The lasting impacts of COVID-19 are unknown but the accelerated shift to the remote call center workforce management is likely to endure
Is it us, or is the “new normal” starting to feel kind of, well, normal? We’re all adapting since COVID-19 struck, maybe better than we initially expected. But what does the future hold once this pandemic passes?
Questions remain regarding how many of the habits and work models adopted during the crisis will endure when the coronavirus subsides. Will remote agents continue to represent a significant proportion of the call center workforce? Or will SMB contact centers and clients rush to bring employees back to the traditional production floor?
Although there is a lot of truth to that old saying, “the only constant is change,” the work-from-home agent is likely to become a permanent feature of the industry landscape. Here’s why.
The call center industry was beyond the experimental phase of work-from-home before COVID-19 hit. Numerous companies had adopted it as their sole workforce model, among them many SMBs that found in remote agents a flexible, low-overhead workforce option.
Helping this transition along were cloud technologies. Digital transformation brought remote-ready ACD systems, which diminished the technical hurdle to a distributed workforce.
Add in a once-booming economy in which talent was scarce and many contact centers were eager to expand their available recruiting pool beyond the immediate radius of their call center facility.
Suffice it to say, remote call center workforce management was gaining steam.
If half of the industry was integrating work-from-home agents before COVID-19, as some estimates indicate, then about half was not. But the pandemic was a force that overcame inertia and overshadowed other concerns about call centers’ remote workers.
As a result, many companies hesitant to give work-from-home programs a try had no choice but to do so. It stands to reason that at least some of them have been impressed by the advantages and will stick to a remote or hybrid model.
COVID-19 has sparked another strategic change as well. Resilience—the ability to pivot in response to unforeseeable crisis—has become a top priority among leaders in nearly every industry, including contact centers.
Work-from-home agents are a resilient resource, especially when supported with appropriately redundant technologies. If a hurricane or other natural disaster affects agent availability in a certain geographic area, for example, their counterparts in other regions can fill in. Or if a future public health emergency arises, a remote workforce can help insulate call center operations from outbreaks.
Contact centers will inevitably take these factors into account as part of their business continuity plans.
As impactful as COVID-19 has been, there are countless other reasons call centers are likely to turn to remote agents in the future. Among them:
Remote workers enable call centers to integrate talent from wherever it can be found (within the bounds of employment law). Work-from-home can even boost inclusivity, making it easier for disabled individuals, for instance, to contribute their skills.
A nice benefit of today’s contact center workforce management solutions, scheduling capabilities are more flexible than ever. Work-from-home arrangements can leverage these advantages.
For example, call center managers can implement shorter shifts for remote workers, who don’t necessarily expect eight hours in exchange for their commute. Not only does this empower call center leaders to schedule more precisely based on call volumes—such as planning for a few extra agents during the lunchtime peak—it can appeal to parents, graduate students and others as a way to fit some paid work into the gaps in their schedules.
Many people enjoy the convenience of working from home. After all, who can argue with comfortable shoes (or slippers)? Numerous contact centers report increased productivity and morale after sending agents home, which helps reduce churn and the associated recruitment, training and service level costs.
We’ve just named several ways a remote workforce can save money, but there are more. Work-from-home agents don’t require on-site space, so physical facilities can be smaller. Depending on whether the call center issues workstations or reimburses for internet connectivity, other overhead expenditures may be shifted off the company as well.
Notwithstanding the many reasons remote call center agents will be an enduring feature of the contact center landscape, there are real challenges in making it a success:
The ultimate determinant for work-from-home will be customer experience. Where contact centers find ways to address the challenges of managing and motivating remote call center workers, they will likely continue to integrate work-from-home talent in a stand-alone or hybrid fashion. The creativity that will go into their new workforce management and engagement strategies will make call centers pretty exciting places for some time to come.
Want more information to help you adapt to this new world? Check out this webinar!
There’s a concept in Zen Buddhism known as shoshin, or beginner’s mind. We’ve all felt it—an openness that comes from looking at something with fresh eyes. It can be freeing because we don’t have preexisting expectations and can try something new.
