Mar 25, 2020 3:56:39 PM
Lots of companies are currently sending their employees home to work remotely. For most, this is uncharted territory.
Many customer service providers have little or no experience with remote setups, because support teams are traditionally quite stationary and office-based. Apart from some start-ups that have built their entire culture or business model around remote employees, most service organisations require their agents to show up in person when their shift begins.
When your staff are all working from home, the first hurdle to overcome is obviously the technology. Finding the right system and solutions will heavily depend on the type of company or support organisation and the rest of the customer service stack. There is no one-size-fits-all solution.
Yet, no matter what your business, the challenges and requirements of remote work processes are universal. They are in fact the exact same issues you would encounter in an office—just emphasised to a higher degree.
What’s more, the bigger your team, the more attention you’ll need to dedicate to these issues. Finding reliable tools and processes that support your business goals will help your organisation and your employees thrive in these new working conditions.
One of the obvious challenges of remote work is maintaining open communication without a physical office where staff can easily ask questions and share feedback.
In practice this raises a lot of issues, starting with how to keep each and every one of the team members “in the loop”. Setting clear, explicit and documented rules for communication is paramount. The more grey area there is, the harder it becomes to transfer important information to all those who need it. A great first step is to create a page in the intranet documenting basic guidelines that explain how, when and where communication takes place. Which channels are used for which issues? What kind of response times can be expected? How can customer service representatives “escalate” a topic if it becomes urgent?
Overall, remote service teams should over-communicate rather than under-communicate, but it’s easier said than done. All remote communication is prone to misunderstandings and false assumptions—particularly text-based communication—and clarifying such problems can make routine work tasks more time-consuming. It’s often hard to convey exactly the right tone, especially if you’re dealing with sensitive topics. In light of this, it might also be worth documenting your company’s desired remote team culture, even if the setup is only temporary. It can include items such as “write in a friendly manner”, “give others the benefit of the doubt”, “assume positive intentions” or “internally read all messages in the voice of Spongebob Squarepants”. Remote teams should keep their level of defensiveness to a minimum.
A lot of service teams already use some form of internal chat or instant messenger for their day-to-day work, be it Slack, Mattermost, IRC or something similar. But for teams who have relied on phone, email and personal interactions until 2020: chat is great for everyday conversations and time-sensitive questions. When you’re setting up the service department to work remotely, it’s the obvious place to start.
We also recommend having at least one weekly video call (ideally more) to review any feedback and learnings, and to explore how tough cases can be handled better next time around.
Remote service teams can communicate with extreme efficiency if the workflows are done right. That being said, communication tends to be the number one problem for remote service teams, so it’s best to assume there will be some hiccups in the beginning and recognise that there will be a learning curve. As with any organisational change, some things require more work than others.
Document, document, document. The second step to a successful remote customer service is clear and easy-to-follow documentation. This will ultimately make or break a remote service team. If you’re not already creating department-wide documentation, this is the time to start doing it.
Documentation is also known as “intra” or “wiki” in many organisations. It will become the manual and, eventually, the yardstick for measuring the quality of your customer service department. When agents can’t simply walk over to their colleagues for advice, they are all the more dependent on high-quality, reliable documentation. Your customers need answers within the same timeframe as before, after all.
Informal conversations and interactions on the service floor play an important part in building the tacit knowledge or “know-how” that defines great service teams and, with time, turns them into experts. To keep up this practice, consider also setting up a chat channel or Google Sheet (or other standardised method) for collecting and consolidating customer feedback. When everyone is working from home, there’s a risk that insights which would otherwise be easily transferred during a coffee break or mentioned in passing will remain unspoken.
The most common or crucial insights can be entered into the wiki and official team documentation as customer case studies, which can then be referred to when needed. If the team works remotely for a longer period of time, this can be developed into a library of case studies that can even be used when onboarding new service agents.
Trust is not a new topic in service organisations. In fact, it has long been a hot potato among service personnel. How much can and should a service agent be able to do on their own?
Customer service departments have a long history of being seen as a “cost centre” rather than a factor that contributes to a company’s revenue. As a result, their “power” has traditionally been tightly controlled. Agents are often given a very limited number of tools and options for resolving problems and assisting customers.
