Published: October 17, 2013 | Comments (1)
With the rise in availability of at-home broadband internet and widely available VoIP calling, the necessity of having any type of worker in a particular brick and mortar location has become largely unnecessary. But in a contact center, where agents require constant coaching, quality analysis and rewards to maintain and improve their performance, does this same remote model extend?
Call it what you will: work from home, remote agents or virtual workforce. However you label it, over the past five years, the remote agent model has grown in popularity. According to IT consulting giant ICD, nearly 310,000 home-based agents will be working in the U.S. by 2013, up from 112,000 in 2007. And as a technology vendor providing infrastructure and connectivity that enables agent remoting, I can testify that the inquiries and demand for remote agents is increasing every month.
When an organization considers enabling remote agents, many questions arise. Those questions can be slotted into two basic categories: (1) how will the technical infrastructure need to be adapted and (2) how do we assure quality performance from remote agents.
Plumbing: the technology question
The first question is so easy to address that it's downright boring: remoting is actually quite manageable from a hosted or cloud-based call center environment. It's just plumbing, and plumbing is easily adapted.
While a variety of scenarios can be customized to meet the specific demands of enterprise, the simplest solution is with a Session Internet Protocol (SIP) trunk and Session Border Controller (SBC) in the cloud, with the SBC managing all media. (This can also easily be combined with a PRI gateway in the cloud for those organizations with existing PRI infrastructure.) This has several distinct advantages: the cost of running a SIP trunk is typically lower than that of utilizing PRI, and there is no need to invest in a local SBC. Both brick-and-mortar and remote agents connect using the SBC through the public internet and either soft phones or hard phones.
A few other options include:
- SIP gateway on premise, with interconnection to PSTN by means of a PRI/SIP gateway
- SIP gateway and SBC on premise, also with interconnection to PSTN by means of a PRI/SIP gateway, which requires investment and introduces complexity to manage the local SBC
- SIP trunk and SBC on premise, with a SIP trunk from the enterprise SBC to the carrier, which may require a dedicated broadband connection to the carrier
Quality: the human question
Far more interesting than the technology is the question of recruiting, training, managing and rewarding remote agents with the lack of a physical presence. While many organizations report initial concerns about maintaining productivity and efficiency in an unseen workforce, the vast majority of contact centers that have already gone the remote route report notable improvements in agent recruiting, retention and performance, as well as enhanced staffing flexibility and decreased facility expenses.
This is where it gets interesting. Frankly, any capable vendor can provide the plumbing to enable remote agents. But what other best practices and tools must be implemented in order to ensure success? Where organizations either succeed or fail is in their remoting: by best practices, tools and culture.
When recruiting remote agents, in addition to seeking the basic customer service skills, it’s important for companies to remember that highly motivated and self-starting candidates work best in the virtual sphere. Recruit for technical skills, but also favor those who will thrive in a less social, more focused environment. Some companies reward top brick-and-mortar performers with the opportunity to work from home, which drives the desire to work harder for the privilege.
Because talented virtual agents actually require less direct supervision and monitoring than brick-and-mortar agents, it's essential that the onboarding and login procedures be crisp, clear and simple. Most virtual agents work well under pay for performance metrics, and they are eager to begin their shifts on time. Create clear guidelines, streamlined and foolproof login processes, and clear procedures for disaster recovery or equipment failure. And when an agent is in doubt, state and reiterate the best ways to reach technical support.
Virtual agents are willing and eager to work, and their assignments should reflect the value placed on their punctuality and performance. Allow your virtual workforce to bid on shifts based on seniority and performance. By doing so, you’re rewarding them with more work, not less.
With it comes to performance management, the solution is the data. Quality data. Lots of it, aligned with business goals. With the big data tools available today, there is no need to fear a lack of productivity or morale among remote agents.
- Get real-time and get aligned No one should fly blind. The use of real-time, easy-to-read dashboards and quality heat maps helps agents, supervisors and executives to understand current performance and how it relates to the team and overall goals. Ideally, use a tool that provides an aggregated view of real-time and historical data in addition to regular reports. Agent scorecards and recorded calls should also be accessible for easy drill down within the same tool.
- Provide daily feedback Feedback should be a daily habit, as it is the most important contributor to retention. Use email, chat or video conferencing for daily positive feedback and coaching. You’ll find that the data gathered from direct feedback can inform your performance enhancement strategy moving forward.
- Get connected It's essential to implement tools that will allow for real-time interaction and online collaboration among agents and between agents and supervisors. Instant messaging tools should facilitate collaboration and also allowing for multiple simultaneous supervisor chats.
While technical connectivity is typically the first question raised, what’s more important to consider is access to actionable data and daily collaboration. Together with a solid corporate culture, these factors often contribute the most to the success of a long-term remote agent program. .
Call centers are no longer just about the plumbing. Your organization must build trust on a daily basis with each and every remote agent. In today’s online world, nothing is secret, including how you and your corporate culture support and reward your remote agents. For a successful and loyal virtual agent workforce, the most important best practice is to use online tools and data to foster consistent and persistent communications.