Navigating the Work-From-Home Contact Center from A to Z: An in-depth interview with Customer Service and Work-From-Home Expert, Michele Rowan

Today we have on the pod, Michele Rowan, who is a CX executive with 20-plus years of experience in strategy, implementation, and optimization, both of US and international support. She is an expert in the design and continuous improvement of the remote working model for contact centers, support functions, and enterprise, both in-sourced and outsourced. Michele’s an accomplished speaker, author, executive team member, and consultant. Michele is currently the president of the Work From Home Alliance, where she has collaborated with over 150 companies in the design, expansion, and continuous improvement of their work-from-home programs.

Listen to the full episode here:

Welcome to the pod, Michele. Really quick. I just have to ask, do I have your permission to record this call for quality assurance?

Absolutely.

Excellent. We’ll jump right in. Can you give our listeners and our readers some insight into your background? So where you started, maybe your first job getting out of college, and then where you got to where you are today?

Yeah, sure. My career began in HR actually. And then I moved from human resources into more of an operational role. And that was actually in my first contact center assignment, it was with an outsourcer. And once I moved from human resources to operations, I eventually landed at Hilton Hotels and I spent 12 years with Hilton reservations and customer care. So it’s the reservations and customer service arm of the hotel organization. And while I was with Hilton, I ran a large contact center for them in Tampa, Florida. And then I moved to London, to the UK, where I was based for five years. And in that assignment, I looked after our reservation and customer care offices in Europe, Middle East, Asia, and Africa. That was supposed to be a two-year assignment and ended up being five, a post I thoroughly enjoyed because I got to live in London and travel all over the world and stay in really nice hotels, so that was a fantastic experience.

And then I moved back to the US, still with Hilton and worked on some other projects with them. And eventually, one of the projects I worked on actually was moving a thousand-plus people from in-house contact center positions to home pay positions with Hilton. And I fell in love with that business model and saw the opportunity for life enrichment on the part of employees and saw the benefits for organizations. And I saw no downside in that business model, so I decided to take the leap out on my own, away from the corporate environment and start my own consulting company. And I did that just over 10 years ago, and I’ve been helping companies design and improve their remote working programs ever since.

I find it so interesting, Michele. I talked to a lot of people on the podcast who give their career journey, and I’m so surprised by how many people who I talk to that are now in leadership positions, or have moved on to be consultants, that actually started as contact center agents. I think that sometimes contact center agents can feel like it’s a dead-end position, a transitional position, but what I’m learning, the more and more I talk to people, is they started out in the contact center, so I think that’s inspiring.

Oh, yeah.

I totally agree with you, Hailey. I know. The contact center organizations, in many, many times it is an entry-level position in many organizations, depending on the service and product that’s being furnished and whether it’s B2B or B2C, or what the environment is like, but it is often, even though it’s entry-level, it’s a breeding ground for professional development. And many of, certainly my clients and member companies, are often refilling positions because of promotion out to other arms of the organization. So I like that you reminded us all of that. Thank you, because I think sometimes we forget that.

Yeah, definitely. So you had just talked about moving away from working from Hilton, well that you enjoyed so much, bringing so many of their contact center individuals over to the work-from-home model, so now you have this organization where you consult on that. Can you share a little bit more about your unique organization and what your day-to-day role and responsibilities look like as the president of the Work From Home Alliance?

Yeah, I’d love to. The Work From Home Alliance gives leaders the systematic approach to collecting meaningful insights around work-from-home and hybrid work, which obviously is more important now than ever before. But I have found through my working with individual companies, that one of the things that people really were seeking was an opportunity, and a platform, and an environment where they could gather with their colleagues in a transparent and safe environment to share their experiences and their insights. And there are challenges around remote work and work-from-home. And obviously that is all blown up and taken on a front and center position as a result of the pandemic, so I have refined kind of the work and the platform that my company has offered through the years to this point, which is now this revolution around where people work, because it’s all changed, and how we support them, and engage with them, and manage them, and source them, and all those things.

So the Work From Home Alliance gives leaders that systematic approach to be able to collect meaningful data and insights from a group of colleagues that are relevant in a transparent and kind of safe environment. And the focus is a lady with laser focus. It is on remote work, work-from-home, hybrid work. We have a lot of senior leaders in the contact center environment that participate and also on the corporate side of the environment, because if you take away that transactional nature of the contact center, the way that we support people remotely is pretty much the same.

So through the Work From Home Alliance, we offer corporate memberships. And again, the laser focus is on work-from-home and hybrid work. And for our corporate members, we facilitate frequent virtual meetings, they’re monthly, there’s a couple of them a month for different levels of the organization. One is a senior leader strategy session, and the other is an operational best practice exchange. And we facilitate those virtual meetings so that members can easily share their vision, their tactics, their experiences, their challenges with work-from-home and hybrid work. And we also do a couple benchmarking surveys a year for member companies and also have an online forum, some private meeting groups for members to be able to exchange digitally in that environment.

So I just wanted to share one more thing about corporate membership, because to me, it’s such a deal and it’s only $2,000 a year for a corporate membership and that allows for unlimited attendance to monthly meetings, so you can send two people or 20 people, and it also includes participation in the benchmarking surveys and those online private groups. So 2,000 bucks once a year for a corporate membership is a very, very low ticket cost to get plugged into a network of like-minded individuals.

