Over the past two years, everything has changed, personal and professional. Customer experience teams changed the most. Customers went online while employees moved to virtual offices. Sending employees home impacted business operations around the world, and leadership and operations philosophy had to change overnight.
Jet Blue was one of the pioneers of the at-home agent model. They sent agents home in 1999 to more than 15,000 home-based employees in the first 15 years. During that time, they earned nine consecutive J.D. Power awards for customer service. JetBlue cites lower overhead costs as well as improved customer service for the reasons it engages at-home employees.
"People tend to provide the best customer service when they can work from home in a familiar office space with few distractions."
You would think that with Jet Blue's success, more organizations would have followed sooner. COVID-19 forced agents to work from home and accelerated solving new organizational challenges. These pains came quickly, especially with entry-level employees who were suddenly working on an island. Businesses had to rethink their approach to recruiting, training, and coaching.
Jorge Serrano found himself leading virtual teams in late 2020. He took over a 100 seat entry-level call center virtual and installed procedures and policies to optimize the operation. This challenge was real.
Recruiting Agents in a Virtual World
Businesses responded very differently at the beginning of COVID-19. Employees were made redundant, the Federal Government paid companies to keep employees on staff, and there was much uncertainty. I'm not sure what changed, but 2021 began a significant employment deficit. Unemployment was at an all-time low, and the fight for talent began. Companies couldn't hire enough talent. Staffing call centers was more challenging than ever.
"Getting sustainable talent in the door became challenging," said Jorge. "Between our staffing agency and me, we were only successful with one out of twenty hires."
The difficulty of acquiring the right talent is something that spans industry-wide.
Jorge and his team had the following issues with recruits:
- Not showing up to their initial interview or training
- Quitting during or after training
- Having insufficient tech skills for remote work
Blame it on unemployment, recruiting websites, talent level, or competition; hiring and retaining talent in this market has become more challenging than ever.
"Before COVID, it wasn't difficult to staff a team. We had a 20 to 25% attrition rate, which was pretty good for entry-level contact center jobs. Fast forward to 2021, despite all the adjustments made, supporting staff was extremely challenging and impacted on higher than average attrition levels."
The remote workforce is not going away. At least a portion of your agents will be working remotely into the distant future. Amazon even just announced an indefinite remote work policy for a portion of its employees. The positive is that it opens up your recruiting pool to anywhere in the world. The challenge is that it increases management risk. The reality means you must hire right the first time. The statistics point towards a hybrid model becoming the norm in 2021 and beyond.
Here are some things to think about when deploying a recruiting strategy for remote workers:
- Make a Great First Impression – Your top prospects are interviewing you just as much as you, them. They begin evaluating your culture and work environment from their first contact, so focus on making it upbeat, simple, and concise. Highlight some videos of what it looks like to work for you—things like the company picnic, voluntary work, and teams.
- Identify Your Ideal Agent – Avoid just interviewing everyone; focus on interviewing the right candidates. Create a pre-employment assessment that weeds out candidates quickly. Include basic screenings for remote work such as internet speed, equipment (modem, router, camera, etc.), and basic computer skills. Remember, these agents will be working without a help desk right next to them.
- Make it Easy – Keep your application process simple. Have an accessible online hub where applicants can submit their resumes. Most important, don't ask for skills that are not necessary. Focus on the skills and qualifications that you need. Not a wish list.
- Consider a Bring Your Own Equipment Strategy – For entry-level jobs, this may be a little risky. However, it could pay off in the long run when you have higher-skilled talent. If they have their own computer, they likely know how to use it.
- End the Phone Screening – Old school contact centers always started with a phone screening. Replace this process with a video chat using Teams, Zoom, or your provider of choice. This process will help weed out bad fits earlier.
Training Virtual Agents
One difficulty of managing remote agents is ensuring their basic needs are met. In an office environment, essentials like food, water, warmth, and safety are in the employer's hands but are now out of their control.
