Four steps to the customer service work-at-home
The current corona pandemic poses a challenge for many companies to enable their employees to use their home office to ensure their health and maintain business operations. Especially in customer service it is essential to continue to be there for customers to ensure their satisfaction. But how do companies best do this? And what is to be considered? Since the outbreak of the pandemic, Majorel has enabled tens of thousands of its customer service representatives to work from home.
In a field report, the consulting experts at the customer experience management service provider explain the path from the service center to the home office in four steps:
- From the technical infrastructure to quality management
- Phase 1: Setup – Creating the necessary technical and legal conditions
- Phase 2: Manage – transfer communication and processes to the home office
- Phase 3: Training and Quality Assurance – Maintaining and increasing performance
- Phase 4: Recruitment – new skills are required
- Outlook: The road to the “New Normal”
The number of employees working in the home office has risen sharply as a result of the corona pandemic and is expected to continue to rise in the future. According to Statista, before the crisis, a total of 39 percent of all German companies enabled some of their employees to work from home. 46 percent did not have the technical possibilities to offer their employees a home office. And in only 1.5 percent of Germany-wide job advertisements, companies advertised the possibility of working from home. As a rule, employees in support and management functions in particular had a home office contract. Employees in operational-productive functions were rarely given the opportunity to work from home. “While the customer service department has been talking about home offices for a long time, but hardly any solutions have been implemented so far, one thing in particular has changed in recent weeks: Employees are actively demanding that their employers allow them to work from home,” says Sascha Wollenberg, Managing Director at Majorel Consulting. According to Statista (https://de.statista.com), 75 percent of employees can basically imagine working from their home office, while 58 percent expressly wish to do so. The figures make it clear: Due to the crisis, the need for home office solutions has increased significantly within a very short time, both on the part of employers and employees.
From the technical infrastructure to quality management
Majorel, one of the world’s leading customer experience management service providers, has enabled tens of thousands of its account managers, who work for clients from a wide range of industries, to work from home in recent weeks. Many teams have already been able to move completely into the home office. “Thanks to the close cooperation, solidarity and willingness to cooperate on the part of our clients, we have succeeded in enabling a large part of our staff to work from their home office within a very short time. But home offices are not possible everywhere in customer service, for example when working with highly sensitive end customer data – as in the banking or insurance industry,” says Wollenberg. “In coordination with our clients, we continuously check where home offices are possible and sensible and then implement appropriate solutions”.
Majorel has developed a four-step process for transferring customer service from the service center to the home office. The first step is to create the necessary conditions to enable employees to work from the home office – both in terms of the technical infrastructure and the legal and organizational framework (Phase 1: Setup). Subsequently, ways and means should be found to enable goal-oriented communication with the employees and the control of the employees in the virtual environment: How does team communication look like online? How can the usual processes be mapped online (Phase 2: Manage)? The third phase deals with employee training and quality management: How can new content be communicated to colleagues who have already been trained, how can professional training of new employees be guaranteed? And how can knowledge be kept up-to-date and quality maintained (Phase 3: Train)? The fourth and final phase is about finding medium- and long-term ways to attract new employees via online channels and to map the application process completely online (Phase 4: Recruit).
Phase 1: Setup - Creating the necessary technical and legal conditions
Companies that want to transfer their customer service to the home office face a number of challenges, especially at the beginning. Contracts with clients must be renegotiated, data protection issues must be clarified and implemented. In addition, it is necessary to check what the technical requirements are on the employees’ side. Is the hardware that customer service representatives can bring in privately sufficient or do new devices have to be purchased? How fast is the Internet connection at home? Is secure Internet access guaranteed and can confidentiality rules be maintained within the customer advisors’ own four walls? “When setting up the technical and legal requirements, we noticed that not all employees can or want to work from home. An initial survey provides clarity about the status quo here,” says Wollenberg. Depending on the technical equipment and the willingness of the customer advisors, the private devices can then be set up for professional use, for example by IT via remote desktop solution such as VPN or Team Viewer, or directly via web-based access to the systems. For those who do not bring suitable devices, new PCs, laptops and mobile phones may have to be purchased.