And in terms of my role, I facilitate, again, those meaningful sessions for our corporate members. I also do one-on-one consulting for companies that want a more personal approach as they re-engineer their remote working programs for this kind of long-term vision. And as we’re getting to this endemic point, hopefully we are, that’s what companies are doing now, they’re stepping back and saying, “What’s the playbook for the long term now that we’re going to have large populations of people at home?”

The other thing that I do is hold in-person meetings, and conferences, and workshops now that we’re getting to a safe way that we can do that again, so that again, leaders can meet in person. So we’re offering virtual interactions and also in-person interactions where we drill down on all things remote work for very focused laser exchanges.

That’s amazing. I truly believe that there’s nothing more valuable than getting into a room with your peers and sharing your pain points, everyone sharing their pain points, and then seeing, “I can help this individual with one thing, they can help me with another,” and that collaborative environment and how useful it is, as opposed to just reading, or listening to a webinar, or listening to a podcast, but truly getting into a conversation with people that are all in the same industry or different industries, but dealing with the same issue, like work-from-home.

Yeah, I totally agree. And it’s the focus, and the attention, and the commitment, the time investment that we make to having those deeper exchanges. And when you’re on a one-hour webcast event, or you’re reading content, or other sources of media that we have access to, you’re not going to get that same level of exploration of thought and experiential sharing that you get when you camp out for a day and a half or two days in a room with colleagues that are there for the same reason.

And the thing that makes my meetings so interesting is that people come from all different industries. So you’ve got financial services, healthcare, utilities, education, professional services, retail, travel. So that makes for really interesting dialogues. And people are coming in from various functional areas, so there’s HR leadership and IT guys, and strategy people, and project managers, and operational leads. And so that makes for really interesting dialogue and is quite eyeopening for people.

And when you get it into a nice relaxed setting, where people really feel comfortable opening up, there’s kind of like nothing like it. In fact, sometimes, I mean, I facilitate all of these sessions and queue up topics that I know are going to be of interest, but oftentimes I’m the one that needs the foghorn because they put me in the corner and just keep going at it. I mean, it’s hard for me to makes sure that we really cover everything on the agenda because the dialogue is so extensive, so that just goes to show how meaningful the sessions are. They’re terrific.

That’s incredible. So moving forwards, in August, Vistio released a practical guide that covers how to hire, manage, and retain remote contact center agents. It also addresses how we navigate the issue of having agents in a hybrid workforce as well, so you’re having individuals who are working from home and then working from the office. I’d love to dive into your thoughts around the topics that we covered in that ebook as you are the expert, really.

So, in your opinion, what are the key tips or the most crucial elements to keep in mind when undertaking talent acquisition and hiring in the unique work-from-home atmosphere that the pandemic has now created, or just in general, as we’re seeing with you, you’ve been doing this for a very long time?

Yeah. And I think we’ve learned this more from the pandemic than any other time. And that is, one of the most important things to me is the importance of being transparent about what you’re looking for and what your requirements are in the job, and how you put them across to people. We need to be really clear and really honest about what the job requirements are and what the day-to-day and hour-to-hour role looks like. And we need to be effective at getting that across to people so that we don’t waste their time or ours, because that costs a lot of money when we hire the wrong people.

And I think the other thing that became abundantly clear during the pandemic for many of my member companies and my clients that I’ve spoken with, is the need to be quick in terms of speed to market, with the selection process, the whole hiring and onboarding process. If yours is taking weeks to be able to give people feedback, you’re going to lose in that proposition. So the quickness and the ease of moving through the process is super important and getting it right in terms of what the job really looks like, what you’re offering, what the requirements are.

Further Reading: The Practical Guide to Hiring, Managing and Retaining Remote Contact Center Agents

So that’s so interesting. You gave me the perfect caveat into my next question, and it’s a little redundant, but how can you quickly identify candidates who will thrive in the work-from-home environment? Are there red flags that you can identify right off the bat from, let’s say, even their CV to their interview, that can indicate a candidate is perhaps not suited for the work from the home environment?

Yeah. I like to look for some things and this one is not a new one, but it’s an important one. Job offers. So if someone is having trouble committing, and there’s a pattern of that on the CV, the chances are they’re going to have trouble committing to you. You’re raising the risk right there. So I am really careful about people that have trouble making commitments, unless you’re hiring for short-term assignments. And if you’re hiring for short-term assignments, go for it. If you’re hiring seasonal workers, that’s not necessarily a negative at all, but depending on what you are looking for, again, if you’re looking for people to make long-term commitments, you need to look at what they’re demonstrating and their background, because the CV tells the story long before you have to interact with someone and have a personal conversation with them about it.

Another thing I think that’s important is to understand what someone’s experience working in an isolated environment is like, and today we’re going to hear that pretty much everybody. If they’ve been working in the last two years, they’ve probably worked in an isolated environment, so the question then becomes, you’ve got experience doing it, how do you like it? Rate it on a scale of 1 to 10. I like to ask people to do that. People that really seek a lot of personal social interactions at work may struggle more. They’re going to struggle more than people that don’t necessarily use work as a conduit for their social life. Some people do, some people don’t care about that because their social life is coming from their family, it’s coming from their neighborhood, and their other set of friends, and all the other things they do.

