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Opposing Viewpoints: All About the Agent

Note from the editor: The helpdesk and support team play very different roles within the contact center. As such, they approach and see things differently.  We want to explore those differences in a featured article each month. In keeping with our October editorial focus, this edition is all about the agent.

ICMI: Does your team use remote agents?  What have you found to be the biggest challenges and benefits?  What advice would you offer to other contact centers considering using remote agents?

Brooks: My team doesn’t currently use remote agents, but we have the capabilities should we need extra help on the holidays or during times of inclement weather.  Though we don’t use remote agents on a regular basis, I would think that the biggest challenge would be the lack of personal interaction between the agents and management.  Being able to sit next to an agent and to connect on a personal level goes a long ways with regard to agent morale and employee engagement.   Overcoming that would seem like a challenge for anyone in a leadership role.

Jeremiah: While my team doesn’t have any full-time remote agents, we have successfully had the entire team work remotely in inclement weather situations. The biggest challenge has been keeping our softphone software connected and agents available to take calls. Prior to when we actually had an emergency, we would have one agent at a time test from home so the team wouldn’t be hit too hard if they had any technical difficulties. We determined pretty quickly that taking phone calls over a wireless connection doesn’t work very well, but once agents were hard-wired in, everything operated pretty smoothly.

The major benefit of working remotely that we’ve seen that it can boost agent morale as they get to skip their commute and work from the comfort of their own home. It does require independent, responsible agents who can be trusted to work without much oversight, so if you are piloting a remote support program, monitor to make sure your agents are as productive at home as they are at the call center. Even if your center isn’t scoped for full-time remote staff, it can work great as an occasional change of pace.

If you are able to implement a full-time program, then the opposite is true: make sure that the agents come in the office periodically so they get to interact with the rest of their team and stay visible in the company.

In fact, whether or not you trust an agent to work remotely can be a great barometer of how they are performing or where they might need more coaching.

ICMI: How do you keep your team engaged?  What are some examples of team-building activities/initiatives you’ve used?

Brooks: One way I keep the team engaged is to include them in special projects.  If any agent comes up with a great idea for improving a process, I set aside some downtime for them to work on it.  I ask them to write up their process and send to me for review.  If it needs more work, I give it back to them with notes.  If it’s good to go, I send it up the chain and push for implementation.  When an agent realizes that he/she can make a positive difference in the contact center, and get some visibility in the process, it encourages ongoing engagement. 

Jeremiah: At iContact we have a fun, laid-back atmosphere where we show agents we appreciate them by letting them work from home or go home early on a slow Friday.  We find, more often than not, that by providing these freedoms we’re able to keep our agents motivated, and enjoying their jobs.


ICMI: What advice do you have for recruiting and retaining the best agents?

Brooks: My number one piece of advice is to look for the soft skills.  Those that come from retail and customer service backgrounds are often your best agents because they’ve had to deal with the customer face to face.  When they have an upset customer, they have to see the frustration, and therefore do everything they can to empathize and fix the issue as quickly as possible.  If you can bring someone in with that attitude, then you’re probably making the right decision.  Once you have those superstars on the floor, keep them engaged so that they don’t lose interest.  Show them possible career paths associated with the role, or better yet, tell them your story of getting into leadership.  In my case, I love being able to tell new hires that I started in their shoes, and then moved up from there. 

Jeremiah: When recruiting agents, I find we get a wide variety of candidates, ranging from the underqualified to the overqualified, from candidates fresh out of college to those with 15 years of call center experience. What we try to find is the sweet spot where someone not only has the right skills and background, but also a passion for customer service.