In addition, the company has to create some legal conditions. For example, contractual arrangements must be made between the client and the service provider and it must be ensured that all data protection and compliance-relevant precautions are taken. In addition, the employment contract of the customer advisors should be extended to include a home office agreement. “If, as in the light of the current coronavirus pandemic, a quick solution needs to be found for the work of the customer advisors in the home office, renegotiation of data protection requirements on the part of the client may be a possibility – provided, of course, that it is still possible to work in a data protection-compliant manner and that the end customer data is sufficiently protected. The involvement of the client is crucial in this respect,” Wollenberg continues. Another way to act quickly is to provide employees with a budget from which they can buy headsets or other technical equipment, for example.
Phase 2: Manage - transfer communication and processes to the home office
Once all technical, legal and organizational conditions have been clarified and implemented, the next step is to set up processes for managing home office staff and managing the customer service team. One of the biggest challenges in this process is to maintain and promote communication with and among customer service staff as well as team dynamics. “Informal communication, such as the daily greeting or the drop-off when something worked particularly well – far away from meetings and routines – is almost completely eliminated in the home office. But this is essential for a good team feeling and the daily motivation of the customer advisors. To compensate for this, new solutions must be found,” says Wollenberg. “In addition, transparency must also be ensured in the home office, for example by making figures and reports available”. Majorel recommends his team leaders to talk 1:1 with each account manager – especially in view of the current situation – so that there is more work for the managers. In addition, in some teams not all employees work from home and the exchange – on the one hand with the customer advisors remaining in the service center, on the other hand with the employees in the home office – must be coordinated. It is therefore crucial in phase 2 to find, implement and use a professional communication tool that is suitable for individual requirements – both for one-to-one and one-to-many communication. The exchange via chat is often not sufficient for this; in many cases, telephone calls or even video telephony are the more efficient and target-oriented solution. Various tools are suitable for team collaboration – from Facebook Workplace and Skype to Microsoft teams. In order to strengthen team cohesion and the motivation of the employees, it is important that in addition to pure information, emotional exchange is not neglected. For example, emojis can be sent via chats or the social media. Although these do not replace non-verbal communication in the service centre, they do create a feeling of cohesion, positive mood and integration of the individual employees. In addition to communication, workforce management is crucial in the setup phase. Here, too, suitable solutions must be found for the home office, for example, to plan and coordinate the shifts of the customer service representatives in a sensible manner. In addition, the real-time management processes must be adapted in order to allow employees to take short breaks in their home offices and to coordinate them. In this way, despite home office and different break times, a quick response to customer inquiries is always guaranteed.
With these measures, Majorel has managed to transfer the operative service center operation to the home office. “We are even recording increasing productivity figures. The sickness rate is also falling,” says Wollenberg. “At the same time, the home office also has its limits. New employees in particular should be trained on site if possible”. In addition, there are problems with the technology, which can affect the productivity of the employees. If you work with a wide variety of programs and several screens in the service center, it is difficult for you to work on just one screen – or temporarily even on a smaller laptop screen – with the same productivity as before.
Phase 3: Training and Quality Assurance - Maintaining and increasing performance
In times of the corona pandemic, training and quality management cannot be implemented on site, but have to take place digitally. The prerequisite for this is that training material developed for on-site training must be revised and adapted for online training. This applies not only to the training contents and the training concept, but also to possible limitations due to the way the hardware functions. Long online trainings can also lead to excessive demands on trainers and coaches, but also on customer service staff. Thus, the pure information phases of the training should not be too long – this is even more important for online training than on-site training. To ensure that everything runs smoothly, it is advisable to provide employees and trainers with assistance: What are suitable formats for online training? How can they be prepared?