But for people that really like a lot of social interaction at work, you need to be honest about whether you’re offering that and whether you’re doing it well, and whether the job enables for that. Some do, some don’t. So I think that’s another important one. Just really understanding how much experience people have working remotely and in an isolated environment, if they’re set up for it from a logistical standpoint, in terms of what your requirements are, and what their preferences are. Do they like working that way, or they’re just trying to get a job right now, and the minute they can go back into an in-office environment, that’s where they’re going? I think those things are important to explore early.

Yeah. That’s interesting. So you talked about when we are doing, let’s say, big hires for seasonal work or perhaps what we’re calling GigCX.

Yeah.

Yeah. So when you’re hiring just for seasonal individuals, what do you think are some key red flags? You named a couple, but what do you think are some more key flags where we can quickly vet individuals that we are going to hire for a short period of time, try to train really quickly, and then they’ll only be working with us for a short period of time?

Yeah. I would look for experience in doing that kind of work, because it’s a different kind of work, isn’t it? To work on a contract, on a short term contract, it’s a different kind of work. You have to show up, be extremely timely, be extremely focused, make the investment, and meet the commitments that are expected of you. So I would be looking for that sort of track record with employees that have worked that way or can demonstrate to you why that is something that is going to be of high value for them in their life at this point. And seasonal workers are great, gig workers are fabulous. I think there’s a real place for them in the contact center environment, because there is so much seasonal work that many organizations do, and maybe it’s certain roles in the organization that ramp up and naturally a trip throughout the year.

And I think just again, identifying people that have other things going on in their lives, they know how to ramp up quickly and meet commitments for short-term assignments. They’re often interested in returning at another point in time for another season. And I also am really drawn to paying those people a bit differently. Use incentives, full season bonuses, retention bonuses, those kinds of things that if you’re here for 8 out of the 10 weeks, that has a value of X to me. And if you’re here for 10 out of the 10, that has a value of Y. And there’s even another level that if you can give me two extra weeks, that I don’t know when I’m going to need you, that has another value. I really think people are drawn to that sort of incentive pay. Gig workers are. And I think restructuring some of our compensation to attract them is going to deliver a lot of mileage.

I love that you brought that up. I’m always curious how to use that tactic for retention, not just for gig workers, but for our in-house, full-time agents as well. And so I really like that idea.

Yeah.

Okay. Something I think we could delve, have the whole podcast about too.

I agree with you and I’d love to participate in that. When you do that, Hailey, put me on your list.

I will. A whole podcast, our whole panel podcast about combating attrition.

Yes. It’s time. It’s time.

So true. So we’ll move on to the next step. So once we’ve gotten these agents and we’ve vetted them properly, what are your top tips for onboarding and training them? What are some of your go-to technology suggestions to aid agents in onboarding and training processes? So that’s a two-part question.

Okay. And I think that’s kind of changed now that, again, we’ve been through this emergency, we’re coming out the other side of it. And a couple things have changed, one, customer expectations are different than before the pandemic. Would you agree with that?

Oh, absolutely. They’ve risen.

Yes, they’ve risen. And customers are very comfortable moving across channels digitally. In fact, not only comfortable, but they expect it. And while customers were forgiving during the emergency in terms of service levels, now they’re not so much so. Now the bar is being raised again and I’m getting that feedback from a lot of my clients, that customers are demanding more than ever before. And from the corporate side, we’re just now being able to move into a position where we can try to meet that raised bar. And we were coming off of big staffing problems, which there’s been major compensation adjustments across. I can’t think of an industry that hasn’t made compensation adjustments to be able to mediate some of the demand change and the sourcing problems that everybody was having, so we’re in a different place and that’s the first thing that I think everyone needs to recognize, and we’re not go going back to the other way.

So technology is playing a completely different role and we need to be able to navigate with our customers to meet their objectives live, synchronously and asynchronously, both. And we need to be able to see what they’re saying while we’re listening to them and not listening and responding with something different off a script. We need to be partnering in shared system, and often that means cloud technology, cloud-based functionality that is advanced to be able to meet customer expectations today.

And then when you get into that, if you agree with that sentiment, then that means you have back into the fact that the tools that your employees are using need to be that advanced as well. So I’m seeing a lot of my clients make big investments in legacy technology to do just that. They’re moving to the cloud to be able to access data more real time, to be able to enhance tools much more quickly and to be able to offer that integrated cross channel experience and partner with our customers as opposed to scripting some response to them sort of blindly.

Further Reading: Onboarding and Training in the Work-From-Anywhere World: 3 Key Steps to Achieving Excellence

Yeah, I think a technology that I’ve been thinking is optimal for the increased expectations of the customer is something that would help us deescalate the escalation.

Yes.

Where we have… Yeah. There’s another way to say it, but something that connects the front office to the back office a little bit easier, giving your agents more access to some of the more information, for instance, accounting or things like that, where that would usually have to make your client go from maybe talking to a bot to get them over to an agent, and then an agent puts them over to someone who is more sufficient in accounting and can help them with BillPay or something like that. And how can we smooth over that transition that the bot gets them to the agent and the agent can handle whatever issue that they have.

