When widespread shelter-in-place orders were put in place and non-essential businesses closed, brick-and-mortar call centers were forced to quickly figure out what to do to keep employees safe and operations running – all while customer service demands in many industries skyrocketed. While certain call centers have been deemed “essential” work, the close quarters of physical call centers have put staff at unnecessary risk for COVID-19. Recently, Paul Stockford, a Tennessee-based research director for the nonprofit National Association of Call Centers, said that call centers pose a greater risk of exposure for their employees because of the tight spaces, shared equipment, and volume of people cycling through during different shifts.1Experts: Call Centers Pose High Risk for Coronavirus — Government Technology — March 19, 2020
During the onset of COVID-19, many US-based and international call centers temporarily closed down all together, disrupting customer service continuity for many businesses. Others found ways to continue operating while creating more “social distance” among on-site employees by reducing capacity and managing alternating shifts. Still others opted to send their agents to work-from-home (WFH) and adjust operations accordingly, but quickly learned the demands of transitioning to and managing a WFH workforce were significant. In the midst of these operational changes, the quality and availability of customer support services has been negatively impacted. Increased hold times, limited support staff, and related issues have had negative effects on the customer experience– decreasing customer satisfaction and loyalty, and increasing product returns.
Companies seeking to develop a sustainable customer support strategy that mitigates the impact of unforeseen risk should incorporate a virtual call center model. A virtual call center model with WFH employees distributed across multiple geographies is a particularly stable and scalable customer support model, though it requires significant changes to systems, policies, and procedures. Setting up a virtual call center model requires completely transforming operations, including recruiting and training, managing teams and productivity, establishing system requirements and security protocols, and developing the appropriate business processes, policies, and even company culture.
A few considerations for organizations looking at a virtual call center model include:
Recruiting & Training
Both recruiting and training processes must be modified for success in a virtual environment. Recruiting must include screening for personality and behavior traits that excel in the WFH environment. Training must be “virtualized” – e.g. adapted to be clearly communicated remotely and in an engaging manner, employing a combination of virtual and instructor-led modules. The training process itself must allow for the development of class relationships – a particular challenge in a remote environment. Candidates must be made aware of expectations of attendance and at-home equipment requirements up-front.
A robust Telecommuting Policy is critical to setting up and maintaining a productive WFH environment. The policy must specifically state compliance expectations, including equipment standards and the internal IT processes to validate, as well as timekeeping and response expectations (e.g. chats and phone calls). It must specify confidentiality requirements, such as the expectations of privacy and a closed-door environment, and should include the ability for managers to remotely review an employee’s office set up regularly and without notice. Since certain states, cities, and counties may not allow WFH without a business license for that area or have different payroll rate or tax implications, the policy must clearly articulate relocation policies.
Employee Equipment & ISP Requirements
The right connection and equipment in a WFH environment are paramount for security and productivity. Success depends upon establishing clear standards, including those involving the hardwired ISP with speed tests, a computer spec test, and phone and camera requirements, among others. The recruiting and onboarding process should be modified to institute compliance “checkpoints” starting with the initial interview and ultimately including a visual inspection of equipment in the home office.
Systems, Security, and IT Applications
Managing and monitoring a remote workforce is a challenge that typically requires the addition of a new technology platform and digital systems to ensure security and performance, and replace in-person management practices such as “walking the floor”. Key questions to assess out of the gate include:
- Do you have a VPN (Virtual Private Network) in place to ensure secure communications between employees and your applications/data?
- Do you have a network access controller to check that employees connecting to your systems are only able to do so if their remote device meets minimum requirements such as operating system level, ant-virus protection, etc.?
- Do you have full redundancy with multiple data centers?
- What can you do to minimize the potential performance degradation if the equipment is outdated?
- What security measures are in place that enable you to remotely lock down the device while the employee is working, if necessary?
Managing the information flow to your virtual employees often requires a unique messaging center and specific routing capabilities, including a tracking and acknowledgement process to ensure compliance and understanding. To ensure seamless access, your IT application should support a single login for the disparate tools used by agents, including ID Verification, Client Tools, and Administrative Tools such as Scheduling. It is important to use a Virtual Meeting Platform to support both large group meetings, agent-supervisor interaction, and team collaboration through multiple chat rooms.
Communication & Relationship Building
Successfully managing and cultivating virtual teams requires an even greater emphasis on open communication and continuous relationship building with a “from hire to retire” mindset. Developing personal connections between employees is one of the biggest challenges for employers with WFH employees, and does require a bit of creativity. Consistent engagement practices such as introducing a new employee to their team and to others in their local area early in the onboarding process, establishing effective chat rooms and internal social media platforms, and engaging in remote team building activities, provides employees with a feeling of community. Ensuring that each employee feels part of a “virtual village” reduces isolation and improves performance.
For more than 20 years, Support.com has been delivering virtual call center services with a U.S.-based remote workforce. We provide outsourced customer and technical support, and license our proprietary software platform to quickly enable call center teams with secure, virtual call center capabilities. As demonstrated by our low agent attrition and industry-leading NPS scores, we understand the management and technology best practices necessary for virtual teams to work-from-home effectively and securely. We understand how to source the “best fit” WFH employees and how to optimize training for a virtual environment to maximize learning and engagement. We are experts in creating and sustaining a virtual cooperative work culture that delivers a great customer experience by getting answers and feedback to agents quickly and securely.
If you would like to learn more about the role of a virtual call center in your business continuity plans, or are faced with the challenges involved with transitioning your own agents to WFH, you can reach us at firstname.lastname@example.org. Visit https://corporate.support.com/call-center-services/ to learn more about what we offer.