Published: October 27, 2014 | Comments
It’s unusual to find a customer service operation that doesn’t currently support home agents or isn’t seriously considering it. In fact, several contact center outsourcers use the home agent model exclusively as a way to rapidly scale operations to meet increasing customer demands without having to invest in costly, capital-intensive, brick-and-mortar building projects.
Industry analysts suggest that the growth rate for home agents already outpaces that of their brick-and-mortar counterparts and that the number of home agents will double in the next 2-3 years. Furthermore, companies report that home agents generally perform better, stay longer, and exhibit greater employee engagement. Clearly, it’s a trend that’s here to stay.
Under the right circumstances, the home agent model has benefits for employer and employee alike. It allows companies to expand their pool of well-qualified candidates who might not otherwise be able to accept a brick-and-mortar job, such as the disabled who may find it difficult to travel to a brick-and-mortar location, new parents, veterans and their spouses, adults caring for elderly or sick relatives, students, the list goes on. However, not every employee is well-suited to work as a remote agent. Here are five key areas to probe when interviewing prospective home agents:
Communication skills. This one seems obvious, but it goes beyond the normal, day-to-day interactions with customers expected of agents. Without the close social interactions that brick-and-mortar agents enjoy, remote agents need to be especially adept at verbal communication with peers and superiors without the visual cues normally found in face-to-face interaction. This is especially true when giving or receiving feedback with supervisors or subordinates.
Assessing an applicant’s communication skills are probably the easiest of these traits to measure. When interviewing the home agent candidate, probe two areas – the first of which is customer communication skills. Ask a series of job-specific questions that can uncover the applicant’s clarity of speech, the use of appropriate terms and grammar, job content knowledge and energy, personality and enthusiasm. The second is internal communication with peers, supervisors and subordinates. Specifically, introduce several scenarios in which the candidate’s style as well as his or her content can be examined.
Motivation. Brick-and-mortar agents enjoy a certain level of peer energy that is difficult to extend to home agents. Even online and video chat rooms, while maintaining a certain level of connection back to the “mother ship,” can’t replicate the buzz workers get when in close proximity to one another. Therefore, home agents must exhibit an exceptional tendency for self-motivation. It’s vital for them to be self-starters with a strong drive, excellent prioritization abilities and work completion skills.
To help determine the extent of a candidate’s motivation, ask open-ended questions relating to situations where the applicant initiated and completed work that was either not assigned to him or had incomplete instructions. Look for clues as to how the applicant approached the work, what clarifying questions he asked, and whether or not he was comfortable with the task.
Self-sufficiency. Virtual agents don’t have the benefit of supervisors, peers and technical support staff right around the corner. Virtual chat rooms can help bridge the gap when near realtime communication is required, but that may not be adequate in some circumstances. In particular, they must be more technically savvy than their brick-and-mortar counterparts as they will likely be required to troubleshoot problems within their technical environment and take action independently.
To discover exceptional candidates, ask open-ended questions regarding how the applicant might have had to “fend for himself” in certain common situations, especially those of a technical nature. Present specific scenarios designed to uncover how well the candidate thinks on his feet.
Trustworthiness and reliability. The comings and goings of brick-and-mortar agents are closely observed. And while the same is generally true for home agents, direct observation is more difficult. In addition, adherence to policies, especially regarding customer privacy, takes on special importance. Let’s face it, it’s much harder for an agent to surreptitiously jot down an account number when a supervisor is likely to notice.
This can be a particularly delicate – and difficult – trait to assess during the pre-hire phase of employment. Various commercial, validated assessments are available that can help identify those candidates that are high and low risk for trustworthiness and reliability. Making this a compulsory part of the recruiting process helps identify those who are more likely to be compliant with these policies and practices.
Focus and time management. Home agents don’t have the benefit of regular social interaction, which often helps their brick-and-mortar peers to get – and stay – focused. It is one thing to simply be able to calendar appointments, but it’s another matter altogether to effectively manage one’s time, overlook distractions and focus on the job at hand without in-person supervision.
When interviewing home agent candidates, recruiters should present different scenarios, such as competing priorities, concurrent project due dates, and work interruptions, during the interview process. Doing so will uncover the candidate’s critical thinking skills and ability to prioritize and manage time appropriately.
Not everyone is well suited to be a home agent. However, those that consistently demonstrate the aforementioned qualities are more likely to be successful working virtually than those who do not. The bottom line: Creating an environment where virtual employees are well vetted, groomed and coached for success can yield significant benefits for the company and employee alike.