Why Work-From-Home Customer Service Agents Are Here to Stay

Why Work-From-Home Customer Service Agents Are Here to Stay

PV Kannan 17/06/2021
Why Work-From-Home Customer Service Agents Are Here to Stay

In the next two to three years, I predict that 80 percent of customer service agents worldwide will be working from home.

As the CEO of a software and services company that operates contact centers worldwide, this is the way we’re moving the company strategically, and many of our clients are philosophically aligned with this. That is a huge shift from where we were a year ago, and it has caused me to significantly revise my recommendation to companies that they allow 25 percent of their agent workforce to work from home post-pandemic. We now know that much higher percentages are possible.

Recently, Monti Becker Kelly hosted a webinar “How to Approach WFH in 2021: Future-proofing your Contact Center” with leaders from Overstock and Urban Outfitters, along with Peter Ryan principal analyst from Ryan Strategic Advisory. During the podcast Krista Mathews, Chief Customer Officer, Overstock said “CS was not fully prepared to work from home, but our biggest challenge was tripling of sales overnight. We’re an online retailer, so we needed to get self-service into the hands of the customer. The team rose to the challenge pretty quickly, but it was trial by fire.”

Brian Whitney, Customer Service and Contact Center Director, Urban Outfitters added “We had the solutions in place already for working at home, so when the lockdowns came it was mostly a matter of equipping people. Our biggest challenges were around quality and productivity, because not only did the business double overnight, but the logistics system was challenged in the United States. Customers who were used to getting packages in two days were now getting them in two weeks.”

Peter Ryan referred to a “Dunkirk-like shift” to agents from home. “Consumers need to feel that the interaction they’re having with an agent working from home is elevated to the same level as a contact center agents. Agents are isolated, and not working in a team environment, with the type of supervision they were used to. Quality assurance and the use of technology are the most consistent concerns that I have been hearing from clients. Technology should only be deployed if it’s designed to aid an agent, or if it’s designed to let consumers help themselves.”

Enabling work-from-home agents completely changes the paradigm for customer service. Traditionally, businesses process outsourcers (BPOs) have relied on having everyone in the same room, with teams clustered together and supervisors walking the floor. Of course, this approach is not without challenges and considerations. Here are a couple of key things to consider:

  1. Security and compliance – These are significant considerations, especially for financial services companies that are handling sensitive customer information. It has been proven however, that we can set agents up in a secure environment within their own homes to ensure that personally identifiable information is kept safe. Most agents today handle information digitally, communicating with consumers through asynchronous messaging applications such as Apple Business Chat, Facebook Messenger and Google’s Business Messaging. Additionally, companies must ensure that information handed off between intelligent chatbots and other conversational AI technologies is kept secure. To ensure the security of these interactions, agents must only use company-issued equipment with security software. They are required to log-in via VPN, and use webcams to verify identity, and check in via remote monitoring. We now have a track record to show that these steps clearly work, and can ensure that the security of personally identifiable information (PII).

  2. Maintaining and building agent culture and ensuring teamwork – Since our agent workforce began working remotely for the first time, we have had to think creatively and innovate to design a range of virtual engagement initiatives. These initiatives have involved employees and their families, while promoting diversity and inclusion. Through a series of launches, we were able to engage with 97% of employees in the first few months of the work-from-home initiative, with more than 12,000 cumulative employee touch points. These have included life event celebrations such as virtual baby showers, external speakers included a TEDx speaker, and Facebook Live sessions on inclusion, sensitivity and awareness, among other initiatives.

While some companies still believe that we will go back to business as usual once the pandemic is over, there are three key reasons why I don’t see that happening:

  1. Poor transportation – In many parts of the world, it is very difficult for contact center employees to get to work within a reasonable about of time. India is a great example. Living in cities is expensive, but that is where the contact center jobs are. As such, it’s not uncommon for agents to commute from 50 miles away or farther. As the result of massive population growth in outskirts of these cities, that means that employees are traveling one-and-a-half to two hours each way. That is unsustainable, especially now that agents have had a taste of what life is like without that type of commute.

  2. Employee Satisfaction – We know that commuting to work, and sitting in traffic for 90 minutes to three hours a day creates employee unhappiness. Enabling agents to work from home gives them more time with their families, and saves money on gas and car maintenance. At my company, we saw employee satisfaction hit an all-time high of 95.8% with agents working from home, and we saw our advocacy score grow to 90.8, the highest ESAT scores in our history. Overall, more than 80% of agents report that they are happy working from home, and when agents are happy, it directly contributes to the happiness of the customers they deal with. If you make your agents super happy, that it moves the needle on CSAT and NPS. Why wouldn’t you do it?

  3. Environmental impact – With nearly 3 million agents driving to work, it has a tremendous negative environmental impact. Removing even some of those cars from the roads can lead to a profound positive improvement. We have determined that in our contact center alone, having agents working from home has reduced auto emissions by 38 percent and power consumption by 50 percent. For this, and other reasons, my company has committed to having a minimum of 80 percent of agents working from home in the future, and I expect other companies to follow this lead.

The era of traditional contact centers is now past, and I firmly believe the world is better because of it. Anecdotally, I am hearing from clients that they love the flexibility of this new customer service model. What do you think?

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PV Kannan

Innovation Expert

PV Kannan is the Co-Founder and CEO of [24]7.ai. Since 2000, he has been leading the revolution to make customer service easy and enjoyable for consumers. In 1995, PV's first company, Business Evolution Inc., developed the first generation of email and chat solutions. The company was acquired by Kana in 1999 and PV became part of the management team. At [24]7.ai, PV was a pioneer in integrating customer service technology with business process operations to improve all aspects of the customer experience. PV has been at the forefront of customer experience from creating contact center agent services, developing a big data predictive analytics platform, creating omnichannel solutions for the web, mobile, chat, social, and speech IVR, to innovating mobile-centric applications. Over the years PV has been a thought leader in global customer service and has been featured in the books, The World is Flat and That Used to Be Us by Thomas L. Friedman, India Inside by Nirmalya Kumar and Phanish Puranam, and Reinventing Management: Smarter Choices for Getting Work Done by Julian Birkinshaw. PV is on the Board of Directors for Achievers. He has over 20 patents (issued and pending). PV has degrees in accounting and finance from the Institute of Chartered Accountants and The Institute of Cost and Works Accountants of India.

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