By Jaime Scott, CEO & co-founder of EvaluAgent
While productivity in many sectors has taken a significant blow during the coronavirus pandemic, customer support employees are among those for whom the opposite is true.
Organisations across a range of sectors, including financial services and telecoms, have reported a huge increase in inbound calls from customers in recent weeks.
Virgin Media has even announced it is creating more than 500 jobs at four different UK contact centres, in response to the large volume of customer queries it has been receiving throughout the crisis.
However, with the government issuing stark warnings for all but essential workers to stay at home, businesses are now faced with a dilemma between serving their customers and keeping their employees safe.
While some have chosen to maintain centralised customer service provision and adopt social distancing, others, including mobile operator Three, have taken the drastic decision to close contact centres.
Three has asked those with queries to get in touch via the live chat functions on its website and app. This decision was almost immediately met with complaints from unhappy customers on social media, with many claiming that online advisers had been unable to help them.
eBay, on the other hand, revealed in the same week that it had successfully enabled its thousands of customer service agents to work from home.
Working from home: what are the challenges?
Allowing customer support employees to work remotely offers an ideal solution, protecting their health while still keeping the lines of communication open.
However, remote working can also present a number of challenges of its own, both for the agents who suddenly find themselves attempting to carry out their jobs in a very different environment, and especially for the team leaders managing them.
In order for home working to be a success, it’s of course vital that front-line employees are able to continue interacting with customers as usual. But it’s equally as important that team leaders have the ability to monitor and maintain the quality of customer service provided.
Set remote employees up for success
It’s important to note that home working doesn’t come easily to everyone. Those who are self-motivated, with good communication skills and naturally resourceful are likely to take to it much better than others. However, there are certain steps that businesses can take that will help all their employees to continue providing an excellent level of service while working remotely.
The working environment has possibly the biggest impact on performance, whether in an office or at home. Before any working from home arrangement begins, businesses need to ensure that employees have everything they need to do their job well.
It’s essential to have the right technology in place. Businesses need to be using cloud-based systems that can be accessed from anywhere and must ensure that all employees have a working laptop, headset and any internet access.
Once these basic requirements have been established, businesses should also emphasise the value of regular communication between team members when they are working remotely, as a means of maintaining a sense of camaraderie.
While email is probably the most widely used form of digital communication for many organisations, a variety of newer tools are available, such as Slack, Skype and Microsoft Teams, that make communication quicker, more efficient and more collaborative with the added option of video calling.
Ensuring communication is easy and accessible is key to enabling employees to stay in touch with one another, and still feel part of the company.
Provide consistent support
When service levels are under pressure, as they are now, time usually allocated to coaching, feedback and one to ones is often cut significantly.
However, while this approach may seem to drive results and efficiency in the short-term, it invariably has a hugely damaging impact on employee motivation and service levels in the long run.
Team leaders should therefore take the tough decision right at the beginning not to allow this to happen, and to dedicate as much time as usual to supporting their team.
Regular feedback is absolutely essential, and the most effective way of giving feedback is face-to-face. Therefore, when employees are working remotely, team leaders must ensure they are still providing feedback verbally, ideally via video call so that both parties can still read each other’s body language.
It’s also particularly important to get the balance right between negative and positive feedback when employees are working from home.
Working remotely can be quite an isolating experience, and employees may not always be clear in their own mind how well things are going, so it’s crucial to make sure they’re aware of their continuing great performance.
Meanwhile, monthly one-to-ones are the best opportunity to have a more in-depth discussion with employees about their performance, and to talk to them about progression and their career aspirations.
To make sure one-to-ones continue to be as effective as usual, employees must still have access to their performance results throughout the month. That way, when the session comes around, they will have everything they need to be able to have an informed, valuable conversation.
Team leaders should also continue to use one-to-ones to set performance objectives and goals, to help employees maintain focus on their performance. During challenging periods, such as when newly remote working, setting more short-term goals will encourage more frequent interaction with employees and provide more opportunities to discuss their progress.
For those used to managing teams face-to-face, the shift to remote working may come as quite a shock, but there’s no need to panic. With the right tools and procedures in place, it’s perfectly possible to keep quality on track and employees engaged, motivated and providing a consistent customer experience.