that figure is all the way up to 50 percent — a clear sign that contact center leaders are quickly turning to the cloud to support the shift to the WFH contact center and ensure their organizations are better able to adapt to ongoing shifts in demand, pricing, and customer expectations.