Tom Hammond is one of many executives sending contact center agents home. Hammond, vice president of customer experience management at The Hartford, says he plans to have about 700 of his 2,500 agents work from their homes this year.
Others are following suit because the at-home model keeps costs down, creates a happy workforce, and allows businesses to pull from a larger pool of qualified candidates. But companies cannot lose site of keeping agents engaged in their corporate culture and up to date on their products and brands, no matter where they sit.
Tim Whipple, vice president of Liveops' virtual call center, says success with the remote model relies on actively engendering loyalty with at-home agents. Liveops employs 20,000 independent agents who contract their service to Liveops and handle inbound phone calls for 200 clients. The company has built a virtual work environment into its business model. As part of that model, Liveops has taken several steps to keep its agents engaged.
First, each remote agent is assigned a facilitator-an in-house employee who provides a personal connection to the company. "I look at them as a concierge or business coach," Whipple says. "Being able to contact an employee-to have somebody who can coach you through tough times-that's another level of peer connection."
In addition, Liveops leverages internal message boards where agents can collaborate to solve problems. And if agents come across a technical problem or question they can't answer, they can pop up a live chat application. "In a call center, the way you answer the question is you sit in a queue and a hand goes up," Whipple says. With chat, he says the intimacy levels are higher because he can hold conversations with individual agents.
The message boards and other crowdsourcing applications are valuable ways to get agent feedback, Whipple says, adding that remote agents receive feedback quickly. "If something flares up in a forum, they are very noisy about it. It seems like we can put out fires in hours rather than days or weeks," he says.
Beth Haley, a cofounder of remote agent consulting firm Moving Beyond Bricks, says engaging with remote agents and bringing them into the culture comes down to management. "Managers need to learn new techniques to stay in contact and feel a part of the team," she says. "For example, if they're accustomed to holding team meetings or huddles, they need to use the technology that's available and communicate that way."
To indoctrinate at-home agents in the company's core values, the best approach is to bring the reps into the office to see how the company operates, adds Krystal Sautter, also a cofounder of Moving Beyond Bricks. "Once they visualize how people are interacting and hearing the message around the core values...that's when it really sinks in. From there, send them home for the rest of the training," she says.
ConAgra Foods, for example, created an entirely remote contact center staff when it switched from an outsourced model one year ago, Haley says. The center followed Haley's recommendation to keep its 83 at-home agents within a 50-mile radius of the company's headquarters in Omaha, NE. Being close to headquarters meant Haley could bring the agents into ConAgra Food's culinary kitchens in Omaha and conduct product training with the innovation managers-the people who actually created the products. These visits helped the agents become subject matter experts and better understand the products. "It really hit home with them," Haley says.
After one year ConAgra saved $1 million from the switch, and Haley adds that the move also resulted in an improved customer experience, lower turnover, increased productivity, and reduced absenteeism.
The right employee creates the right culture
Sometimes all the training and onsite indoctrination in the world won't help to bring a remote agent into a company's culture. Drew Judkins, vice president of market strategy for InContact, says companies must first hire the right person and the employee must be well aware of what the job entails. "It can be fairly stressful," he says. In addition, scheduling needs to be a collaborative process. Giving them synergistic tools, Judkins explains, makes them feel part of the team.
As more younger people enter the workforce, companies will have to look more carefully at the remote model and adhere to at-home best practices, adds Sautter of Moving Beyond Bricks. "The new generation needs to interact differently. We can't force them into a tiny cubicle. They want to feel more like individuals," she says. "We have to put back a sense of trust in the workplace, especially in the contact center. That function has been a command and control type of environment and we need to get away from that."