This may seem an awfully philosophical topic to raise in reference to contact centers. But I’d argue that shoshin is the dominant mindset right now in countless call centers nationwide.
Last year, the changes brought about by a global pandemic pushed pretty much everyone out of their comfort zone. Rapid adaptation was necessary to survive and thrive during uncertain times. It was unsettling, to be sure, but it also led many call center leaders to experiment in ways they perhaps hadn’t done recently or, in some cases, ever before.
Positive news regarding Covid-19 vaccines has many of us eagerly looking forward to “getting back to normal.” But maybe that’s not what’s coming for SMB contact centers over the next several months—maybe a difficult period led companies to get even better in ways our sector would be wise to remember.
What do I mean?
No one had all the answers in 2020—not call center executives, workforce managers or agents themselves. Although this was often frustrating, many leaders solicited more feedback and ideas from all corners, including from frontline employees.
After all, who could better understand changing customer needs than the agents speaking with them every day?
Many contact centers found that employee input was essential in understanding the new lay of the land and shaping the best response. And for employees, to have their opinions and firsthand experience valued in this manner was extremely motivating—and that helped enhance contact center employee engagement.
Speaking of employee engagement, it recently got a big boost in many SMB contact centers.
Sure, there’s always talk about call center workforce engagement. But let’s face it, sometimes employee engagement initiatives are window dressing on regular business operations. Other times, strategies aren’t revisited frequently enough and the techniques get stale.
With certain “go to” engagement concepts—e.g., the Employee of the Month luncheon—on hold, leaders had to refresh their contact center employee engagement efforts. If most employees transferred to remote work, for example, methods had to be invented to maintain the call center culture.
Fortunately, tough questions often breed interesting answers, and the attention to innovative workforce engagement in the call center paid off for many companies.
We can’t pretend that everything was roses in 2020. A lot came at employees, professionally and personally. Some were working from home while kids were pursuing remote education in the same room. There was plenty of stress, fear and isolation.
In many cases, agents’ direct supervisors found themselves boiling their leadership down to the essentials. How could they help agents through this time? What type of support really makes a difference?
For instance, could they offer more flexible call center scheduling to alleviate some of agents’ conflicting responsibilities? Or would open door (or “open videoconferencing”) discussions with the team help everyone blow off steam and identify solutions together?
Asking these types of questions—and taking action on the brainstorms that followed—is key to employee-centric operations and many contact centers made the connection in 2020.
It’s not news that suddenly the whole world was Zooming like never before, but contact centers did more than integrate teleconferencing solutions to keep in touch with newly remote agents.
Many call centers looked to workforce management software to deal with scheduling issues and take a time-consuming manual task of leaders’ plates. Others had to invest in new quality management options for call monitoring, recording and evaluation of the contact center’s remote agents. Interactive, web-based training became a thing in more SMB contact centers, too.
These are the types of technology investments that will keep on giving in 2021 and beyond.
Overcoming hard times tends to breed confidence, and the contact center industry has reason to walk proud. Teams were asked to do more—process more customer calls of greater variety and with new demands—and do it in the face of huge operational overhauls. Did everything go as planned? Of course not! But by and large the sector succeeded and that’s worth celebrating.
As difficult as the circumstances that drove change, reimagining call center workforce management and engagement was a positive result. Hopefully, as the global community turns the corner on Covid-19, SMB contact centers will continue to experiment with processes and technologies, ask agents how they’re feeling as they get back to “normal,” and keep up the real employee engagement and support efforts that made such a difference in the trenches.
Want to look into some innovative workforce engagement concepts you may not have considered? We have the whitepaper for you! The Complete Contact Center Guide to Employee Engagement for SMBs could be the ticket for taking your initiatives to a new level.
Since 2007 Pelorus Associates has authored 19 comprehensive reports on WFO applications. Most of these included a recommendation that vendors expand their market reach to encompass small to medium businesses. From a business perspective, this seemed like a no-brainer.
