Virtual Call Centers: How to Successfully Run a Call Center From Home
Running a call center has always been a substantial enterprise, and until very recently one of your first actions in so doing was to rent a large building somewhere. Whatever business you were in, and whether you were providing sales or support or both, the first consideration was where to locate it. A call center meant installing extensive physical phone lines and cabling, and sufficient accommodation for a large team of people, along with a supply of matching hardware and software.Today everything is different, and thanks to 100% cloud-based tools like Ringover Virtual Call Center software, you can do away with the cubicles, the cables, and the big office building. It is now perfectly possible to successfully run a call center of any kind, from anywhere — including your own home.The technology is the easy part, as it is the work of a moment to spin up new seats and extensions in your Ringover dashboard. But to manage the people involved in delivering your customer communications, here are some key tips to help you make your virtual call center run without a hitch:
Create a vision and sense of purpose
There’s a powerful story that President Kennedy asked a janitor at Cape Canaveral what he was doing, and received the reply, ‘I’m helping to put a man on the moon’. That man might have been sweeping up the trash all day, but he did so with pride and purpose, knowing the dream that his actions were helping to support.
You might not be launching a rocket, but you can still reach for the stars. And because they are on the front line with your customers, it’s vital that your call center agents are completely aligned and on-message. Dealing with other people’s problems, repetitive inquiries, sometimes even strong emotions all day — this can be difficult, boring, and uninspiring. But helping to create something, launch something, achieve a target… These are visions which can unite your team, wherever they are working.
Here are some ideas to consider, to bring your team together behind your goals:
- Use Ringover’s video conferencing tools, to have team meetings virtually, and also to broadcast and underline your message. When did the CEO, or head of product, last speak directly to the call center team? A personal address (which could be pre-recorded, though live with Q+A is even better), can really inspire
- Share information and the bigger picture. Is this product release part of a longer term plan and more exciting roadmap? Not only will background knowledge help your agents do a better job in answering questions, it will help them feel part of a bigger mission and moonshot.
- Visualize and virtualize, not just your call center, but your big picture. For example, if you are working in a competitive sales environment, you could have someone whip up a dashboard showing total sales, a leaderboard, cute GIFs and graphics, and so on. Think about the priorities you want to reinforce (e.g. team vs individual accomplishments), and create your data visualizations accordingly.
Recruit and train with remote work in mind
While from time to time geopolitical or environmental factors may mandate a sudden shift to remote working, for the most part the role of remote customer experience agent should be regarded as qualitatively different from the colocated shift worker — and as a result, a slightly different skill set is ideal.Those who are likely to make a success of this work need higher natural levels of self-management and motivation, a problem-solving and practical nature, and proactive communication skills — you need someone who can figure things out, update their professional knowledge, try to fix stuff when it doesn’t work (at least to the point that someone central can remote-in and take over), and who will take the lead in communicating with their supervisor and teammates. While personal attributes are important, much of this behavior can be taught and learned, so if you are running a call center from home it’s important that your agents have the right kind of training and professional development to do their job well.The technical side of things in the Ringover apps are clear and straightforward to learn, but they don’t exist within a vacuum.
Your virtual call center training therefore needs to address specifics including:
- What the rest of the team and infrastructure looks like, and where they fit in. For example, what kind of queries are they expected to figure out for themselves with the customer, versus immediately escalating to a specialist? They won’t bump into these people in the break room to discuss roles and boundaries, so it has to be made explicit.
- Norms and expectations. “Doesn’t everyone take a 10-minute tea break between each call?” or “I didn’t dare go to my own bathroom till I’d closed at least one sale all morning… If people can’t see the other people they’re working with, it’s harder to pick up on what is acceptable, expected, fair, and typical.
- What to do if something goes wrong technically. They can’t call someone from IT to pop in to their office and plug things back in again, so some kind of troubleshooting guide or decision-tree might be helpful… If this happens, try that first, then the next thing.
- How to find information they need — because in the entirely digital workspace, this is not always obvious. Having a very clear storage strategy for information and assets, combined with powerful search tools is fundamental, and helps your agent feel part of a broader organization and enterprise as well as a team. Could every remote agent immediately locate…- Detailed product information- The recording of last week’s team meeting they missed- A specialist technical agent’s direct line - HR and shift planning information?
- How to ask for help. This might mean signalling a supervisor’s attention mid-call, if they feel like they need some immediate advice or support, or afterwards if they want to debrief or get some input on a new situation. If your remote agents don’t know who or how to ask for support when they need it, you won’t even know what’s going on for them.
Nurture intrinsic motivation
People do their best work when they feel motivated to do so, and this is never more important than when they’re working remotely.
