Remote Customer Service: How to Successfully Manage Teams that Work Off-site

Lately, we’ve had some interesting conversations with brand executives around the concept of remote customer service. Many are just beginning to explore the idea, asking how a virtual contact center might benefit their business and what it would take to keep remote workers performing at the highest level.

In other words, would building and managing a remote customer service team be worth the effort?

A growing number of brands are convinced it is. They’re shifting, in full or in part, to remote customer service. Williams Sonoma just announced its intention to hire remote seasonal workers; Apple’s At Home Advisors have been solving customers’ problems remotely for years. Mattress retailer Tuft & Needle enables its remote agents to answer service calls at home or on the go. Search any online job board, and you’ll find thousands of openings for remote customer service agents.

Clearly, the idea of a virtual contact center has its appeal. And some companies are making it work. But what are the advantages? And how can brands effectively manage performance from afar?

Let’s tackle those questions one at a time.

3 Major Advantages of the Remote Customer Service Model

Studies suggest remote workers are more productive and more engaged than their onsite counterparts. Furthermore, they feel as connected with their peers as they did in person, if not more so. For these and other reasons, remote customer service agents may be ideal for seasonal hiring—and, as permanent hires, deliver more value than you might think.

1. Recruiting and retention are easier.

Deloitte’s 2017 Global Contact Center Survey revealed that over the next two years, 53% of companies surveyed intend to offer flexible work arrangements for customer service agents and 40% plan to introduce initiatives to reduce contact center churn.

These two priorities are closely related. In fact, flexible work is one of the biggest incentives for job seekers. By taking geography out of the equation, a remote customer service model not only expands the pool of potential candidates—making it easy to scale customer service teams—but also attracts more high-quality applicants and increases the likelihood that new hires will stay put.

2. The cost savings are significant.

In addition to increasing productivity and lowering churn—two big bottom-line benefits—a remote customer service model eliminates the overhead of a physical contact center (work stations, power, maintenance). Brands not only enjoy the cost-saving benefits of outsourcing, but also maintain control of coaching, training, and performance measurement.

The outsourcing vs. outstaffing question is an important one. If you’re looking to shift some of the burden of managing offsite workers, outsourcing is the way to go. But if cost efficiency and oversight are equally important to you, a virtual contact center would be a win-win.

3. Technology makes it a seamless operation.

No matter where they’re based, customer service agents find it hard to interact with other team members—not just to feel connected, but to learn and grow. All day long, agents follow the same routine: handle a call, type notes into the CRM system, close the ticket, and take the next call.

Digital chat tools (e.g., Slack) bridge the distance between remote agents, and between agents and managers, to strengthen team cohesion and make coaching and training easier and more effective. In fact, remote customer service agents have all the high-tech tools they need to stay engaged, resolve customer issues on first contact, and achieve optimal efficiency.

How to Overcome the Biggest Management Challenges

Tech platforms notwithstanding, managing a remote customer service team has its challenges. You won’t be able monitor agents up close, and there’s no walking the hallways to give agents a pat on the back for an outstanding interaction. If you’re not tuned into what’s happening on an individual basis and across the board (other than listening in to a few random calls), coaching and training will become generic exercises with limited value for your agents and the customers they serve.

So how can you effectively manage a virtual contact center? How do brands with a remote workforce keep agents motivated, coach and train them effectively, and gauge their progress?

This is where an agent-level voice of the customer (VoC) data collection program comes in. If you have a feedback mechanism that’s agent-focused and generates a high volume of timely customer responses, you can use the data in several important ways.

Motivate agents to excel

With an agent-level feedback platform, you can motivate agents and build camaraderie by sharing feedback data via dashboards and team leaderboards. Agents set goals against their current scores, congratulate top performers, and compete to move up in the contact center rankings. For many Stella Connect clients, team leaderboards are second only to individual feedback streams in terms of platform traffic; agents want to know how they’re faring with customers and how they stack up against their peers.

Deliver micro-coaching in the moment

As the VoC data stream in and trigger alerts related to specific types of feedback, managers can use chat tools (without interrupting workflow) to ping agents with praise or concerns about recent customer comments. Through a combination of continual reinforcement and quick refreshers and reminders, managers can help keep agents’ performance trending in the right direction.

Measure service quality

Many brands use technology to determine how many calls reps are fielding and how much time elapses between calls. Productivity measures like these are important for managing a remote team, but so are quality measures. Armed with VoC data from the front line, managers and QA leaders can readily identify top and bottom performers, understand individual weaknesses, and identify troubling trends—all from the customer’s point of view.

If you have an agent-level feedback program in place, your customers will do much of the hard work for you. They’ll boost agents’ morale and give them something to strive for. They’ll reveal coaching opportunities and training needs you’d otherwise miss. And as a result, they’ll help you measure agent performance in ways that matter most to the health and longevity of your brand.

Front-Line Feedback Brings Remote Agents and Customers Closer Together

Among all the data collection programs brands use to measure and improve the customer experience, agent-level feedback has the unique ability to humanize brands and establish an emotional connection after every service interaction. Agent-level feedback keeps remote teams informed and engaged and builds brand equity. It makes remote customer service not just a viable option, but perhaps the best choice for your team.

How to motivate a remote customer service team