Yes, I totally agree. And when you’re starting with something like a bot, the bot is going to… You start with that whole self-service function and being able to do as much as we can, or inviting our customers to do as much as they can in self-service, and then at that escalation point where someone needs to speak to, or interact with an agent live, we need to be able to, 90% of the time, solve that problem, because they’re coming into the interaction with a frustration that they already couldn’t self-service in most cases and they’re expecting very quick resolutions.

So I totally agree with you that when a customer reaches an agent, that agent needs to be a very well-rounded source that can solve the problem. And that goes beyond looking at one screen or one singular reference point. And it’s also a different skill set, so it’s like finally we’re accepting the fact that our reps are true knowledge workers and we’re compensating them.

Exactly. We bring this up on almost every podcast that oftentimes your agents are the only touchpoint that your customers have with your organization. And so they truly are the person representing your organization, but also they can often be subject matter experts in your product or service. So why are agents not often treated or compensated for the in-depth knowledge they have of the company?

So just to backtrack a little bit, we’re talking about getting those agents to be subject matter experts in our product or our service. How do we ensure that when they’re onboarded in the work from home environment, that they’re trained in a way that ensures they deliver accurate, consistent, and excellent customer service when they can’t be trained in person, and is that even an issue?

Yeah. And I think it’s a really interesting question. And again, this is the right time. I think this is the pivotal point in our industry, and in many, now that we’re moving from… And in the contact center environment, clearly, many, many, many organizations are keeping large populations of people at home for the long term, because that’s the preference of employees. And we sit on a lot of expensive real estate, and it’s been proven that it works really well. Work from home in the contact center environment because of the highly transactional nature of the jobs and because of this fabulous technology that many of us have had access to and keeps coming to market at a rapid pace just like yours.

And so how do we make sure that people are onboarded and trained really well? I don’t know that we’ve done a very good job at that at all over the last two or three decades. I mean, piling people into a classroom for eight hours a day and talking at them moving through PowerPoints. I mean, is that really a good training experience? I don’t really think so, but it’s what we had and what we knew, so we did it. And now that so much onboarding and training is taking place purely virtually, and now that there’s great technology at our fingertips, we are able to make training a lot more interactive and to improve speech proficiency. Definitely. And it’s proven. And there’s lots of data that you can access through global learning and development organizations like ASTD, about speech proficiency when you use multimedia and multi-channel adult learning methodology, as opposed to 40 people in a classroom with two instructors using PowerPoints for eight hours.

So now we’re forced to get much better at training than I think any of us were willing to make the investment in before. I think companies have always known that they could do a better job in new hire onboarding and training, but it was number three, or four, or five on the list and other things always got in front of it. So now we have to make that big investment. If we’re going to retain people, once we’ve hired them, and we talked about how we have to be fast at that and transparent, and you get really good at onboarding, and be quick, and many touch points, and kind of restructure. And I can give you some examples of what I’m seeing companies do to restructure that engagement really, really early in the process to make sure they don’t lose people. And then re-engineer training so that it is multimedia. And people are switching channels, and using different tools to learn, and consume content, and interact with their colleagues during the course of the day, and interact with their instructors.

And I’ll give you one example of what a module might look like. Rather than people spending an hour in a classroom together where an instructor talks at them for 40 minutes and they do a little CBT thing, and maybe, I don’t know, do a quick role play, now in the remote environment and the multimedia environment, a rep may begin a lesson by watching a two-minute video that is being presented to them from another rep, a contact center rep who is introducing the lesson, the objective of the lesson, why it’s important in the job, how the rep, the experienced rep has used this tool, or product, or service, and what it’s meant to them, where they struggled with it, and how they use it.

So an introductory video kind of thing, and then the new hire is moving into a self-directed lesson where they are watching an Adobe Storyline sort of storyboard for a couple of minutes. There’s some navigational examples that are demonstrated through Captivate, and then the rep uses their own keyboard to do some practice during that same lesson, and then they take a quick quiz to measure their retention of what they just took in and their understanding of it. And then they go back into a live classroom with an instructor and maybe 10 other colleagues that just finished that same lesson. And then they’re breaking away into a pod with two colleagues that are live, and so there’s a total of three reps that are in this training class, but they moved into a private room together and they’re role playing together. So one is observing and scoring, one is playing customer, and one is playing employee. That kind of thing.

And what the pods do is form early-day relationships with people, coworkers, that can’t sit side by side in an office environment or a physical training environment, but they have something in common. So their work schedules are similar, their job responsibilities or their roles are similar. And the regions that they’re going to be servicing for customer support are similar. They’ve got some things in common and you are assigning new hires with reps that have similarities very, very early in the process. And you’re putting them together because they’re not going to have that natural evolution on their own, not like we would when we’re co-located.

So I’m a really big fan in that assignment of partnerships and pods. It’s more than one other person, it’s a couple, to help people form those early relationships so they can share their knowledge and experience informally and formally from day one. So I think that’s a really important part of the training process and from the onboarding process where I’m seeing companies make changes, is in those engagement points, the touchpoints. As soon as someone is hired, again, hiring is happening quickly. I’m seeing companies that are eliminating some of their, at least pumping the brakes on some of the assessment tools that they were using, where they weren’t really getting a lot of results out of them. And they were saying, “What are we getting from this other than it adding delays to the process?”