There have been several fits and starts to address this market, but none have been notably successful. The many reasons include high initial cost, lack of in-house technical expertise, software over engineered and overpriced for this market, and—most importantly—absence of a distribution channel to sell and support potentially hundreds of thousands of organizations. The major players prefer to focus on companies which have hundreds and sometimes thousands of agents.
The good news is that Verint has a major focus on providing SMB solutions for the market. In 2019 Verint acquired Los Angeles-based Monet software. Monet produced WFM software designed and priced to migrate smaller contact centers from Excel spreadsheets to automated solutions. With Monet technology as the foundation, Verint has since developed an integrated suite of workforce engagement solutions specifically targeted to small and medium-size businesses.
Verint’s timing could not have been better. The U.S. and even global economies are in a state of upheaval due to the impacts of the Covid-19 pandemic. One of the many consequences has been to drive business interactions from in-person retail to telephone and digital communications. Smaller businesses do not have enough staff to maintain acceptable service levels in the event of absences.
As well, employees often have multiple responsibilities. They may alternate from handling calls, to back office work, and then head off to the warehouse and operate a forklift. Manual scheduling is simply inadequate to assure effective deployment of resources and maintenance of adequate customer service levels in dynamic environments such as this.
They need WFM software, as well as interaction recording to assure quality and compliance and measurement tools for gauging customer attitudes about the company and its services. Most importantly, software needs to be flexible and extremely easy to use. Verint addresses these needs by wisely making their SMB solutions available on a subscription basis via the cloud.
This is a guest blog from Dick Bucci of Pelorus Associates
Call center recruiting has changed in recent years. Whereas companies could, in the past, focus primarily on posting openings on popular job boards and expect to fill the seats, the increased competition for talent has led many contact centers to up their game.
Maximizing hiring impact was already challenging for many SMB contact centers, even before COVID-19. It’s okay if you had been planning to upgrade your processes and got derailed as you figured out how to manage your suddenly remote call center agents. We’ve all faced similar challenges!
The pandemic needn’t undermine your ambitions, however. In fact, it might free you to get creative in ways that help you stand out in this unique call center job market. For call center hiring during a pandemic, all you need is the right road map.
So far, the novel coronavirus has been a blessing and curse for call center recruiting. There are certainly more candidates looking for contact center jobs than there were a year ago, but there are new challenges as well.
Most call centers with in-person screening practices have had to revisit how they do things. What’s more, the need to accelerate hiring hasn’t gone away. The high unemployment rate means that applicants are likely to say “yes” to the first offer they receive. To land great talent, therefore, you must not only attract the best people and identify those with the right skills, you also need to get to the offer stage rapidly.
Here are some ideas to help make all of that happen.
Even though the job market is more employer-friendly these days, that doesn’t mean you can take a break on making a good first impression. It’s in your best interest if candidates really want to work for you. Plus, a prospect’s perception of the company during the hiring process will affect how they can build employee engagement in their first days and weeks on the job.
An attractive recruitment website and dynamic social media presence have become central to the recruiter’s toolkit. It’s a good idea to evaluate and curate your online presence, if you haven’t already done so.
People love to work at companies that value them. If you’re taking specific steps to protect employee health and safety or offer some fun interaction for the call center’s remote workers who are isolated at home, consider sharing stories online. Doing so will give candidates greater confidence that you’re the type of employer they can trust in this environment.
Some call centers are using online psychographic testing and other virtual assessments, but don’t worry if you haven’t invested in these tools. You can still get a reliable idea of what each prospect brings to the table.
Consider which skills are most important for the particular role, such as problem-solving, written communications abilities, calm confidence, and so on. Then find ways to build in opportunities for candidates to demonstrate these capabilities.
For example, send an email with instructions for a task, such as leaving a voicemail with particular details. In just 60 seconds, you can check for professional phone demeanor but also see if the candidate can follow directions.
Empathy may be the most important agent skill right now. Many customers are facing new pressures and are demanding more of the companies they interact with.
