A Brave New World for Customer Service:
The Challenges of Managing a Remote Team

 

On the rare occasions that Hollywood portrays a customer service operation, it is typically through footage of a busy contact center, with headset-wearing agents sitting at rows of workstations, each armed with a keyboard, mouse, monitor and phone. Now, though, that’s likely not the physical environment we find our teams working in.

A growing challenge for customer service leadership, as the reopening of the workplace accelerates in our post-Pandemic world, is to understand how to support and optimize a workforce that may be working from home, or in smaller cohorts with greater social distance in an office. Chatting across a cube wall, or (another Hollywood favorite) the water-cooler conversation between colleagues, may become the stuff of memories.

Physical environment challenges

Agents may be juggling other tasks at home – they might be teacher, childminder, dog-walker, taxi driver, cook and housekeeper as well as putting in a full shift for their employer. Some people are lucky enough to have a dedicated home office, or at least somewhere that can be designated as such. Others will be working in bedrooms, at dining tables, or perched on the edge of a couch.

Reducing customer frustration

And the environment for your customers is equally different. They, too, may be planning to stay away from the office for the foreseeable future. They probably have their own stresses to deal with, which will color their communication with customer service agents. Maybe it’s also changing the channel of communication, with more emphasis on text-based media, particularly email, rather than phone calls.  Especially when it’s important to have a record of the conversation that your customer can share with their distributed team.

Because your customers are also coping with stress, there are some structural things that can help before the conversation even starts. Changes to payment terms, for example. Educate and empower your agents to have those conversations if necessary. Even the language used in email replies can make a difference here: “let’s work together to find a way to resolve this” is more likely to defuse an explosive situation than “Accounting says no.”

Within the customer service organization itself, how can leaders stay ahead of the game when it comes to managing a team that may be working remotely for the long term? There are three key things that we think you should be thinking about:

  1. Time management. Acknowledge that your agents may need to step away from their desks at unpredictable times to cope with incidents that they cannot control, and you cannot see. The dog needs to go out; the teenager can’t connect to her online class; the coffee machine needs refilling; there’s a delivery driver at the door. Managing short absences by taking themselves out of distribution queues and “stopping the clock” empowers agents to deal with interruptions without impacting the overall performance of the team.
  2. Collaboration. Many inbound inquiries require that agents gather information from elsewhere in the organization to answer the customer’s question. When everyone’s in the same building, this may need just a conversation across a desk – and an agent may be able to see if the person they need to talk to is available. But when Angela in Accounts is way across town, sitting at her kitchen table with a laptop and a cellphone, it’s more important than ever to have technology that facilitates collaboration within and beyond the customer service team, yet still in context with the initial customer question.
  3. Workload management. There’s nothing more likely to dent enthusiasm than a feeling of being overwhelmed by the volume of work. When a team is geographically dispersed, it can be harder for managers to see at a glance – and impossible for agents to gauge – what the backlog is, or how it’s distributed among the team. It’s key to be able to keep the team’s workload balanced, both to cope with inevitable short disruptions, and to ensure that you can keep on top of your customers’ service level expectations. And the converse is also true: it’d be great to know when there’s a quieter period, so you can take the time to check in with the team, keep an eye on how everyone’s doing, without becoming the cause of yet another of those interruptions.

Flatten the learning curve

Right now, when agents may be working in less-than-ideal physical circumstances, it seems a sound idea to try and keep the technology environment as familiar as possible for your team. Requiring agents to learn a whole new user interface for a collaboration tool will add to stresses rather than reduce them. You may already be dealing with remote access issues with legacy CRM and ERP systems that were originally intended for a team sitting in the same office, although by their very nature, newer cloud-based apps overcome many of these problems. Now may not be the best time to introduce a new platform to your team – but we’re confident you already use email. Chances are, you may use Microsoft Office 365. Wouldn’t it be cool if there was a solution to help your organization with time management, workflow management and collaboration all while still working in Outlook?

If that sounds like your situation, we at Emailgistics would love to talk to you about how we can help make that happen.