I’m seeing companies really evaluate everything from the assessment tools to the amount of time it takes to hire someone. And then once someone is hired, the reality is shipping equipment and issuing all the licenses and IDs, and all that stuff when it’s digital, takes longer than when someone just walks into an office and sits down in a co-located environment and signs in. It takes longer, so we have to overcome that with additional engagement points very early, so that we don’t lose people along the way. And I’m seeing companies completely re-engineer their onboarding processes to make early connections.

So while licenses are being issued and equipment is shipping, meetings are happening. And some of that early stuff in orientation and those relationships that I’m talking about, and some of the low-hanging fruit and training is firing quickly, sometimes before employees even have their equipment yet. That’s the kind of re-engineering that I’m seeing. And it starts in onboarding, and then it goes to new hire training and kind of everything, I think that we do needs to be reviewed, Hailey, when we’re talking about taking a long-term stake in supporting people remotely and effectively and providing the social environment, and the educational environment, and the customer experience that we want to deliver. It’s all going to look different and now is the time to review everything that we’ve done with a fresh perspective. And it does absolutely start with onboarding and training. So I love the work that you guys are doing.

I’m so glad you brought up right away having some of the initial touchpoints in the training be from a fellow agent. We just released a blog here about tech adoption in the contact center, and that you have champions. So you have champion agents that can kind of support other agents with the technology and there’s not the pressure of it being a manager. If I mess up in front of this manager, then could I lose my job or are they going to think that I’m not efficient enough in this technology? And I didn’t think that it could be transferred over even to as beginning of the training process, where you put an agent that’s been with the company right in front of them from the beginning.

You also mentioned some great stuff about how you create connection and community feel from… We’re going to get to that later, because it’s a really interesting topic to me. But before that, in a previous conversation that you and I had, you mentioned that the pandemic is a call to action, really. And you were just talking about this, for organizations to look at their workflows, and the technologies, and plan for the long game. So what would you say are some of the go-to technology suggestions to aid agents in successfully delivering, again, this accurate, consistent and excellent customer service in the work from home environment, where they don’t have as quick access to answers as they have perhaps when they could just lean over the cubicle and asked their manager that was sitting a couple desks beside them?

Yeah, I think the first thing is just starting with the agent self-service experience. So the knowledge management system, or whatever you want to call it, the go-to tool that an agent can go to while they’re live on an interaction with a customer and to do a Google search, if you will, to be able to help service the customer and give them whatever content that they’re looking for, I think that’s the first step is a really, really strong knowledge management system that probably is sitting on top of a lot of different technologies, proprietary technologies within an organization, is super important so that employees are empowered to self-service on their own and they know they can get somewhere by using that tool. So I think that’s really important.

And then the next step from that is being able get into a live community quickly with like-minded peers. And again, to your point, Hailey, it doesn’t need to be a supervisor. It’s better if it’s not. It’s better if coworkers can help each other in a dedicated chat environment with some subject matter experts. So they’re reps that are good at technology or reps that are good at whatever it is that the employee is after, the newer hire that needs more help, but using reps that are seasoned, and have the expertise, and the interest in helping others, and that have demonstrated that they’re good at it, yes, we need to be paying them for a serious amount of off-phone time so that they are doing two things. One, helping your new hires, and then two, also spending a certain amount of time doing their jobs during the day, interacting with customers themselves so that they can stay very current on how customers are responding and embracing your products and services.

The other technology tools that I think are important, video I think is super important in this distributed environment. Face-to-face interactions are super valuable. Seeing someone’s face, looking in their eyes, understanding how they’re processing information that’s coming over and messaging, that is a dialogue that is taking place is really important. Animation, joy, all the things that we get out of in-person interactions, we could get almost all the way there with videos. So I am a big believer in video. I don’t think we have to use it for every interaction, but I think for team gatherings in particular, where we want our employees to share their knowledge and experience with each other informally is probably more important than anything, and the social aspects, I’m a big fan of video.

Having healthy meeting platforms and we have different size meetings and all over the place in terms of what we’re trying to accomplish when people gather in small sessions or training sessions and then large meetings. And there’s great technologies out there for all those things, starting with something as simple as Zoom and Microsoft Teams, and then using some things like Adobe Connect for training, because it’s got a lot of extra bells and whistles to help people participate and be seen, and contribute in a training environment.

So those are some examples. And then taking it from there is just, the rest of it is getting to the cloud and having that real-time view of what customers are seeing and doing when we’re servicing them. I think that’s critical. If our screen looks different than what a customer is looking at, we have a big problem. And to think that you’re ever going to be able to raise the bar and meet customer expectations, I don’t think so, if you’re looking at two different things.

That’s a really interesting point, that if there’s incongruences of what the customer’s looking at and what the agent’s looking at, there can be a significant disconnect.

Yes.

It’s an interesting point. So we’ve been talking a lot about agent attrition towards the beginning of the podcast. Now we’re going to kind of delve a little bit more. What are some of the biggest mistakes you have seen organizations make when trying to combat agent attrition when many of their agents are working from home?

Yeah. I think that, getting back to hiring, as best we can, hiring the right people. And when I say that, I just mean being as transparent as we can about what the job is, because I think there’s still too many smoke screens, and filters, and myths, and stories we have told each other for years about what our jobs really are. And I think we need to be really transparent about that, so that’s super important. Another mistake I see companies make in the contact center environment is asking too much of people. And let’s take something like a service level. For example, most companies use a measurement of something like, “We have a target of answering 80% of our calls within 20 seconds and we want to respond to 80% of our asynchronous communications within X number of hours.” Those sorts of things.