In order to make online training a success, the first step is to determine the requirements for the training software and environment. These include IT security, user-friendliness and reporting. Based on this, the training material should then be adapted and suitable tools selected. For online training and e-learning, for example, the Chamilo program is suitable, while Cisco or WebEx, for example, can be used for quality management. The training and quality assurance processes must then be adapted by integrating the required tools. “With a little practice, trainings can be converted relatively easily into a webinar with subsequent e-learning,” says Wollenberg. “Quality management is a little more demanding: trainers and team leaders can give feedback to customer service representatives, for example, on the basis of voice or screen recordings, or they can connect live via web sessions to selected customer conversations. Depending on the possibilities, feedback meetings are then held, for example, via video and audio call or the employee receives immediate brief feedback via chat message. “As far as training and quality management in the home office is concerned, web-based software solutions that can be used without time-consuming installation have proven particularly successful,” says Wollenberg. “Another decisive factor is the technical support: This should be available to the participants of training courses during the entire training phase”. But it is not enough to simply select the systems. The processes should also be clarified: Which system is used for what? What roles and tasks do coaches, trainers and agents have? Who sets up the systems? Who organises the invitation process? All this should be considered and taken into account in advance.
Phase 4: Recruitment - new skills are required
Online recruiting may become necessary not only during the coronavirus pandemic. Even if the applicant has to travel a long way for an interview, an interview via video telephony may be an option. Here too, the choice of a suitable tool is crucial. This tool should be protected by data protection laws and should be easy for the applicant to set up and use. “In our experience, Skype meets with a high level of acceptance among applicants,” says Wollenberg. For the recruiting process, it can also make sense to make greater use of online channels when approaching candidates during the advertisement phase and to advertise directly in the job advertisements with the option of working from the home office. For the job interview itself, the content should be checked for its transferability to the home office. For example, certain interview questions may have to be left out because they no longer apply or the interview form may have to be supplemented with new questions. Thus, certain skills that are important for work from the home office can be tested, such as independence, flexibility and discipline. The special advantage of the online application interview: simulated interviews, such as customer advice over the phone and skill tests, such as a short written dialogue in the chat window, can be conducted even more authentically. “All in all, sequences of previous standard applicant interviews can generally be transferred to video telephony without any noteworthy adjustments,” summarizes Wollenberg.
Outlook: The road to the "New Normal"
“Even if it is not yet possible to estimate when the time will come, we at Majorel are already asking ourselves today what the day-to-day work in the service centre after Corona will look like and are preparing the individual steps,” says Wollenberg. “On the one hand, this includes the preparations at our service center locations: How can hygiene and clearance rules be implemented in the long term? What capacities result from the distance rules? How many employees can return, how many will continue to work from home in the medium term? On the other hand, the return of the employees must be planned. “Furthermore, the necessary IT support structures must be ensured on site to make the transition as smooth and efficient as possible. When deciding which employees should return to the service centre and which should continue to work from home in the future, the Majorel experts recommend developing a catalogue of criteria. At Majorel, the criteria used by the customer service representatives range from the willingness of individual employees to work from their home office and their performance values in the home office, to membership of a risk group and childcare options, to individual characteristics and skills such as flexibility and self-discipline. In the case of specialists and managers, on the other hand, criteria such as availability, type of tasks, technical requirements and the complinace risk of the individual area of responsibility apply. “In shift planning, we are currently focusing heavily on hybrid models, in which work-at-home and service center work is divided, as well as rotating models. We currently assume that 15 to 20 percent of our workforce will continue to work in the home office in the future. As a result of the crisis, the need for home office solutions on the employee side has increased within a very short time. And in the past, it has been shown that crises also change the wishes and needs of employees in the long term. Now that the first hurdles have been cleared and many customers have made their first positive experiences, the acceptance of the topic will also be higher on the side of our clients after Corona. The possibility to work in customer service from the home office will be part of a ‘New Normal’. “Offering work-at-home solutions to your customer service employees creates new possibilities for companies in terms of employee management, but also opportunities for recruiting. That’s why Majorel Consulting has expanded its range of consulting services and now also advises companies on the successful implementation of work-at-home solutions in customer service.
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