When this pandemic started about half a year ago (feels like half a century) it was still quite rare for contact centre agents to be based at home. Analysts have been talking about the opportunities for customer service agents to work from home (WFH) for many years, but the reality is that there were only tens of thousands of home based agents when this all started – contrasted to millions working in contact centres.
Browsing the New York Times I found that the analyst Stephen Loynd of TrendzOwl had coined the term ‘homeshoring’ back in 2006. This was the trend for companies to explore how the use of WFH as a way of making it economically viable to hire customer service teams locally in the US, rather than offshoring to a lower-cost location.
It’s interesting that Stephen was talking about this 14 years ago because home-shoring is now emerging as an important post-covid trend. It’s not just about trying to offer WFH agents less than those based in contact centers, the emphasis now is on building greater resilience and guaranteeing business continuity when the next crisis hits. Having at least some of the customer service team far closer to the customers now looks like a good idea, even if it increases costs.
What analysts are already calling the ‘New Normal’ is going to involve several major changes for the Business Process Outsourcing (BPO) and contact center community. Clients are looking for greater resilience and business continuity plans so a more blended delivery model is almost certainly going to be normalised, including:
- Greater geographic distribution
- Multiple sites even within a single country
- More automation, including chatbots and other AI-enabled tools
- Improved self-service so all those questions to Alexa may actually have answers
But this highly-blended approach throws many existing procedures up in the air. When everyone worked together inside a contact center then it was easy to create standards describing how hiring, onboarding, initial training, and ongoing learning could all take place. Now all these processes need to work across hundreds, or thousands of sites comprising the contact centre footprint and all those home-based colleagues.
In a recent article the principal analyst at Ryan Strategic Advisory, Peter Ryan, advised: “There are a number of things that BPOs can do to reduce the stress of virtual working for their teams that have recently moved home. But, to be clear, virtual water-coolers and online video-enabled dance parties will not on their own suffice. Rather, ongoing communication with team leaders will be crucial in helping understand their work-life balance from home.”
Peter hits the nail on the head here. The WFH environment requires a lot more than just sending people home with a laptop. Processes need to change to manage distributed teams, but management culture and style also has to change. As Marcel Stroop from 5CA said to me recently on my own CX Files podcast: “Zoom Happy Hours are not going to make a difference if you don’t build a culture that generates trust and transparency, embracing everyone in your distributed team and measuring them by output – not hours at the desk.”
5CA uses an entirely WFH approach. They begin with the assumption that their potential pool of talent has over one billion people – those with an Internet connection and the ability to work from home. They use a performance management process that’s highly focused on data so all management, coaching, and training is guided by real-time performance data.
This approach reflects Marcel’s comment about hours at the desk. Managing remote workers can be a challenge for team leaders used to seeing their team in person. Ensuring that a data-driven approach to learning requirements is used creates a much stronger culture of transparency in customer support teams.
Teleperformance has built a virtual online campus they call the TP Cloud Campus. This was launched in Portugal last December so they were already running this system before Covid-19 arrived. It allows hiring, on boarding, and learning to all take place in virtual meeting rooms. The campus can also be used for social events so it effectively acts like a hub for everyone on the team – whether it’s a work meeting or team happy hour. It really was launched at exactly the right time because now they are using it globally to bring WFH teams together.
Transcom has built a completely digital onboarding system using bots. The automated process can create new users for internal systems, distribute login credentials, create or delete licenses, and send out welcome messages to new colleagues. Transcom also has their own learning management system called Transcom University. This is a centralized e-learning platform that allows employees to customize, manage and select courses. Team leaders can monitor progress when the training is focused on improving skills at work. The courses are also presented as a roadmap featuring the initial onboarding courses followed by various elective courses.
Many of these courses are gamified, encouraging greater participation and tools like Virtual Reality have also been embraced. Agents can be trained using a 360-degree immersive environment accelerating their time to competency. They have found this to be a particularly useful tool for training agents on the actions or issues that create customer dissatisfaction – so these actions can be avoided in the real service environment.
It’s clear that contact centers and BPO have dramatically changed. The way that customer service will be delivered in future is going to be very different to the single-site contact center we have known so well in the past. This creates many new challenges that have to be managed, including how to keep your team on top of their existing tasks and learning for the future.
It’s clear that many of the well-known BPO brands have been thinking carefully about this and changing their processes and management culture. I mentioned a handful of companies here and chose them just because I have heard about their approach in recent weeks. The smart players are not talking of business as usual, they are explaining how their processes are changing to adapt to a new reality.
The danger is that some BPOs are just hoping for a return to normal. Normal no longer exists in the post-covid business environment. Your customer service partner is a critical decision because these agents will be representing your brand – they are on the front-line. If your BPO is staying silent on how they think the new normal will look then it might be time to start scanning the horizon for one that has already embraced a blended workforce and the processes needed to manage and develop them.