But the reality is the workload that we’re putting on people’s much higher than that. And that definitely was taking place during the pandemic. I’ve seen many companies just come up short in that service level commitment. And that commitment is not only to your customers, you’re making it to your employees. And that’s the thing I think that we sometimes forget about. But if we’re burning people out because they’re on live interactions for 52 out of 60 minutes, what do you think they’re going to do? How good is that experience going to be for your customers? Not very.

And people really can’t sustain that, so something’s going to happen. They’re either going to exit or plan their exit, or they’re going to develop behaviors to be able to take the breaks that they need to have to do their jobs well, which means your customers are going on hold, or other things are happening during that interaction, so that reps get to take breaks. And I’ve had many conversations with leaders that are scratching their heads saying, “We’re seeing this behavior pop up where people are disappearing and we don’t know what’s causing it.” It was like, “Well, what is your occupancy level?” Oh, it’s 94%? So we are asking people are occupied on live phone calls or interactions 94% of each hour? Well, yeah, I would be putting people on hold. You have to do something to get a break.

So I think we need to be really mindful of that, that occupancy levels and service levels are not just commitments that you’re making to your customers, it’s commitments you’re making to your employees. So I think the demand has to be really looked at and managed on a regular basis. And make the investment in staffing appropriately, as opposed to pretending that you’re going to achieve something that you’re not.

And then the other one I think that’s really important is work schedules and flexibility. We hear a lot about flexibility these days, and I still see some lip service going on there, where companies are… The flexibility is actually on their end, but not what they’re delivering to employees. And rigid work schedules, that’s a real deterrent for many people to be able to make a longer term commitment or perhaps even a seasonal or contractual commitment. There are some people that like fixed, regular work schedules and we should be giving those people those schedules if we can.

And then there are many people that like to flex their schedules because they have other things in their lives that are priorities. They have families, they’re in caregiving situations, they have young kids at home, they sell real estate, they teach yoga classes, they’re actors, they’re writers, people that have other professions. And we’re hiring those people, we should be offering vehicles where those people can flex their schedules as much as they want to. And we get a much higher stick rate when we do that.

Yeah. I think it’s almost the conundrum with moving a contact center agent to the work from home environment, where in perhaps other professions, I can step away from my computer and go run an errand really quickly, pick my kid up from school, take my laundry and etc. But just like you were saying, Michele, when you’re asking someone to sit down at their computer, they are tethered to their computer and they get, say like four 15-minute breaks or three 15-minute breaks and an hour of lunch, how for some people they need that structure, it’s what they thrive on. But for most people in this work from home environment, it’s just not going to work. And so how do we change it? How do we change that model to work for contact center agents and still keep up excellent customer service?

Yeah. I mean, and if you think about where so many of the challenges have been and the absences in the work force in terms of the full return rate, the labor force participation rate, the biggest drain and the biggest limitation has been parents that have not been able to return to their previous capacity because of their new lifestyle and the way that are managing their families and looking after them. So if you can ask someone to be dedicated and committed for two two-hour segments during the course of the day, or two two-and-a-half-hour segments during the course of the day versus one six-hour segment, do you think you’re going to get a different response?

For many, yeah. For many people they would say, “Yes, I can commit to two and a half hours in the morning and two and a half in the afternoon, or some days it might be two in the morning and three in the evening, and I’m going to give your customers a tremendous customer experience, because I’m going to have the door closed and I’m going to be fully committed and energized, and I will have accomplished the other things in my life that I had set out to accomplish that day.” Yeah. It just opens a much larger pool of people.

Is it more expensive for companies to get more flexible like that with schedules? Yes. It means you have to hire more people and train more people, but are you going to hire better people and keep them longer and deliver a better customer experience? Yes. It’s kind of where we are now as we move into this remote world and people working from home, and people wanting to have a lot more control over when they contribute professionally and how they contribute. We have to get more creative and really step up to the plate.

And is it going to cost a little more? Yeah. But hey, we’re spending a lot less money on office facilities, and energy, and things like that. So the cost savings for organizations with work from home is gigantic. And it’s not all cost savings. We need to be making investments in the stuff that… Kinds of things we’re talking about today. Flexible scheduling costs more money, digital learning costs more money, hiring people that are part-time costs more money, but we’re going to get huge mileage out of that stuff for the long term of it.

Exactly. It’s a long game, so I’m so glad you brought that up because when you think about it, so if you put in all this back work that perhaps costs more money, like you were saying, but then the agent attrition is lower, we don’t have the brick and mortar costs. There’s some… Or even then we have increased employee experience, which improves the customer experience.

Oh, yeah.

And maybe your customers are going out and you’re getting more business because your customers are evangelists of your company, so how can this ripple effect happen if you were to invest the money on the front-end training and the flexible work schedule that we’re talking about? Are we really going to lose money, but in the long end, it’s going to make us money and we’re going to be at the forefront of the future of work?