For an effective training plan that focuses on growth and development, businesses must first ensure that a home environment meets the basic needs of the staff. To get them fully engaged, you can move beyond those staples.
Deploying a consistent, standardized training program is key to consistency across your team. Jorge's new team did not require a high skill level. A two-week training cycle with one week in the classroom and one week of intermittent live coached training was sufficient.
The primary challenge was developing virtual training that worked. Keeping people engaged on a Teams or Zoom training is a skill. Your trainer is likely focused on their content, and they struggle to simultaneously monitor the trainee's engagement, faces, and body language.
It can be challenging to read the people who need help when a small video screen is all you see. They're used to being in person; now, nobody is in the same room. They can't see when trainees are struggling and show them where to click, how to navigate, etc.
"Transitioning to fully virtual training was a challenge. Imagine using trainers trained to do in-person sessions and without strong training processes." Said Jorge. "Our first virtually trained group was a disaster."
Things you could consider doing to optimize effectiveness include:
- Gamification – Leverage gaming tools like "Kahoots" to break up activities and reward winners.
- Certifications – Provide intermittent certificates to make sure you're not losing anyone.
- Requiring Cameras – Require that all trainees are on camera throughout the training. This feature allows trainers to see what they were doing and any red flags.
- Multiple Trainers – You save money on office space, so consider investing in multiple trainers per class. One trainer can present while the other monitors the trainees and helps those who are struggling.
- Use Breakout Rooms – This is a newer feature across meeting software. It can help break up the presentation, force participation, and give you a safe space for people to get individual help.
Each situation will require different tips and tricks. Don't be afraid to deploy something like Six Sigma's Continuous Improvement model. Continuous improvement focuses on eliminating variability and improving predictability in organizations. The goal is to achieve stable and predictable results through clearly defined, measurable processes and a commitment to sustained quality improvement. Don't be afraid to try new things. Just deploy what works and learn from what doesn't.
Leading the Entry-Level Job Workforce
Leading entry-level job teams takes a different skill set. We need to take ownership of our teams. Don't expect to recruit "superstars." It is crucial to find people who are coachable and then mold them into whom they can become. Everyone has strengths; find those strengths, and help your team build on them.
"Becoming an expert in something has an origin. Every kid who plays t-ball starts by learning how to swing the bat. Some of those kids end up in the Major leagues. It's all about having the right coaches and teachers to achieve our potential."
Recent trends show hiring for soft skills is just as important as hard (technical) skills. Even if someone isn't a ready-made superstar, if they have the right attitude to succeed, they may well get there with effective training.
Ideally, you would hire people who want to become the next contact center director. The reality is, you are not going to get everyone promoted. Understand everyone's goals and help them achieve them. Some may want to be an agent; others aspire to have your job. Embrace that reality.
"I started my career in a contact center by accident and worked my way to the top. I always want new hires to see what is possible; they could be running their own operation," said Jorge. "It's our job as leaders to help them see the vision and coach them up. We rarely hire superstars, but superstars are made, not born."
As leaders, it is our job to coach our employees up and make them great. Show them that this job can turn into a career. When brought in to lead any team, consider some of these words of wisdom:
- Build Relationships with Your Team – Get to know staff and peers through one-on-ones. Have the conversations be both personal and professional. This strategy will help you work together.\
- Establish Clear Expectations – Make sure your team knows what they need to do and the "why" behind the expectation. If they understand the impact of each activity, following the process will flow.
- Holding People Accountable – This does not necessarily mean constantly writing people up. Focus on feedback and continuous improvement. Your relationship will be vital to making holding people accountable productive.
- Give Praise – You will get more out of the positive than things that aren't working. Make sure your team hears your praise and feels genuine appreciation. They need to know you are in their corner.
The world has gone virtual, and it is not going back. Companies now know that they can succeed with virtual teams; they need to recruit, coach, and lead them differently. Operational efficiencies are there; it will take consistent processes and vision. Your people are the key to success. Build the right team, and your organization will thrive. Do this right, and everything will fall into place.