As companies have come to embrace the concept of at-home (remote) call center agents, managers find themselves struggling with how to oversee this new workforce.
Enterprises constantly struggle to find the right agents to deliver an outstanding customer experience. Some have turned to offshore outsourcers that claim to have an abundance of high-quality agents available for reasonable prices, while others prefer to keep their call center activities domestic, provided they can find agents with the right skills for the job. The remote (at-home) agent business model has proved to be a creative and cost-effective approach to staffing contact centers with skilled, high-quality and loyal employees. It's also a cost-effective method for addressing contingency planning and disaster recovery.
Managers in call centers throughout the U.S. are weighing the benefits and challenges of employing remote agents. As technology is no longer viewed as an impediment, the most significant concern is how to manage remote agents without personal contact from the call center supervisor, particularly for single-site operating environments that have never had agents based in multiple or satellite locations.
Some of the best practices for remote agent oversight have long been used to manage agents in secondary locations. The most important practice is to invest time in hiring qualified agents – individuals who are highly motivated, satisfy all competency and skill requirements, have the right working environment and technology already in place, and are technically savvy and able to troubleshoot at home. My consultancy, DMG Consulting, recommends that contact centers employing remote call center agents use the following best practices for hiring and managing their staff:
- Use a competency-based assessment tool as part of the hiring process to evaluate potential remote agent candidates. This tool should make sure that candidates have the necessary contact center skills and are highly motivated self-starters.
- As part of the interview process, ask agents whether they meet all of the criteria on a remote agent readiness checklist.
- Establish a three-month trial period to determine whether a new hire or a premise-based agent who "transfers" to a remote location can properly perform the job. Whether hiring employees or contract staff, you should make it clear in the agreement that the enterprise has the right to terminate the relationship without cause during this probationary period. (Involve your human resources and legal departments in addressing this issue.)
- Create an online training program that addresses your products, systems and general corporate information. This program can be delivered via an e-learning mechanism or on paper, but it must test the agent's knowledge. Supervisors must be available to review and assist remote agents with training challenges.
- Give remote call center agents the same training opportunities as premise-based staff. If you generally put new hires in a protected pod for the first two weeks after they come out of training, do the same for the remote agents. Be sure to make a supervisor available, particularly immediately following the initial training.
- Establish and document job responsibilities, requirements, procedures and policies. This document needs to address all standard operating policies plus specific remote agent requirements.
- Establish a formal communication process between supervisors and remote agents. The process should include a daily conversation with the supervisor or manager. It's critical that management adhere to this schedule. Remote agents must also be made aware of the process for escalating inquiries to supervisors. (It's recommended that premise-based and remote agents follow the same escalation procedures.)
- Use chat for handling the majority of agent inquiries. Supervisors need to be available to respond immediately to chat inquiries from agents.
- Ensure that remote agents have access to all product and service information, whether it's online or paper-based. If paper-based, the documents should be shipped to remote agents as part of their set-up process.
- Establish a defined number and frequency of quality monitoring (QM) sessions for remote agent evaluations. Provide regular, scheduled feedback on agent performance, covering both strengths and coaching on performance opportunities. It's important to involve remote agents in all quality-monitoring and training-related activities.
- Reward remote agents for performance excellence, just as you would premise-based staff.
- Ensure that remote agents have access to performance management reports and quality assurance (QA) evaluations for self-managing performance.
- Include remote agents in all team meetings and up-training activities. It's recommended that remote agents be part of an agent team that includes both remote and premise-based staff. If your staff is 100% remote, run team meetings at least once a week to keep staff connected and interacting with one another.
- If your center is using both premise-based and remote agents, pair agents to ensure and reward cooperation. Be creative in identifying ways to promote a sense of "connectedness" or "team spirit" for agents who work at home. If you are having a holiday party at the site, be sure to communicate this to remote agents so that they have time to prepare and join in, if they choose. Do not leave them out just because they are not on-site.
About the author
Donna Fluss is the founder and principal of DMG Consulting LLC, a firm specializing in customer-focused business strategy, operations and technology services for Global 2000 and emerging companies. Ms. Fluss is a recognized thought leader and innovator in CRM, contact center and real-time analytics. For over 23 years, she has helped end users build world-class differentiated contact centers and vendors develop high-value solutions for the market. She is the author of the book, "The Real-Time Contact Center" and many leading industry reports, including the 2006 and 2007 Speech Analytics Market Report and the annual Quality Management/Liability Recording Product and Market Report.