Yeah. And just a quickie little back of the napkin cost analysis, because I’ve done a lot of the cost-saving analysis over the years. As we talked about, I’ve been doing this a long time. So when companies just purely shedding the real estate and related costs of real estate, it’s facilities, it’s utilities, it’s materials that are consumed on site, paper, coffee, etc., etc., all those things. All those things that go into facilities, operating expenses, typically it’s 40% less expensive to hire someone in a work from home environment than to put them into an office environment, even including the increased costs of licensing the telecom platform, for example. Even including that.

So let’s just say we’re saving 40% by shedding the real estate and related costs, even though we may invest 20% to a higher part-time population versus full-time, a higher part-time mix, and invest in flexible scheduling and invest in digital learning. I would say that cost is about 20%, so the net gain is still huge. It’s still 20% less expensive even when we get really good at making the right investments in remote workers. We’re still going to save at least 20% over what it costs to manage people in a co-located environment, in an office building.

Yeah, it brings up a lot of… We could talk about this forever because this brought up this idea to me, that on the employee end of things, their cost reduction, as far as needing to have a vehicle, so individuals who don’t have a car, public transportation isn’t readily available in their area, how your talent pool just gets so much richer, but also the cost savings for your employer, your employees. And not that means you need to pay them less, but then it’s so much more enticing to get better workers on.

Yeah, there’s definitely. And I like the transportation example that you just used, Hailey, because I like to use the example of in the remote work environment, transportation is now the ISP. It’s not your car, it’s not getting on the train or getting in an Uber, or doing whatever to physically get to a co-located office space. You need to have a solid internet connection. And typically that cost falls on the employee, but that’s a lot less expensive than a car and insurance to your point.

It is. And there’s some investments that employees have to make. I mean, employees have to make sure that they do have a solid internet connection. Usually that’s a baseline requirement that often falls on the shoulders of employees. And I think that’s fine as long as we’re clear about that expectation. Employees have got to have the right work environment for themselves. And ergonomically correct set up, whatever that may be, where they’re working. And employees are going to be consuming their own coffee, and their own paper products, and probably using their own pens, and doing those kinds of things during the course of the day. So there’s some costs that may be a bit higher for employees compared to going into an office, but that still falls short of, just to your point, the cost of having a vehicle to get to work and clothing allowance.

I mean, if you’re dressing up to go into an office, I mean, typically things are a bit more relaxed at home. We all know how to do that well, we’ve gotten good at it. And things like lunches out, that maybe people were doing five days a week that now they’re only going to do one or two days a week. And things like Starbucks that you were buying just for the commute to make it to the office. There’s some savings there too, that many people can realize.

Yeah, absolutely. That wasn’t even a part of my thought of this conversation, but it’s an interesting caveat that we took.

I wanted to go back to something that we touched on in the beginning, and you talked a lot about having good video for creating those connections at the beginning on the onboarding and training, so I wanted to go back to that a little bit. From your experience, what are the ways that organizations can extend their organizational values and culture when in the remote atmosphere?

Yeah. That’s a great question, because again, kind of thinking about how do we do that now versus what we did when we were all co-located? And for me, when I think about coming onboard into a new environment, I mean employees and applicants start that assessment process and sizing up who an organization is and whether they’re going to fit with the display of the job on the job board or wherever they’re seeing it, and the initial self-service steps that they’re going through. Does this feel right? Is stuff clear to me? Are they being transparent? Is it easy? Yes or no? Is it clicking? Is it aligned or do I need to bail, because something feels off here? And once there’s a first physical interaction, whether that’s phone call or a video interaction with the representative of the company, I mean, that’s where applicants start to size up those organizational values and cultural pillars and belief systems of the organization. It starts that early.

And applicants are going to be matching up what you say against what they see people do from those early days. And in a co-located environment, there’s a lot of observation that takes place through informal interactions, and people walking up and down hallways, and how they informally interact with each other, and how leaders treat each other, and how decisions are made. And there’s all kinds of observations that people are making just because they’re in the middle of them. So we have to get really good at get all that messaging across to our employees on two levels. One is the intentional messaging, the formal stuff through scheduled town hall meetings that are live and recorded. Lots of leaders coming into those early onboarding days that I was talking about. I’m seeing a lot more interaction with that from day one and day two, where all kinds of leaders are beaming into live sessions via video and imparting their roles and whatever their messaging is, that’s important to the organization and what they say is part of it.

And the other is just the informal stuff of how they really conduct themselves, how that all winds up. What companies say their values are against the live interactions that people are experiencing from early days. That’s how we really project our organizational value and cultures. Part of it is what we say, but the other is really, it’s much more important, on how people are treating each other, how the trainers treat each other, how the leaders that are coming into the live sessions during orientation, those early days are interacting with the trainers and the other people and all that stuff? That’s what new hires looking for. They’re looking for the alignment between what people do and what companies say they are.

And the more exposure we give to people in those early days, the stronger those bonds are going to be. And when we’re all co-located, that’s certainly a big benefit, because people are immersed in a sea of that. And more of it’s informal than formal in terms of that alignment of value and cultures and projecting all that stuff. So we have to work harder at that, I think, when people are remote, which means a lot more calendaring of exposure to people in the organization early, early, early. And then again, the building of the communities, the assignments of the pods and the exchanges. And so we really have to plan and calendar a lot of meetings and interactions that many before would’ve been informal and just happened because we were all in the same building. We just have to work harder at it, but think about how good we’ll get at it.