You may want to make special effort to gauge empathy as part of the agent hiring process. Maybe you could ask during an interview how the candidate’s life was affected by the pandemic. Then follow up with a question about how that experience would inform the way they serve a customer in a particular scenario.
Sometimes our interview techniques get a little stale. We ask the same questions of so many candidates, the responses just aren’t as informative anymore.
If you feel like interviews aren’t separating the wheat from the chaff, it might be time to mix it up. Try out some new questions that make candidates solve problems on the fly or explain complex information. Or involve some new people in screenings to gain a different perspective.
In-person interviews are not an option for many organizations right now, and videoconferencing doesn’t always provide the same level of insight.
This is a challenge to be sure, but it also means there’s almost nothing to lose by experimenting. Maybe you should upend your interview format altogether, or even question whether live interviews can be eliminated.
There are platforms, for example, that allow candidates to record themselves answering standard interview questions. The recruitment team can then review the videos at their convenience. If you’ve been having difficulty fitting in interviews, this could be a way around the COVID-19 scheduling snafus.
Some recruitment processes are just too long, and good people can get frustrated and discouraged along the way—or snatched up by a competitor. Examine the steps in your process and make sure every single one provides essential information for the hiring choice.
Focus particular attention anywhere you lose a large number of candidates. Were you unclear about expectations, did you fail to provide good instructions, or were you slow to update prospects that they were still in the running for the job? Find the leaks and plug them.
A virtual process for call center hiring during a pandemic typically demands more self-direction from candidates, who may need to do a voicemail audition, sign up online for an interview time, and log in to a testing portal. Offer tools, such as checklists, to let candidates know what they need to do, how long each step will take, and when they’ll hear back.
Call center hiring during the pandemic isn’t a complete departure from recruiting at any other time. Applying best practices for today’s connected world will help you communicate an authentic employer brand, get to know candidates’ skills and capabilities, and accelerate call center hiring decisions.
Getting great talent onboard is just the first step, however. If you’re successful in building excitement and buy-in during this stage, you’ll want to carry your hard-won contact center workforce engagement beyond the first day on the job.
Fortunately, we have some ideas to help you do that in our webinar, “How to Build an Employee Engagement Strategy that Lasts Through and Beyond Uncertain Times.” Check that out when you have a moment.
How to treat employee burnout and reinvigorate call center engagement for the long haul
Do you feel it spreading through your contact center workforce? That sense of ennui, stagnation or general “blah” that creeps up on agents and saps their energy and enthusiasm?
That’s burnout—and it’s a call center morale killer that usually strikes long-tenured employees but can quickly drag down motivation among almost anyone they come in contact with.
If you’re seeing symptoms of burnout in your SMB contact center, or in online interactions with certain remote agents, it’s time to do something about it. But what?
Once an employee reaches burnout stage, you’re in crisis mode. As we mentioned in our previous post about short-term employee engagement for contact centers, burnout isn’t a sudden-onset problem. It develops silently over time.
Frequently when the outward signs of burnout finally appear, call center managers have only a short window of opportunity to prevent the worst outcomes. These can include performance declines, adherence problems and eventually the loss of a highly experienced agent. So act fast!
Burnout is a common job issue, and it’s associated with stress that hasn’t been sufficiently managed or mitigated.
Contact center work, with the overwhelming call volumes, demanding customers, limited breaks between encounters and high expectations for efficiency and results—well, it’s stressful. This makes contact center agents particularly vulnerable to burnout.
Managers should suspect burnout when a previously high-performing agent exhibits changes that last many days or weeks, such as:
An agent suffering from burnout may not show all of these symptoms. A worrisome cluster is enough to warrant intervention.
If you fear a particular agent is suffering from burnout, offer immediate support, much like you’d comfort someone with a bad cold and recommend fluids and rest.
You may want to start by putting the agent in touch with a trusted member of the team, perhaps a sensitive HR professional or their quality coach, whomever has the best rapport with the individual. Use the conversation to learn how the agent is feeling and allow them to talk about any difficulties they’re facing.
