For the past couple of years, Suzy has more or less kept the same routine. By day, she serviced customers at a large brick-and-mortar contact center. Three nights a week, she attends classes at the nearby college. Between work and school, she has little time to herself, but the contact center job has always worked well with her schedule.
Then came the COVID-19 crisis, and almost overnight, her busy, but familiar, routine started to get complicated. Suzy’s supervisor told her she would need to start working from home. Her college classes moved online and before she knew it, she’d spent an entire week without leaving her apartment. And after two years of doing things the same way at work, she started fielding calls from a small desk in the corner of her bedroom.
The company’s new cloud platform was simple enough to work with — she had little trouble answering customer calls or solving queries in a live chat as management had given her a laptop and a headset and nothing else was needed to perform her work technically — but how could she get some extra help if she needed it? Amid the scramble to keep the contact center up and running, the company managed to get calls routed to her at home, but little training on how to run her day was provided.
To make matters worse, customers seemed to have all sorts of new problems that Suzy never had to deal with before. A person with a broken smartphone used to walk into the Verizon store, but now that shop was closed, and they needed to troubleshoot hardware over the phone. A second customer called in worried that her automatic bill pay would try to withdraw funds from her bank account before she received her first unemployment check.
Call volume was up. Callers had new problems. Suzy was working on a new platform, and she was isolated from her friends and colleagues. Like everyone else in the contact center industry, Suzy found herself in the eye of a perfect storm.
Are your managers prepared?
While the details undoubtedly vary, tens of thousands of contact agents dealt with similar transitions starting in March. Companies that were already dabbling in remote work could make a relatively smooth transition, but so many more were caught flat-footed. Any contact center that hadn’t invested in technology or training found themselves even less adaptable. Lucky for them, it’s not too late to pivot — although the time is now.
The right technology solutions make community management easier, but this still depends on supervisors adapting to the new remote working reality. Good leaders can harness the power of these tools to benefit agents and customers. That means building encouragement into the everyday schedule to keep the team powering forward. It demands that supervisors recognize the unique challenges facing individual agents.
In the old office setting, Suzy’s supervisor started and ended the day with a stand-up meeting. In a remote working environment, shared video meetings can fill a similar role. They structure the workday, bring the remote team together, and offer agents a forum to talk about the day ahead. Similar meetings to close out the day end things on a high note, celebrate successes, and build camaraderie.
The right supervisor might tweak her working hours to help adapt to the inconveniences at home or simply hear Suzy out while offering some extra words of encouragement. Taking an interest in people and helping them work through problems is all the more important when workers feel disconnected from the rest of the team.
Amid this new normal, supervisors must err on the side of over-communication and maximize the tools they have at their disposal. Video conferencing helps leaders speak to the whole team at once, but is equally valuable for making eye contact during a one-on-one meeting. The chat functions on a cloud platform are adept at mass messaging or checking-in on an individual agent that is having a particularly bad day. Personal connections do not necessarily occur in-person.
Are you staying connected?
Companies with a remote working culture and platform already in place more easily adapted amid the COVID-19 crisis. While everybody else was left playing catch-up, technology — well-deployed — can accentuate and scale-up a company’s primary strengths.
The credit card company Discover already had 23% of its contact center agents working remotely before the coronavirus outbreak. While other contact centers were still scrambling to adjust, at the end of March, Discover boasted an average response time of 74 seconds. In fact, their remote working culture was sufficiently robust to absorb the literal shock of a 5.7 magnitude earthquake that struck their Salt Lake City contact center in the middle of shifting 8,000 agents to their homes.
Bank contact centers, meanwhile, saw a 36.2% jump in call volume between January and March — while average customer wait times ballooned to 40 to 90 minutes. Given no choice but to adapt, banks and other businesses have adopted many of the platforms and practices already operational elsewhere. In more recent months, the average customer wait time has plummeted.
Adapt or die is the mantra of the day — and that goes for agents and supervisors alike. Technology brings the best management practices from the physical to the virtual world. Supervisors who use video and messaging tools keep everybody on the same page and transmit company culture to agents off-site. Well-connected agents can consistently respond to customers without reverting to overly-scripted answers or needlessly passing problems up the chain of command. The right cloud-based platform also keeps agents integrated with the rest of the company, allowing them to quickly reach out to colleagues in product design or technical support with specific questions.
Remember Suzy? Like many of her real-life counterparts, a week or so into her work from home transition, things began to settle down — and a new sense of normality set in. It turned out one of the extra functions on the new cloud platform facilitated an internal live chat that helped her keep in touch with fellow agents. And she came to find that a good number of her colleagues were also dealing with customers who had new, more complex problems. The group was able to share suggested responses on the message board. Suzy got a tip for how to solve a particular customer issue — a colleague had already dealt with the same thing. A few hours later, when that woman waiting on her unemployment check called, Suzy hooked up with the billing department to move monthly payment dates back a week. Problem solved.
Could working from home be … a good thing?
Remote contact centers enable people to work from the comfort of home — and happier agents means happier customers. COVID-19 or not, workers value the increased flexibility, while companies save big on office space. While customers are unlikely to realize they are speaking with a contact center agent working from home, they recognize excellent service when they get it. Suzy’s client wanted to pay his mobile phone bill. With a team rowing in the same direction, the solution was simple enough.
A Stanford University study found that contact center workers were 13% more productive working from home. Meanwhile, a recent experiment at an Italian utility company found that remote workers took fewer days off and met deadlines more consistently than colleagues still working in the central office. The remote agents themselves reported higher levels of satisfaction, increased ability to focus, and said they slept better and felt less stressed.
In the hands of a skilled supervisor, a cloud-based platform means agents working from home can enjoy these benefits and more. Happier, productive agents lead to more satisfied customers. A remote work model cuts out their daily commute. Once on the clock, a cloud-based system platform lets agents jump seamlessly from phone calls to chats with customers, check-in with colleagues on an internal message board, and stay connected with the team. A video meeting to start the day builds momentum, and a wrap-up meeting helps everyone sign off on a high note.
The COVID-19 crisis has accelerated the shift of commerce and customer engagement to the digital space. While this transition was already underway, a wholesale evolution in customer behavior that might otherwise have taken years, instead changed in a matter of weeks. More than five months into social distancing, these habits have codified into the so-called new normal. Now is the time to adjust.
The formula remains the same for the businesses already making the digital leap or the ones now playing catch-up. Serving customers of the future demands that supervisors develop new skills and leverage technology to manage remote agents.
RingCentral is committed to building customer engagement platforms that make it easier for both supervisors and agents to work from anywhere. Managers and supervisors can manage distributed contact center teams scattered throughout the country or around the world. With RingCentral, you have a platform that allows your teams to build a strong remote contact center that gives customers an experience that keeps them coming back.