Motivation can of course be extrinsic, such as an anticipated salary or bonus, or a clock on the wall which sets boundaries on a shift worked. Even a word of thanks, for going the extra mile — from a satisfied customer, or a grateful CEO. Most people don’t do call center work other than for pay (although voluntary campaigns for fundraising or political support would be one exception to prove this rule). But we all get more satisfaction from our work when it provides motivation for its own sake, a sense of personal gratification, for a job well done.
You can enhance the intrinsic motivation of your virtual call center agents by:
- Passing on words of thanks or praise — a fabulous comment on an NPS survey for example, that singled out their individual work
- Ensuring they feel competent and well-trained (see above), to do their work well and effectively. There’s nothing more demotivating than no knowing what to do, or having to confess to a customer that you haven’t got a clue how to help them
- Giving them autonomy and flexibility where possible — the Ringover app can be installed on any desktop or mobile device, so if they prefer to use their own phone for their shift, then why not? Perhaps they’d rather do a shift at a local co-working center, because their own 4 walls have started to close in around them — again, providing any aspects of confidentiality and information security can be adequately satisfied, then why not? Also, if they work shifts or a rota, could you facilitate flexibility there, by letting people sign themselves up or indicate preferences, rather than being randomly or wholly supervisor allocated, to suit someone else’s agenda?
- Can you connect their work directly with reward or recognition in some way? This is obvious in a sales environment where commission-based pay is the expectation, but how about finding ways to call out and acknowledge excellence in support too? Again this is a powerful way to nurture behavior you want to encourage and promote, so you could decide it’d be appropriate to have an award for the highest first call resolution score over the period of 1 month, instead of the highest number of tickets processed (which could encourage whipping through too fast and creating more work down the line or fewer satisfied customers).
Supervise and support
While in the past — before bots automated away a lot of the drudgery of repetitive scripts and actions — working in a call center might have been very routine and even boring, there was often a good atmosphere despite that.The share sense of purpose certainly helped as described above, but also the feeling of being part of a team and closely working together, sensing the presence of management and collective progress, as well as friends you went for a break with and could offload to.
For the supervisor, back in the PBX days, the tools were rather limited, but at least they were augmented by line of sight. Just by looking around, you could pick up on a whole range of things, from a visible lack of productivity /procrastination between calls, or an escalating degree of tension and distress manifest in the posture of an agent dealing with one of those customers…Today however when the supervisor is working from a home office, that visual overview is replaced with a comprehensive array of call monitoring tools within the Ringover software — which offer extensive insight and functionality for all users. When these are used in conjunction with the call center metrics on offer, a supervisor can gain great insight into individual strengths and weaknesses of colleagues, as well as how best to use their own shift time to smooth the flow of each call.
Being there for the agent
Sometimes dealing with the public can be difficult, even distressing — you literally have no idea who is on the end of that call, or what they will bring up. If someone is working from their own home they may feel isolated or trapped or have nowhere to offload, it’s worse than dealing with a difficult conversation in a shared office which you get to walk away from each night.It’s therefore particularly important that you provide emotional support to remote agents. This can be during the call, if they signal to you remotely (such as via direct chat message or some other agreed way to get your attention), and you can use the call monitoring tools to listen to the call live.They may simply need a witness, to their decision to terminate an abusive caller, or they may be stuck for how to proceed. In this case the ‘whisper’ functionality lets you provide private advice and encouragement to the agent, which supports their professional development and personal motivation. Or you may want to join the call as a third party, who can be introduced as a specialist expert, and there may also be circumstances where you take over the call completely from the agent, if they’ve lost control of a situation or just can’t deal with it appropriately.However the call itself gets resolved, the same Ringover cloud phone tools, including video conferencing, can be used to debrief with the agent afterwards — making sure they’re OK, that they’re content with the protocol followed and outcome resolved, and that any relevant learning is surfaced and absorbed.
The future of the call center is virtual
So, it’s obvious that managing a call center from the comfort of your own home — and where the agents work in the same way — is perfectly possible, and frequently optimal. Giving everyone flexibility, scalability, and support, simply means learning to use familiar tools and talents in new ways.
As more and more smart technology gets integrated into our applications, it will get even easier to supervise and support agents you may never meet face to face. Compliance and archiving tools will highlight remediation opportunities and training opportunities, and natural language processing will help to flag elevated emotions in callers or agents before they even notice them themselves, making it even easier to help people do a good job.The virtual call center is clearly the way forward, and once an agent has had a taste of working in this way they rarely want to go back to the busy building full of cubicles, indeed most people enjoy saving the time and money they spent getting to a traditional workplace on their own lives outside of the shift. Increasingly those rows of phones and screens in big buildings will become an anachronism, as the remote future of customer support continues to beckon — and it will become even more important, to learn how to successfully manage the remote call center.
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