And be careful not to deny the agent’s perspective, such as by telling them “it’s not so bad.” Instead, empathize. Just feeling heard and understood can be a first step out of burnout!
When the employee is ready, see how you can help them cope with the issues they’ve raised. You might:
Sometimes high aspirations and perfectionism contribute to burnout. Praise for a job well done—paired with reassurance that it’s okay to struggle at times—can be a pick-me-up and help instill a healthier, more forgiving attitude toward themselves.
Discussing the cause of burnout—stress—can help agents focus on combating it. They may realize that their self-care has fallen off, gotten stale or was never an intentional practice. Help them brainstorm a response, whether that’s making time for healthy meals, meditation, exercise, a long talk with a friend or an afternoon with a good book.
Break up the monotony by treating the agent to lunch or working in some downtime to have fun with the team. Anything that disrupts “the usual” can alleviate the Groundhog Day-like boredom that infuses many a contact center.
Also consider whether the agent can take a few days off to recharge. Even if it doesn’t happen right away, planning for a vacation (or a stay-cation) provides something to look forward to. That alone can be energizing!
Has the agent taken on additional responsibilities? Are the really complicated calls usually routed to them? Consider offering a chance to do a little less for a while to bring the stress level down.
Alternatively, have they been doing the same old thing for ages, to the point they don’t feel challenged anymore? Can you switch up the work, put them in charge of a project, have them coach a colleague or offer other opportunities? Doing so might drive some new excitement.
This one can be hard for call center leaders, but if the agent brings real critiques to the table, it’s best to take them seriously. You may not want to hear that a particular manager is demeaning when no one is watching or that the uptrainings have been more frustrating than informative, but having a voice really matters to agents.
If an employee has the courage to raise meaningful issues, it’s likely that a problem exists and needs attention. Even if it takes time to solve, the agent may respond well just knowing improvements are in the works.
Once an agent has put an action plan in place, don’t let it be the end of the interventions. Continue to offer support and come back together to touch base about how they’re doing.
If the burnout begins to fade, praise the agent for their efforts and encourage them to keep up and build on the measures they’ve adopted. If burnout endures, on the other hand, continue to explore the root cause and help devise better solutions.
Throughout this process, be patient. We said it before—burnout takes time to develop, so it’s a significant undertaking to drive it away. Some immediate relief may be achieved with the suggestions above but true recovery from burnout can take weeks or longer to achieve.
Even the most employee-centric contact centers must confront agent burnout occasionally. In poorly managed operations, however, burnout will be endemic and constantly drive turnover, waste resources and undermine efficiency, performance, quality and customer experience.
If you find that agents consistently lose motivation soon after joining the company or that there is a tenure “ceiling” when most employees tend to leave, you may have a systemic problem.
In this case, you’ll want to investigate the underlying factors contributing to high levels of burnout—things like an obsessive focus on average handle time, negativity in quality management and coaching, a lack of autonomy for agents, inflexible schedules and so on. Only with a clear idea of what’s wrong from an agent’s point of view can effective strategies be implemented.
Fortunately, there is a prescription for burnout prevention. Consistent call center workforce engagement (WFE) is the best way to foster morale over the long haul. Sharing a compelling mission, integrating health and wellness programs, creating a supportive environment where exciting and different things happen day to day, giving employees a voice, offering real opportunity for professional development and advancement—these and other measures help engage contact center agents and keep burnout at bay, day after day, year after year.
For more information about call center engagement, download our magnum opus on the topic. The Complete Contact Center Guide to Employee Engagement for SMBs can help you battle burnout long before it brings down your best agents.
It’s that time again. The holiday season is fast approaching and employees are starting to check out mentally, as if they’re suffering from the call center version of high school “senior-itis.”
Given the struggles many agents endured with COVID-19, the end-of-year malaise you’re seeing may be even more severe than usual. But SMB contact centers still need to finish strong, especially if the business took a hit from the pandemic.
A long-term, customized employee engagement strategy should be the ultimate goal for any call center. But maybe you just need to boost motivation, morale and workforce engagement as this crazy year (finally!) comes to a close. We’ve got 10 tips to help you do it, and fast.