I know. When you were talking about during the training process, how that training process, the example that you gave, and then going into pods, and the way those pods functioned, I thought that’s a perfect arena, the perfect platform to create bonds with coworkers exactly like you’re saying. And so it took us a long time to get to the culture question, but it was spurred in the beginning of the podcast.

Yeah, you’re right.

So we’re going to wind down a little bit and I always call these the fun questions. So Michele, what resources, we’re talking podcast, publications, blogs, whatever that is, do you regularly reference to stay on top of industry trends and news?

Well, I love introductions. For example, we were introduced by a colleague, someone that we both know, Terry Rybolt. So I love introductions like this and I know now that you have resources Hailey, so because I met you through a trusted source and we had this great dialogue together, I’m certainly going to be looking at your blog and connecting to that on a regular basis. So when I meet people through LinkedIn or through trusted networks, LinkedIn is a big one for me, that’s a big source for me in terms of who I follow on LinkedIn. And I find LinkedIn to be a really easy aggregator of all kinds of great content, whether it’s video, or podcasts, or articles, I can find it all there. And it’s super easy to use, so I’m a big fan of LinkedIn as a baseline platform. And personal introductions and taking the time to stop and make sure that we make those connections quickly, even though we’re all busy.

I mean, when Terry Rybolt introduced the two of us, I have a lot of confidence in my relationship with him. And I so admire him that I knew that was something that I was going to respond to quickly. And I think we both felt that way. I think that was mutual for you and me. I also really like Contact Center Pipeline. That’s a great publication that always has good writers, and good content, and timely information, and something that I can take a couple hours and read once a month or I can take 10 minutes and scan it, so that’s another tool that I like to use too. I also do a blog, so that’s available for anybody on my website, on Work From Home Alliance. ICMI also has good publication materials that are available. Those are some of the ones that I’m interested in, but once I start following people… Yeah, I’m a scanner of LinkedIn.

Yeah. People are always shocked when I say that I live on LinkedIn. LinkedIn’s always open and it’s where I go for everything. And I think if you are introduced to someone, like you and I were, and you enjoy them, then it’s the perfect way to keep up with what they’re doing on a daily basis, so LinkedIn to me is an invaluable tool.

Yeah, I totally agree. And again, sometimes I might spend an hour there a week, and sometimes I might be there six or seven hours a week. It just depends on what I’m looking for, how much time I have. But to me it’s as important as Instagram or whatever, on the personal side of my life. I mean, it’s just for business, for professionally. I’m going there, because people that are doing stuff are going to be visible there.

Absolutely. I can’t agree more. This is a follow-up question. So we mentioned Terry as someone who I think is on the cusp of some really interesting things in regards to CX, GigCX. He’s also just a wealth of knowledge from his experience.

So who are some other standout leaders in the industry that you follow, look to for advice, or collaborate with, or would like to collaborate with?

Yeah. Okay. I love to work with new companies too. I love to look for new companies coming to market, even like your company, for example, because for my colleagues and my clients in particular, they don’t need my help in finding Avaya and what Avaya for example is offering of later. They don’t really need my help in finding what the big providers are doing, because they have great visibility to that, particularly if they’re using some of those tools. But what my clients don’t have time to do is to see what’s new coming to market. So I really like to do a lot of that research, which again, brings me back to LinkedIn and the meaningful connections that we’re talking about, because those are the people that I want to get in front of my clients. And I do that at my conferences and workshops.

I put small, new to market companies in front of my clients so that they… I’m taking the legwork out of it for them so that they can get some fast insight into new market leaders. Some recently, there’s one that I can think of that I really like, it’s a company called AmplifAI. Sean Minter is the president of that company, and that’s a product that it helps frontline leaders that are really good at performance management get even better, and it helps average leaders that manage teams get good. And to me, we all employ a lot of them. So it uses AmplifAI, brings together all of the tools that we use in the contact center environment, and refines them in such a way that it helps all levels of leadership in the organization promote employee performance and enhance it. And then in a digital environment, again, we need new tools to be able to do that and effectively support people that are remote. So that’s a big one for me, that’s a newer company to market.

Some other leaders that there’s… I really like Richard Lau from Marriott. He leads their IT technology and strategic alignment in the customer experience environment. Jon Bunch from Prime Therapeutics, they are always on the cutting edge in the healthcare environment with their technology. They’re fully remote. I have a colleague from PNC Bank, Bill Emerson. They’re always doing really interesting things. Cindy Zhivotovsky from Alliance Data, who’s in financial services.

Again, these are people that are just us like on the ground and leaders. They’re innovators and they are early adopters of new technologies in the contact center environment. Things like gamification and automated recognition and reward, and aggregated data for performance support, and things like that. So those are the sorts of leaders that I tend to connect with and have dialogue with. So interesting, because they’re curious and they have the support, the financial support from within their organizations to take steps and they’re not afraid to take them.

Incredible. That’s a great list. And I like that you throw out some specific companies and the leaders of those companies, that rarely happens on this podcast, so thank you for that, Michele.

Oh, yeah. Well, great people. I don’t know if I was supposed to do that or not, but you asked me, so there you have it.

No, it was great. It was great. Michele, this has been a pleasure and that’s going to wrap up our recording today. Thank you so much for being on Recorded for Quality Assurance. We’ll talk soon.

Thank you. I totally enjoyed it.

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