Regulatory Compliance & Risk Management

6 minute read

Do you have the right system in place to sustain a remote call center system through COVID-19?

May 4, 2020

Written by: Scott Mainwaring

Everywhere you turn or click these days, there’s a new story about how COVID-19 is impacting every aspect of the global workforce for the foreseeable future. Thanks to this giant disruptor, such is the case with Fortune 500 financial organizations who’ve uprooted Customer Service Representatives (CSRs) from contact centers into the comfort (or depending on their personality or circumstances, discomfort) of their home.

At this point, your team is likely past the initial transitional phase – you’ve weathered the 30-day shock and scramble, and are acclimating to this novel work-from-home model. As employees begin to find their stride, it's imperative that people managers spend this time evaluating the sustainability of their new system by creating an open dialog about working conditions, obstacles, and performance trends. While each call center and organization is going to be at their own unique point on the change curve, leaders should use these conversations as a means to identify gaps and inform what success may look like in this new normal.

Below are 5 considerations to help managers navigate conversations with remote call center agents during this chaotic climate.

Can the CSR do their job from home?

First, and most apparent, is that for some agents, working remotely simply might not be possible. Whether they voluntarily opt out because they cannot endure the solitary nature of remote work, they’re taking on increased family responsibilities that conflict with normal work hours or share a space that is not conducive to the privacy requirements of the job, managers should be prepared for attrition.  Based on our experience within the space, for employees who began in the office environment and then shifted to work from home, managers should expect that only about 75% of their team will truly succeed in this new environment.

As managers connect with team members, use those conversations as an opportunity to ask probing questions to understand how each CSR is faring and the unique challenges they’re facing.  Not only will this give you the opportunity to collaborate on solutions, deepening your relationship, but it will also give you a better sense for which team members have the capacity and interest to weather the next several months.

If these conversations give you the sense that you may be facing high attrition rates, now is the time to test creative staffing solutions that fit this new, ever-changing environment.  This could be an opportunity to test variations on your staffing model (i.e. an adjustment to shift times, split shifts, or the makeup of the shift) or your team makeup (i.e. moving part or full-time workers who need a change to a different employee category).  The idea here is to play with what you’ve got to better meet the needs of your team.

Does the agent have the necessary tools to work from home?

When your team is working from a single location, there are streamlined processes for communicating company news, sharing training resources, and providing access to the technology (and customer data) that enable CSRs to perform their job seamlessly.  Remote working, on the other hand, requires people managers to be much more deliberate on each of these fronts.

Managers should begin by assessing whether the team has the necessary tools in place to remotely assess and ultimately guarantee that a comparable experience can exist outside of a call center. Looking beyond technology, do your CSRs understand their role in the buying cycle, and are they properly armed to meet customer needs?

As you watch individual CSRs move beyond the initial obstacles of getting set up, establish regular touchpoints to ensure continuity.  CSRs play an important front-line role, whose importance is amplified in uncertain times like these.  Managers should take advantage of this time with the CSR to reinforce that importance and its impact on the company’s reputation, customer satisfaction, and ultimately customer lifetime value.  You’ll likely notice that when CSRs feel valued, they bring more value to your customers.

Have you set clear expectations?

A recent CX Insight report found that having a defined adjustment period goes a long way in terms of easing the transition. Is there a grace period for assessing the CSR and their level of performance? If so, is that 1 week, 30 days, 45 days or longer?

In order to execute a customer-first approach, managers need to take care of their agents first. Given the ever-evolving nature of the COVID pandemic, managers must make a commitment to communication, and what might at times feel like over-communication.

Part of this communication will be setting clear guardrails related to the transition and overall CSR performance. As the expression goes “happy agents yield happy customers,” and a significant part of that happiness stems from a leader who makes sure the agent understands what success looks like (oftentimes with repetition) and guides them through the achievement of said goals. Whether it is expressed over email, via phone, or some form of video communication, establishing a mutual agreement with individual direct reports is imperative to maintaining a close leader-agent partnership.

What do the metrics reveal?