It’s normal for call center agent engagement to fluctuate, over the week (hello Mondays!) and season to season. Burnout, on the other hand, isn’t a sudden-onset condition. It builds up over time and needs more intensive interventions (which we’ll discuss in our next blog).
Make sure to distinguish which problem agents are facing and use the ideas in this article to help overcome a temporary downturn in morale.
It would usually be the company party, a few too many holiday cookies and some late-night happenings that compromise employees’ wellness and energy levels. This year, however, COVID-19 is also adding stress as people try to figure out how to tailor their traditions to the safety demands and even mourn what they will miss out on.
Surprisingly, a contact center shift can provide a healthy, motivating interlude at times like these, if leaders make some adjustments. Managers can encourage active breaks with some light stretching, for example, to inject some mood-improving endorphins. Food offered on site can be nutritious (or get some healthy holiday recipes to remote agents), and the employee newsletter or intranet can feature stress reduction techniques to help employees achieve some calm attention.
Right now, agents may feel pulled in too many directions—family, shopping, finances, job, events and have we mentioned the pandemic?! They will often bring this disjointed sense to work with them.
Don’t add to it! Help them focus instead. Streamline QA review sessions to identify a single improvement goal for the coming week. Have teams attend to one program change at a time. Even cutting out the clutter on the production floor—or encouraging clean desks for remote agents—can help employees re-center so they get back into the customer service mission.
The fast lane to better call center workforce engagement (also known as contact center WFE) often goes through the agent support structure. Consider how you help agents deal with their own unique challenges. Can managers do more to welcome employees for the shift, instill confidence, offer words of encouragement, assist after a tough call and do the other little things that add up to a huge impact on morale?
And here’s your notice—if you haven’t moved your motivation techniques online but sent your employees to work from home, it’s time to get on it!
Being flogged to the finish line is miserable. In some cases, end-of-year woes arise because agents feel like they’ve taken a beating to achieve the annual targets and heard mostly about their shortcomings along the way.
Turn these habits on their head. Spend as much time (or more!) this month encouraging agents as critiquing them. Let them make their voices heard, maybe in an employee survey about potential call center improvements for the next year, and publicize how you’ll implement their suggestions. Empowerment and positivity are among the cornerstones of employee engagement and can take time to build, but why not start now?
There are numerous times when it’s exciting to tackle new challenges. When temperatures are plummeting, the days are short, and agents are just trying to make it to vacation—that’s not one of them.
Save the next big leap for the new year, if at all possible. For now, find opportunities for agents to celebrate the achievements they’ve made since last January 1, the adaptability they’ve shown in difficult circumstances, and the skills they’ve built. Underscore their accomplishments so they know what existing behaviors contribute to their success and are more likely to keep them up, enthusiastically.
Could you offer a December dress code allowing agents to wear less formal attire? What about gifting 10 extra minutes for lunch? Or maybe you could scale down the usual lecture if an employee is late or has another adherence issue? There’s a difference between giving a little slack and totally losing control, so it’s okay to consider where to cut employees a break or when to cut loose for a little fun.
Encourage agents to get into the spirit of the season by giving of themselves to assist customers. Helping people is a more inspiring message, especially right now, than asking agents to achieve a specific average handle time or other metric. If they can make a great impression in each contact, even a slightly longer call might pay off in customer loyalty, in addition to making agents less harried.
Sometimes “quick fixes” get short shrift. If you can use a prize, incentive, teambuilding game, or company event to turn up the motivation, do it. We’re not talking structural changes here—we’re trying to make it through to January when energy levels tend to rebound!
A little gratitude goes a long way. Agents put in tons of hours and effort for your contact center. Make sure to thank them for all they do.
When it comes to employee engagement strategies, these tips are only the beginning. To boost employee engagement for the contact center all year round, you’ll need some additional tactics, which you can learn in our on-demand webinar “How to Build an Employee Engagement Strategy that Lasts Through and Beyond Uncertain Times.” If you’ve got the time, watch that now.