Alternative Workplace Strategy for contact centres

Text: Radboud Heinink

The contact centre industry faces ongoing challenges in delivering high quality customer support, finding qualified agents and increasing flexibility of its services. Contact centre managers continue to wonder why there is no solution. Fortunately, the trend of Alternative Workplace Strategies offer opportunities for a chain reversal. The only thing to be needed is contact centre managers which have the guts to give agents the confidence they deserve!

The Alternative Workplace Strategy is indisputable the trending topic of 2010. Flexibility, working independent of location and at times the employee wants, are characteristics that apply to the labor market of 2010. The contact centre sector lends itself like no other for this ‘new’ way of working. After all, everything is measured by Intelligent Customer Interaction Management (CIM) platforms, where the status and performance of agents is monitored every second. It makes no difference whether the agent is working in the office environment, is working from home or perhaps at his holiday address. However, contact centre managers are still reluctant to integrate this new model into the daily practice of work and continue to operate with traditional approaches that no longer do match with the demand of flexibility by agents and customers.

Technology is not an obstacle
For location independent working is nothing more is needed than an internet connection. Of course for remote access to the customer contact environment some technical efforts are required. Any application must be accessible to the agent, including the telephony platform. As the internet is available everywhere, just like the electrical outlet is, handling customer contact from anywhere in the world becomes possible. The required contact centre platform is now available as Software as a Service (SaaS) solution. Actually nowadays a “contact centre as a commodity” can be realized, which of course can be used from home.

Full virtual chain
If the performance of customer contact and work are completely virtual, another challenge is to digitize the complete recruitment chain. In the ultimate home model, agents do not physically come to the office. In order to gain maximum advantage of the benefits of home from work, the recruitment and selection process should be location independent too. This means that all processes such as having an interview, assessment, training, planning and coaching should be virtualized too. This implicates that agents have no physical contact with their employer: in fact it is highly undesirable that they physically appear ‘at work’.

The step from a fully controlled contact centre floor towards a process that is complete virtual seems huge, but offers many advantages. Some specific attention is required, although most monitoring mechanisms can be recognized in the traditional operation of the customer contact industry.

Important is to make arrangements upfront when the agent starts working. The operating hours of customer service departments, as well as the call flow process throughout the day are fixed values that one still has to estimate in advance. It is necessary that there are clear agreements on working time and that compliance is monitored. Linking sanctions on violations of these agreements is a must. Flexible working in this sense, is limited to pre-agreed arrangements. There is a commitment between agent and employer, the employer can count on the hours of the agent and the agent is guaranteed to work.

Flexibility can be found in the determination of availability in advance. Agents with children, who have to pick up their kids at child care, can make arrangements with the employer by means of self-planning systems: at specific moments of the day the agent can’t schedule himself. It is important to set up a pool of qualified agents to achieve a minimum level of flexibility, both in terms of employability skills and all the necessary requirements. Only then this working model will be feasible for the employer.

In addition, home workers should meet specific additional competence requirements. They must be self organizing and should have a high sense of responsibility. The agent is self fulfilling to a much larger extent and will have to look by himself for the right answers. Still it is important to explain where he can find the right answers. A consequence is that knowledge should be made available by means of an online knowledge base and that the agent should be able to communicate directly with his team.

This autonomous approach stimulates that knowledge will be retained better. Finally, the knowledge and the quality of the contact will improve. Also the physical absence of a supervisor will have a positive impact on the autonomy of an agent. The virtual supervisor will be confronted less often with questions compared to the situation in which the team coach physically is present in the contact centre. Asking a question to a team coach who is walking around, is apparently much easier than starting a chat session with a virtual coach.

Furthermore, the agents should be good team players, which are capable to motivate their colleagues online. They are part of a (virtual) team, which is dedicated to a campaign where – within the available communication module – knowledge is shared with team members. They have a mission in common: to optimize customer contact handling. To communicate effectively with each other and to motivate each other is very important. This is encouraged by common goals, which offer criteria for earning  bonuses and rewards. Agents should be able to give each other feedback and should be rewarded based on their commitment to the team goals. The agent is able to monitor the KPI’s at his desktop, so he and his team can improve performance. This simulates an agent to cooperate and to help weaker team members.

Virtual team coach
Within the virtual platform the status of each agent is monitored. Working on a campaign, visiting the bath room, details on handling time: everything is recorded in detail. Obviously it’s important for team coaches to manage the agents. For leaders, other skills are required. They should start with leading by trust and should have the ability to create and to commit to remote teams. The effective use of social media and communities is an important competency. The community in which all agents communicate with each other and recognize each other for the activities they carried out, is important as a basis. For the home based agent, affinity and experience with web based applications and social media is important too.

Employee in the driver seat
It’s all about management trusting the agents, combined with agents who have a clear sense of responsibility. People who are capable of working independently, self developing and who are curious, have a good starting point for becoming a home worker and to develop themselves as a professional home worker. When agents communicate about their availability and their skills are expanding, then the chain is reversed: no longer agents are asked for working in a project, but agents themselves select the projects they would like to work for. It is up to employers rather than to the agents to promote themselves: the most attractive projects with the highest rewards or most flexibility will be carried out by the best contact centre professionals. Dear contact centre manager: your contact centre agent is in the driver seat! You can and should count on that!

Radboud Heinink
Radboud Heinink (1969) has more than ten years operational experience in managing customer-focused business processes. Heinink worked in various technical and operational roles at companies like Speedlinq, Telfort and HP. In the summer of 2010 Heinink joined VANAD Work from Home as  Customer Contact Manager. At VANAD Heinink is dedicated to roll out the innovative concept of the homebased customer interaction centre. More information can be found at