It’s nearly impossible to find someone who doesn’t have a nightmarish story about airline service. Remember when they refused to let you board with a bag that was half-a-pound over the weight limit? Or how about that time your phone was dead, you couldn’t check-in, and they gave away your seat instead?
Even in the best of times, flying is stressful. Between unpredictable weather, lost luggage and missed connections — to say nothing of the uncomfortable seats, terrible food, and expensive upsells — a good deal of customer interactions occur in less than ideal conditions. So it’s no wonder airlines consistently rank low in customer satisfaction surveys.
Quality airline service used to mean lots of help desks at the airport, a pair of pin-on wings for the kids, and a bag of honey-roasted peanuts. But the bulk of communication with airlines now takes place via phone, app, or live chat. Customers often spend more time interacting with a contact center agent before and after they fly than with all the flight attendants, pilots, and gate agents combined. Need a vegetarian meal and can’t find that option on the booking website? Place a call. Stranded in Buffalo because of a blizzard in Chicago? Jump on a live chat and see if there is another connection to get you back home to Denver tonight.
It might shock you to learn that Jet Blue, the airline that consistently tops J.D. Power’s customer satisfaction rankings, has had customer service personnel working remotely since 1999. Those rankings are but one of many signs that point to a growing correlation between remote customer service agents and happier customers. That contact center agent helping you reroute through Dallas used to work in a brick-and-mortar call center, but he or she is now talking you through the changes sitting at their kitchen table due to COVID-19 restrictions. They sound relaxed, and amid the free-for-all outside gate 24B that offers a kind of calming influence.
Feel the difference
Airlines, retailers, tech firms, and just about any consumer-facing business, are transitioning away from traditional warehouse-sized call centers. These once-buzzing hives of activity had become endangered even before the COVID-19 crisis. Now, new social distancing norms are making them extinct. T-Mobile had 12,000 customer service professionals in 17 contact centers around the country on March 11. Within two weeks, every one of them worked from home. Meanwhile, the consulting firm Gardner estimates that 71% of contact centers will exclusively employ remote workers even after the coronavirus disruption ends.
Amid this change, evidence suggests that a combination of the following translate into an improved customer experience:
New management techniques
Improved cloud-based UC and CC platforms
Digital-first engagement strategies
One survey of contact center leadership saw 72% respond that this potent cocktail is markedly improving customer service, while 70% noted agents are more efficient, and 71% cited improved scalability. More importantly, customers say similar things. A study by Microsoft saw 59% of respondents say this new approach has led them to expect better customer service from just a year earlier. That number rises to 70% in the 18-34 demographic, meaning younger generations have even higher expectations during key brand-loyalty development years.
Those numbers make it clear that customers are benefitting from remote working customer service, empowered with new digital tools. The improvements are such that expectations continue to grow, raising the bar ever higher. While that’s great news for consumers, it keeps the onus on businesses to continue evolving. Failure to keep pace means losing customers to competitors.
Getting it done
The consulting firm McKinsey found that successful digital-centric contact centers have seven common characteristics: simplicity, convenience, interactivity, consistency, value, desirability, and brand. Cloud-based contact centers, specifically those with unified communication integrations give remote workers the chance to deliver in all these areas. But the remote working model built on these platforms also directly impacts the customer experience in several ways:
Operating a remote contact center broadens the potential hiring pool. Whereas physical call centers could only recruit agents within commuting distance of the building, remote workers know no geographical bounds. Likewise, skilled people with disabilities who might otherwise have been discouraged by a challenging commute or rigid office conditions face no such misgivings. The same goes for working parents with tight schedules, military spouses who frequently relocate or students looking for part time work. More people competing for a single position gives you more opportunities to hire the best possible agent — and better agents lead to improved customer satisfaction.
Not only do customers prefer interaction with remote agents, but agents also prefer working that way. A Stanford study found that contact center workers were 13% more productive working from home. Remote agents report higher levels of satisfaction, increased ability to focus, better sleep, and less stress. By cutting out that morning commute and arranging their workspaces themselves, agents are more satisfied with their jobs. And since happy workers are less likely to change jobs, the “new normal” means less agent churn in notoriously high agent-specific roles and more experience on your call-center team. And who benefits the most from a happy, experienced team of call-center agents? The customers who call them.
Remember when you called for help with your cable television bill a few years ago? You could hardly hear your agent over the murmur in the background. It was hard to place your finger on why, but the agent felt like they were rushing to get you off the phone. While you eventually solved the problem, the whole experience was stressful and disorienting. It sounded like you were calling a massive call center because you were. But these days, remote agents are likely sitting at home in a comfortable chair. The background noise is limited. The agent’s voice is calm. There is no rush. If you weren’t calling because they overcharged you for HBO (again), you might even consider the whole experience conversational and pleasant.
Agents now use chat functions to share best practices with each other. Maybe a mixup in the shipping department has created confusion for several customers. Staying connected and keeping the team on the same page helps ensure agents can deal with those issues in a consistent, repeatable way. Despite their new physical distance, technology keeps agents better connected than ever before. They may not sit side-by-side anymore, but improved tools mean more opportunities for collaboration. For customers, that means faster, consistent results even if the agent needs to reach out to an expert in another department.
So-called “integrated coaching” happens throughout the day. Short check-ins by supervisors integrate improvement in the daily routine. Management by walking around a physical call center had limitations, making it difficult for managers to cover lots of ground and jump between agents. Agile cloud-based management platforms do away with many such barriers, allowing supervisors to seamlessly move from agent to agent and call to call. A good coach might talk with an agent immediately after a call and engage their agent with open-ended questions. Agents learn what needs improvement and the actionable steps they can take to get there. Those improvements lead to an improved experience for the next customer.
Listening in on calls has long been essential for supervisors, but the sample size can feel scattershot and random. Cloud-based systems allow managers to balance anecdotal observations with data. Monitoring key performance indicators (KPIs), net promoter scores, and call volume mean supervisors maximize team performance. Each agent is an individual and, as such, needs to tweak different elements of their approach. A sound contact center system puts all the data a supervisor needs in the same place. Good managers look for patterns to eliminate problems before they start. They also highlight top performers to share their methods with the rest of the team.
Added flexibility. Not every business operates at full speed for the entire year. Retailers and shipping companies often see increased sales during the Christmas season. Meanwhile, travel companies, airlines, and hotels may see increased interaction with clients during traditional summer vacation months. A remote workforce has the added advantage of allowing a business to adjust the number of agents to seasonal swings in traffic. For instance, extra help for UPS, Amazon, and the U.S. Postal Service during the holidays means grandma’s present gets to her with a minimal hassle. And if there happens to be a problem, it means customers spend a lot less time on hold.
A remote workforce means less office space and lower overhead costs. Businesses can reinvest savings to further improve performance. Instead of spending on desks or copy machines, companies emphasize training, product development, and innovation. Unlike that new microwave in the break room, all of these latter items produce direct benefits for customers. In some cases, it even enables hiring more customer care agents to limit customer wait times.
Less time waiting, smoother interactions with agents, a proliferation of channels that allow customers to connect on their terms, and better-trained teams lead to improved experiences. RingCentral is proud to offer cloud-based platforms that deliver all of these features in a single package. We help managers stay connected with remote agents, agents in touch with one another and the contact center integrated with the rest of the company.
Data shows that remote working arrangements accelerate the shift to a digital first customer service. More importantly remote teams deliver better service. The improvements are such that customers are already demanding more. Businesses that hope to keep up have little choice but to innovate with the times — and we’re here to do our part.