Spotlight on the supervisor

Managing remotely: Transitioning from a physical to virtual contact center


It may seem like ages ago now but think back to those early, chaotic days of quarantine. All of a sudden, your kids were just … home. Like, all the time. That dining room table you otherwise only used at Thanksgiving became a classroom, an office, and a makeshift switchboard. You started ordering your takeout online. Grandma and Grandpa couldn’t make it to that birthday party—so you spent the weekend giving them a crash course on video conferencing. If you weren’t already shopping for groceries online before, you started, and you got to know that Amazon delivery guy on a first-name basis. 

From one day to the next, every interaction with the outside world started taking place digitally—most notably all your experiences as a customer. It was a little strange, but also somehow manageable. Besides, this was all going to be temporary, right? 

Customer service contact centers shut down amid virus concerns—even as online shopping spiked. While your internet provider’s customer service team figured out how to work from home, you and millions of other customers used more bandwidth than ever. And they weren’t alone, pretty much every business, big or small, was scrambling. 

On March 11, T-Mobile had 12,000 customer service professionals working at 17 contact centers around the country. By the end of the month, every single one of them was operating remotely. And during this time, the calls they received grew more and more complicated. An AI company, Tethr, studied one million customer service calls made to 20 large companies from various industries over this period, scoring interactions ranging from “difficult” to “easy.” They found that difficult interactions had more than doubled from before the COVID-19 crisis — accounting for a hefty 20% of all calls. 

These sorts of interactions became increasingly common as contact center agents and managers grappled with new remote working arrangements. In the early days of the shift, supervisors scrambled to keep their team on the same page using a mishmash of Slack, Skype, and email. It quickly became clear this wouldn’t cut it in the long run. Wait times ballooned as many callers reached out with problems that customer service reps couldn’t answer—this new reality meant new, unforeseen issues. One company told Tethr that calls related to financial hardship, a sensitive problem at the best of times, more than doubled in a single week. 

With the COVID-19 crisis disrupting just about all walks of life, it’s clear that commerce, customer service, and working arrangements are undergoing a permanent transformation. From that initial scramble to make do, a new normal is emerging. Whereas most customer service agents used to work in a physical call center with a supervisor on-site, almost all of them are now working from home—and it’s likely to stay that way. 

Serving customers in this new way demands new tools, tweaks to agents’ skill sets, and changed management techniques. Cloud-based contact center management platforms point the way forward in this new normal. They help contact centers transition to the virtual realm, and in the right hands, they have the potential to actually improve the customer experience. You may never have to leave an engagement with contact center service frustrated again. 

Learning on the fly

Even before the pandemic, warehouse-sized call centers were already on their way out. A 2019  Deloitte survey found that 34% of contact centers already had people working from home, and 56% said they planned to move that direction within the next two years. COVID-19 has accelerated that transition, and the rapid pace of change explains the pain points that were so apparent in mid-March. Some companies managed with little disruption; others struggled at first and had to adapt on the fly.  

But make no mistake—this is a permanent shift, and now is the time for supervisors to adjust, if they haven’t already. Supervisors have always monitored interactions between agents and customers from behind the scenes. As always, good managers help agents maximize performance. But new work-from-home arrangements mean quality customer service increasingly depends on a supervisor’s ability to harness technology to manage, motivate, and train people from a distance.  

Walking the floor

Supervisors once walked the contact center floor to keep tabs on agents and gauge the general tenor of operations. Stopping by desks to listen in on the occasional phone call or pat an agent on the back for a job well done helped them connect with the team. That need to create feedback loops and stay connected hasn’t gone away—now it just has to happen digitally. Cloud-based management platforms allow supervisors to see which calls are active at any given time, drop in for a listen and jump from call to call. On occasion, they might see fit to intervene. RingCentral’s platform allows managers to  silently monitor agents without the customer ever knowing. A supervisor might even use the whisper feature to speak to the customer service agent while the agent is on a call to improve service in real-time. 

While this new normal means supervisors lose out on physical interaction with their agents, technology allows them to cover more ground than they ever could have on foot. Supervisors may not be able to chat with agents around the water cooler anymore, but this increased agility means they can connect with more team members each day. Meanwhile, one-to-one video chats can still help build rapport.      

A team effort

In the traditional contact center, each day generally began with the supervisor speaking to the group. That helped give the days structure and create a sense of unity and shared purpose. Now, those meetings take place over video chat, but they remain essential for building a shared feeling of connection. In fact, in an otherwise atomized working environment, it is vital that agents feel that they are valued members of a team. They also need a forum to share collective concerns.

A good supervisor can use meetings like these to motivate their team members and create excitement. They celebrate achievements and keep people feeling good, and that same kind of interaction can continue throughout the day. A good leader might drop occasional messages into a group chat to keep morale up. Meanwhile, agents can use chatting functions to share best practices and tips. Maybe there has been a mixup in the shipping department that affects many customers; keeping customer care agents on the same page helps assure that problems are dealt with in a consistent, repeatable way. Even at a distance, agents have better-than-ever potential for staying connected.

By the numbers

Listening in on calls is essential for supervisors. But even the most diligent manager can only survey a small sample of the overall call volume, and it can be hard to find larger patterns in this scattershot approach. This makes it essential to balance these anecdotal observations with data. Monitoring key performance indicators (KPIs), net promoter scores, and call volume help supervisors track their whole team to maximize performance. Each agent is an individual and, as such, needs to tweak different elements of their approach. 

The right contact center system puts all the data a supervisor needs in the same place. It helps managers look for patterns and eliminate problems before they start. It also helps make dropping in on calls a lot less random, as data pinpoints agents who need extra training. On the positive side, the same datasets allow supervisors to single out top performers and highlight their methods for the rest of the team.      

Coach ‘em up

A good coach encourages their team and boosts confidence. They make sure everybody is rowing in the same direction. They know when to push someone to maximize a result, but they also recognize when it’s time to pull back. 

Coaching is now more critical than ever in managing remote contact center agent teams. Utilizing “integrated coaching” throughout the day,like short check-ins by video, for example,  make improvement a part of the daily routine. A good coach talks with agents immediately after a problematic call. They engage their agent with open-ended questions. Supervisors learn more about their agents, while agents learn what they need to improve. A good session ends with actionable steps that an agent can take, and the supervisor can use the data mentioned above to circle-back and track improvement.

New tools can make coaching more precise and better integrated with everyday practice. It is one more way that cloud-based platforms facilitate managing from a distance at scale. While translating the best aspects of the old brick-and-mortar contact center into the digital realm is a challenge, this new arrangement offers clear benefits. To be sure, contact center supervisors need to up their game and learn a few new tricks. Still, the combination of technology and a renewed leadership approach makes it possible to boost the quality of customer service. Change can be hard, but it’s often for the better.

That’s where we come in. RingCentral is committed to building customer engagement platforms that make it easier to manage distributed contact center teams scattered throughout the country or around the world. With RingCentral, you have a platform that allows your managers and supervisors to build a strong remote contact center that gives customers an experience that keeps them coming back.

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