The COVID-19 pandemic continues its spread. Healthcare workers around the globe are taking heroic measures to treat those affected as scientists seek to contain it. Though life has radically changed in many ways, holding on to some sense of normalcy remains the goal, including continuing to work. Yet with many states issuing stay at home orders, going into the workplace is not possible for some. Nevertheless, many businesses are striving to safely keep the lights on for both employees and customers, and they’re doing it by having employees work from home.
Global Workplace Analytics (GWA) analyzed 2018 American Community Service (ACS) data and found that about 5 million employees (or 3.6% of the U.S. workforce) work from home at least half the time. Despite these low numbers, further analysis of U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics data by GWA showed as much as 56% of employees have jobs where some functions could be performed remotely. The move of business software to the cloud and the availability of easy-to-use collaboration software are two trends that have made that possible.
One aspect of business where remote work can be performed is customer service. In fact, for many companies, work-from-home customer service jobs are the norm. However, this is still not common, and when forced to suddenly move employees to an at-home work model it may feel more like a stressful experiment for them. Add to this challenges like the lack of inventory of some equipment necessary to work remotely and internet difficulties in employees’ homes, and pivoting customer service to work-from-home might seem impossible.
Regardless of customer inquiry volume, keeping remote agents occupied and connected during this time is crucial. To accomplish this, when not actively working on customer issues, keep them active in areas that will keep them engaged and help improve customer service delivery.
Improving the knowledge base
A knowledge base is a critical component of customer service. It creates a repository of validated answers and solutions in a consistent format. It can be relied on to assist agents working with customers as well as made available to customers using it for self-service. In addition, chatbots can offer relevant articles to customers. Online community users can use it to point fellow members to possible solutions. In other words, it offers incredible value across the customer service spectrum.
That value can be short-lived. It quickly diminishes when it’s not kept up to date. New products and services mean new issues to cover. Articles for obsolete products and services create clutter and hinder search.
Use this opportunity to tap into agents’ expertise and writing skills to make some knowledge base improvements. Have them examine what’s available to identify outdated articles and audit existing ones for any updates. Available agents can also review and address any outstanding article feedback from customers and work on creating previously backlogged articles.
Developing new skills
Finding the time for ongoing training is a challenge in any job, and customer service is no exception. The importance of keeping agents current on training is critical: companies launch new products and services regularly–each bringing new questions from customers–while policies and procedures are also ever-changing. Use available time to have agents update their education in these areas and perform refresher training as needed.
Take things a step further. Do you have agents that have particularly good customer handling or other soft skills? Have them informally share their techniques with others in video conference meetings. If their skills represent a gap in available training, have them work with trainers to develop formal material that can be used now as well as when business returns to normal.
In the spirit of training comes maintaining connections across the customer service team. While a Gallup poll showed that working remotely is effective, it also found that engagement levels are at least on-par with in-office staff. For some that engagement might come naturally, but others may be challenged.
Avoid agents feeling isolated and alone by buddying them up with others. Encourage them to touch bases with each other periodically throughout the day, be it to share information, tell a customer story, or just to chat.
Notwithstanding the feeling of solitude that can come from working remotely is the reason this is occurring in the first place. By connecting people and having periodic check-ins, not only is that human connection maintained but any personal life struggles can also be discussed (assuming both parties are comfortable).
Is the future of service at home?
Buried in a Politico article of several bold predictions about how COVID-19 will change the world, one quote is striking: “Many people are learning that the difference between having to put on a tie and commute for an hour or working efficiently at home was always just the ability to download one or two apps plus permission from their boss.” An entire Forbes article concurs, with one statement reflecting:
“It’s a radical new way of thinking about how the workplace should operate. It shows that there is not an absolute need to have everyone congregated together in one place. With the advancements in technology it’s possible to have large numbers, if not all, employees working remotely.”
Time will tell if the current work-from-home situation is temporary or becomes permanent. For some companies, this may convince them to allow it or even to prefer home-based customer service agents. For now, stay home, stay safe, and stay engaged.