Observations on remote work in the customer relation centre (CRC) industry

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A few decades ago, customer-service and sales tasks in CRCs were performed in very different ways. Written messages were received via fax or messenger service. A manager wanting to meet with a team in another part of the country had to pay for travel and accommodations. Videoconferencing was only available to elites and very fortunate organizations.

But today’s technological advances and the near-instantaneous transmission of data allow us to communicate with people almost anywhere in the world, at a minimal cost. And thanks to cloud-based information, the cost of a data connection for a remote user has dropped considerably. This has led to the creation of new job titles that would have been unthinkable ten, or even five, years ago. We have seen the advent of remote workers who don’t need to show up at the office regularly to get the same work done. And while many newer companies are adopting this approach in order to offer a better workplace quality of life, others are still hesitant to adopt the new trend.

In a benchmark study conducted by Triad Services in January 2016, several organizations in the CRC world shared their experience relating to remote agents. The study shows that the following are the three top challenges faced by CRCs in making a shift to remote work:

  1. Setting up telecommuting (start-up costs, organizational structure, logistics, etc.)
  2. Remote management and coaching challenges
  3. Security of customer data handled outside the CRC

The benchmark study also reveals that, once these hurdles are overcome, remote work provides the following sizable benefits to the CRC and the remote agent:

CRC benefits Agent benefits
Reduced capital costs Opportunity to better reconcile home/work tasks
Reduced staff absenteeism and turnaround rates Recognition for autonomy in work activities
Improved schedule adherence Elimination of time lost commuting
Increase in overtime to cover peak periods Optimal work comfort in a personalized environment, which helps to reduce stress
High quality of work, directly impacting on performance Less money spent on clothes and eating out
Additional option for the CRC in its emergency back-up plan in the event of bad weather or disaster Little time needed to start a work shift

Naturally, remote work is not necessarily appropriate for all agents. The Triad Benchmark Club study brings to light the fact that a maximum of 30% to 40% of CRC agents work from home, and that nearly 60% of them are aged 26 to 40. It is reasonable to say that this age range corresponds to the category of young parents wanting to balance their professional and family life by maintaining a more flexible schedule. The age category below that, namely 18–25, corresponds to young adults still living at home with their parents or sharing an apartment with friends; thus, their home environment is not suitable for telecommuting due a lack of private space, and by the same token, confidentiality.

Remote work is generally offered to agents with between 6 and 18 months of seniority. Several CRC managers confirmed that remote work is a “privilege” and that certain criteria must be met in order to qualify for it. These are, in decreasing order of importance:

  1. Getting a performance evaluation that meets the CRC’s performance objectives
  2. Being self-reliant (requiring minimal supervision)
  3. Demonstrating self-discipline (adherence to schedule, engagement)

Even if potential candidates meet these three criteria, they only receive the final seal of approval after they demonstrate that their home office space and internet connection meet the organization’s requirements.

Note that some CRCs also offer remote work to workers specialized in quality assurance and to supervisors who manage teams. However, these employee categories may be called in to the office on a weekly basis, which is not necessarily the case for agents. The Triad Benchmark Club study shows that, in 43% of cases, agents must come in to the CRC on a monthly basis, to maintain their engagement with the products and services being supported, to upgrade or develop skills, and to maintain relationships with the CRC’s internal human resources. The following are the supervisory activities most often organized for remote agents coming to the CRC:

  • Team meetings
  • One-on-one meetings with the supervisor
  • Updates with the organization’s other departments
  • Training, upgrading and/or coaching sessions
  • Mobilization and organizational loyalty activities

No work management model is perfect. The belief that a remote agent will have greater mobilization is true, but only in part. Proof of concept shows that mobilization is greatest at the start of remote work, but quickly maxes out if the agent is not well supported. Does the original model overestimate the autonomy of remote agents? This certainly merits further reflection.

Just like at the office, agents working from home must also receive stimulation. Organizations with interesting practices in this area are targeting their efforts on three levels:

  1. Improving remote-coaching techniques

By increasing the use of videoconferencing (Skype, FaceTime, etc.) and remote screen sharing (TeamViewer, LogMeIn, etc.), managers have developed user-friendly techniques and tools to optimize agent support. Research projects continue to be developed to enrich remote workers’ skills and knowledge.

  1. The use of gamification

Gamification helps meet 3 goals:

  • Optimizing the management of remote teams: Gamification stimulates cooperation and cohesion.
  • Better training remote agents: The gamification process adds intellectual stimulation and fosters independence.
  • Obtaining better results in sales of goods and services: Gamification increases productivity and sales conversion through the use of challenges and rewards.

  1. The use of collaboration tools

More recently, collaboration tools have been used to help members of virtual teams work on shared files and contribute additional information to competitive intelligence portals. Collaboration tools are also useful in allowing remote agents to talk to each other during their work shift. Chat rooms are made available for remote workers to exchange work information and for e-meetings.

In conclusion, if you’ve been on the fence about using remote workers, it might be time to take the leap. You may be surprised by the rewards that await you!

Pierre Marc Jasmin
President, Triad Services Inc.

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Founded in 1996 by Pierre Marc Jasmin, Services Triad Inc. is a management consulting firm specializing in studies providing direction and assistance in optimizing customer relationship centers operations by means of process, technology and human resources.

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