For remote service teams however, the answer is quite simple: they should have enough leeway and freedom to help the customer on the spot. It’s worth considering how much it potentially costs your company to keep customers waiting, as well as the accumulating costs of multiple contacts. Especially at the beginning, response times will most likely be longer than usual. So, is the manager’s opinion really necessary, or can the service representative make the judgement call on their own? Generally, empowering agents pays off in terms of efficiency and shorter response times, which in turn improves customer satisfaction.
In the end, the only thing that should really matter are the service KPIs, such as the first-contact resolution rate, average reply time, time per contact, etc. If the service department KPIs are set correctly, it shouldn’t matter how much power the individual agents have. The positive results will speak for themselves.
If there’s one thing that’s probably better on customer service floors than in any other department, it’s the team vibes. Agents typically demonstrate great solidarity and overall support for one another.
When customer support teams have to work remotely, this lively team spirit can really take a hit, which can have drastic consequences. After all, the sort of people who are attracted to working in customer service usually really enjoy interacting with others.
Looking at this from a strategic viewpoint, collaboration is always about building, managing and maintaining relationships. So this also has to be made possible remotely. Despite the new challenges presented by managing remote teams, service leads must continue to nurture casual socialisation among their team.
Ask the service team what they liked about working in the office and what created the team vibe. You can create a Google Hangouts meeting room where anyone can sign in for a chat and some informal interaction (kind of like a break room, right?).
For teams that need to organise their interactions around shifts and have less flexibility, you could introduce 15-20 min “huddles” where team members can chat about whatever they like. You could also organise remote group lunches or after-work drinks using video calls. Or create an office playlist that you can all listen to together while answering emails or chat messages. Whatever boosted the team’s energy and morale in the office, there’s surely a way to recreate it online!
When your entire service team starts working from home, there’s obviously going to be a period of transition. It’s not going to be business as usual from day one. Especially at the beginning, it might be hard to achieve the same level of efficiency: there will be communication problems, organisational restructuring and technical issues. It may help to look at it like any organisational change. Employees always need a little while to get used to new situations before things can start running smoothly again.
However, the better the setup, the faster they will be able to adapt. There are many ways to make the transition smoother and provide some flexibility while the team adjusts. You could double down on automation and self-service or start implementing these kinds of support channels if you haven’t done so already.
Self-service channels such as help pages and chatbots will help to improve your team’s results and overall efficiency. If you already have an FAQ page or a Help Centre, now is the perfect time to make sure it’s up-to-date and has exactly the content your customers are looking for.
Start sending an auto-reply to every email or chat contact you receive, thanking the customer for their message and linking to your self-service channels.
Apply some form of automation to deal with the “first layer” of contacts (the easiest and most repetitive requests) and will take the pressure off the team during peak times. Chatbots are a wonderful addition to remote teams and will generate value from day one.
While FAQs and other forms of static self-service are a good starting point, automation in particular will help your service agents make the most of their remote setup by handling the most repetitive questions—without sacrificing customer satisfaction.
Understandably, the current situation has taken a lot of companies by surprise. Countless service organisations have had to develop a new approach for providing customer support. The good news is that any company can make remote service teams work and it doesn’t necessarily require a significant boost to the budget. Most importantly, it’s about having the right processes, strategy and tools. An open mind towards new technologies doesn’t hurt either. ;)
Change can be scary, but with a combination of open, fun and frequent communication, as well as thorough documentation and automated self-service solutions, every company can turn this global challenge into an opportunity. Heck, we’ve even heard that some service departments are thinking about including remote work as a permanent option!
This is a challenging time for all of us. We hope that our advice will help you apply smart customer service strategies and adapt to the realities of managing a remote service team. If it’s done well, everyone wins: your customers, your employees and the company as a whole.
Sara is a brand & content strategist at Solvemate. She’s really into chatbots, and improving customer experience. When she’s not writing about customer service automation, she’s an Italo-disco singer and a devoted housekeeping nerd. Hailing originally from snowy Finland, the Berlin winters leave her cold (pardon the pun).