Once you have expectation alignment and you’ve allowed for the agreed-upon adjustment period to pass, it’s time to factor in the CSR’s productivity measurements to gauge how things are trending. This is not about stringently holding team members to pre-COVID numbers.  At least in the early days, watching the metrics is more about observing the trends, and hopefully, they’re trending upward.

We’ve identified 5 key metrics on an agent’s scorecard that call center leaders should pay close attention to:

  • Customer Satisfaction Score (CSAT) – Pandemic or not, this is the metric we’re all paying attention to. And while there are plenty of new external factors impacting customers – personal stressors, longer wait times due to high demand – there are an equal number of opportunities for CSRs to surprise and delight customers by showing empathy and patience.  Make sure to equip agents with resources (i.e. skills as well as small offers/benefits for customers) to handle difficult calls. While we typically see higher CSATs for remote agents, as compared to their brick-and-mortar counterparts, managers should not use those metrics as a baseline, given the unique challenges of COVID.  Instead, managers should be focused on identifying outliers. If you’re seeing relatively steady scores across the team with one of two individuals experiencing significant drops, spend some time with those team members investigating what may be the root of those decreases.
  • First Call Resolution – is the agent’s percentage declining or are they managing to resolve customer issues with no-follow up at similar levels to their pre-COVID-19 performance? Again, it's important to look at how individuals are tracking in context to the broader team. If there an overall drop in average FCR across the entire team, then there are likely broader issues at play.
  • Quality Assurance Measures – Given the whirlwind of change, this is a time to go back to the basics. Make sure to assess agent performance on key items such as caller verification and information accuracy. Misses on core functions may be indicative of further shortcomings or lost opportunities with customers.
  • Agent Utilization – Look at “time logged-in” and “time on the phone with customers” as key productivity indicators. While long lunches or shorter work hours might have been a cost of business in the first week or two, you should expect CSR’s to be at target, if at least 75% of the team is able to achieve utilization targets.
  • Average Handle Time – this metric can be tricky (and shouldn't be looked at in isolation) because of the endless number of variables, but keep an eye on it, especially if it's trending upward. This could be an indication that your CSR is not managing their time – or your customers' time – wisely. If their relative AHT is an outlier compared to your team average, then you may want to consider addressing this concern with your CSR, reminding them of its connection to CSAT and discussing tactics to bring that number into a more reasonable range.

Keeping an eye on the above metrics will not only illustrate how well an individual agent is thriving in a remote role, but it should also serve as a leading indicator of the overall remote contact center performance. If more than 15% of your team is not hitting overall scorecard metrics then again, you may need to dig in to see if there are larger issues – beyond the chaos of COVID – at play.

Is the agent getting the attention and information they require?

According to an ICMI article, overcommunication during uncertain times is key to your agent’s success. While one CSR might prefer weekly video meetings over daily conference calls, another could require greater one-on-one interaction and real-time responses from their manager. As a leader, how are you addressing the agent’s well-being and individual needs?

Managers will likely need to flex a different set of skills – like connecting with an employee over video conference – but when we nail the people piece of the puzzle, we increase retention and improve the bottom line.

While everyone’s situation is unique, it is a leader’s job to know what their team needs and how to help them get it. If an agent is relying more heavily on you or peers to answer customer questions, diagnose where the knowledge gap is occurring or if its illustrative of a broader issue. If an agent falls behind on training, guide them to the information they need and explain how it fits into the bigger picture. Whether it’s fostering a stronger social connection or taking extra time to explain recent corporate communications, make sure you are aware of individual engagement levels and needs during this volatile time.

The good news is that if you take advantage of the natural opportunities this crisis provides to be a good listener and demonstrate empathy, you should walk away from this experience better understanding the needs of your team and the various performers. Yes, the onus is on you – but it’s also an opportunity to double down as a leader. Become a better, more visible manager – one that’s far more accessible and open than when you shared a roof. From adjusting staffing models to providing individualized strategies for agents in need, taking the time to understand the variables, and connect with the individual will help your team navigate the months ahead and maintain business continuity amid the chaos of COVID.

Have you uncovered additional checks to ensure that the right agents are in play as we continue to work remotely? Don’t hesitate to reach out with questions about our process or additional suggestions.