Remote working: Does giving agents more freedom help capture customers?

29th Oct 2012

Ian Cox explores why a growing number of contact centre managers are viewing remote agents as the future of the industry.

With top-level customer strategy demanding so much attention, it’s easy to overlook the agents on the frontline who are interacting with the public on a daily basis. These are the people in charge of customer service delivery and their influence on the success or failure of the company’s approach is incalculable.
Providing the right environment internally is crucial in ensuring that the brand’s character is conveyed clearly, consistently and with genuine passion. All the marketing messages and customer commitments in the world could be rendered useless by a personal experience that is disappointing. The net result may not only be a lost customer but lost advocacy, with shared peer-group opinions, both online and offline, playing an increasingly important role in shaping broader perceptions of an organisation.
What this means for customer service leaders is creating an internal framework where customer-facing staff feel engaged with – and enthused by – the brand identity, empowered to fulfil their role confidently and comfortable with using their own initiative and experience to deal with individual enquiries that may not fit into predetermined categories or routines.
Giving professional teams the tools and support they need to perform can have a dramatic effect on the customer experience.
Technology, so often misconstrued as a barrier to helpful interpersonal communication in the customer services sphere, is increasingly being reappraised as a vital support mechanism.
For example, systems can now be calibrated to individual staff needs, providing heavier scripting to trainees while allowing more experienced team members to converse more freely with customers. To measure performance in a constructive – rather than strict adherence to maximum call times and aggregate figures on call volumes – there are now customer satisfaction surveys which can be activated within the call, providing instant feedback that managers can use as part of their training and development plans.
A growing trend
Taking the freedom theme a step further, remote working is a growing trend in customer service circles.
Recently, reported on a survey from analyst firm Ovum, which predicted that the number of outsourced home agents would double by 2015, primarily in the US but increasingly in other English-speaking countries. Concerns about data security, agent supervision and the difficulties of fostering a team atmosphere across a virtual model were being overcome, said the report.
Remote working is a practice that offers advantages not only to members of staff but also the organisations that employ them – and the customers they serve. That last point makes home working particularly pertinent for those organisations involved in customer contact.
According to figures revealed at a recent Home Working Summit for the customer contact industry in London, around 60% of employees of customer contact organisations in the US are now working from home, and this is expected to rise to 80% by the end of next year.
While the use of home working can reduce operating costs by as much as 20%, it can simultaneously increase efficiency by the same amount, and job satisfaction ratings typically rise by between 35% and 50%.
A survey conducted by analyst Frost & Sullivan in December 2011 found that 68% of UK contact centre managers saw the employment of ‘remote agents’ as a key future trend for the industry.
There are obvious benefits in terms of easing traffic congestion, cutting travel costs and reducing pollution but there’s also growing evidence that giving customer-facing employees the option of working from home can have a profound effect on not only their own job satisfaction but also, by nature, on customer satisfaction too. Studies suggest that productivity, accuracy and task completion can all improve as a result of home working.
Furthermore, home working gives organisations access to a huge pool of untapped talent, including the disabled, young people and single parents, all of whom have a lot to offer, but often have difficulty travelling into offices.
The efficiency savings that can be derived from having a ‘virtual team’ are also highly significant at a time when there is so much pressure on budgets. By embracing these types of improvements in working practices, organisations might secure the cost savings that are needed to reduce offshoring and bring contact centre operations back to the UK.
Technology is not only facilitating surprisingly straightforward home working solutions in customer services, but also answering concerns about a lack of physical contact between employer and employee, with data gathering tools that help managers keep track of staff activity on a minute-by-minute basis.
There are a number of key steps to creating a successful home working strategy. The first is to ensure that there is a project sponsor within the organisation, a person who will champion the decision and lead the project forward.
The second is to consider starting with a pilot, typically 5% to 10% of existing staff who volunteer to work from home. The pilot will help shape the final solution and ensure that future expansion is smooth and trouble-free.
Thirdly, it is important to see a home working team as entirely virtual, from the agents and team leaders, to managers and even IT support. Trying to mix a home working solution with a traditional bricks-and-mortar team is fraught with issues and will dilute the project. 
Finally, and most importantly, team up with a technology partner providing all of the key parts of a system, effectively co-ordinating voice, data, security, information and integration to give you a seamless, multimedia call centre experience, no matter where the agent happens to be.

Ian Cox is managing director of Performance Telecom.

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