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Contact Center Agents: WFH Trouble Spots

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Contact center agent showing frustration
Image: tlorna - stock.adobe.com
The consensus from analysts, my customers, vendors, and their maintenance providers about moving contact center agents home to work for COVID-19 is that technology was the easy part. That’s no surprise to those of us who have worked on home-based agent setups for premises or cloud contact center environments. However, in the mass move to work from home (WFH), many companies neglected to consider or failed to think fully about the processes and support behind the technology of the contact center WFH model.
 
As they say, the devil is in the details. In the WFH model, as in any new business initiative, these two pillars are the most difficult with which to grapple.
 
Let’s start with a look at process, which is a series of actions or steps taken in order to achieve a particular end.
 
When COVID-19 hit, the initial goal of most organizations was to get people sequestered safely at home and set up with the tools they’d need to be productive. For most non-contact center employees, that meant making sure they had a laptop and could communicate with other office workers and clients as necessary. For their needs, various collaboration tools and the mobile calling sufficed. Contact centers agents, on the other hand, require so much more than using voice and other communications channels once in awhile.
 
Unlike regular business users, contact center agents are working with or connected to their customers online and on the phone (synchronous and asynchronous communications) usually 80% to 85% or more of their time per hour. Yes, that means they can have as few as three to at most 12 minutes per hour when they’re not connected and actively dialoging with a customer. Regardless of what vendors are saying about the uptick in non-voice channels, voice communications between agents and customers resoundingly is still the norm.
 
Most business users are utilizing video collaboration to stay connected with their peers, but they usually do not have to deal with angry customer interactions — though fellow employees may be a pain. Most contact center agents are not connected to customers via video collaboration; this means they are dealing with customers in a one-dimensional method of communication — over the phone, through a text, chat, social media, or email — and customers are venting their anger and frustration.
 
Due to COVID 19, most organizations have longer queues and greater volume, and higher numbers of customer complaints. The level of frustration for both customers and agents is through the roof. Agents have lost the social aspect of being in the office, which assisted them in better handling ugly customers and difficult interactions through coaching, a fellow agent hearing the escalated contact and providing that “you did that as best you could” look of empathy, or a supervisor lending an ear on how to work with those “difficult customers” through empathy and coaching. That personal touch is what moves an agent through a difficult day, and no amount of automated contact center technology of speech analytics will do the same.
 
As I’ve seen with my clients, the dramatic spike in customer inquiries due to COVID-19 is leading to agent burnout. We’re seeing more-than-the-usual number of sick days and, worse, absenteeism. As my associate Rose Polchin from ICMI recently stated in an email discourse, the uptick in absenteeism isn’t surprising given the social isolation, domestic disturbances, fear of job loss, concern about the health and well-being of family and friends, anxiety over home schooling, and other factors specific to this period in time. Companies need to evaluate agents’ WFH circumstances and take time to understand their individual concerns if they expect to curb this problem.
 
I strongly believe that the fast rush to WFH without proper due diligence of process and technical support requirements has created beyond-normal stress for contact center workers especially.
 
Here’s a quick list, followed by explanations, of process-related items that a company needs to consider for enabling contact center agents to work from home or in a remote location successfully.
 
     1) Good, solid voice/communications connection
     2) Good, solid Internet bandwidth
     3) Right tools
          a. Great quality headset
          b. Laptop plus external display screen
          c. Ergonomic keyboard, desk, and chair
         d. Proper lighting
     4) Appropriate space to work
     5) Dependable power
     6) Responsive IT support
 
Good, Solid Voice/Communications Connection – A majority of customer contacts to contact center agents, not bots, are voice — to be clear, voice isn’t dead, a good, solid voice/telephony connection is essential. Many customers and agents are already frustrated and inpatient, especially with the added stresses of COVID-19. Don’t make the prime connection between these two a poor quality, hard to hear, choppy experience. Customers are most likely calling from their cell phones, which means sound quality is less than stellar and dropped calls and dead spots abound. Because organizations can’t control this, they must make the agent’s end as good as possible. Agents should be accepting calls over landlines, only relying on cell service as a backup should they lose their hard-wired connection. That said, today’s home landlines, if available at all, are often delivered as Internet services rather than over the public switched telephone phone (PSTN), and that brings up the next can of worms. Companies must arrange for PSTN connectivity or dedicated VoIP line for home agents.
 
Bandwidth – With COVID-19, many WFH contact center agents will be competing for bandwidth with others in the house working or attending school virtually. Even if a contact center agent is using a VPN for their voice and data connectivity, they’re still at the mercy of the Internet connection to the home. Unlike at the office, where we can prioritize voice over data and ensure good bandwidth, QoS (voice prioritization), isn’t the case to employee homes. As stated above, companies must arrange for PSTN connectivity or dedicated VoIP line for home agents.
 
Adequate bandwidth isn’t the only requirement: A wired Internet connection is more stable and reliable than Wi-Fi. This is a lesson learned more than five years ago when I worked with an automobile association that moved most of its contact center agents to a WFH model. While having a wired connection was supposed to be WFH prerequisite, the number one support issue was problematic wireless Internet connections. Once the association assured all WFH agents had wired connections, stability improved and it saw fewer service interruptions.
 
Today, many CCaaS and premises-based contact center implementations are simply a browser link for both the voice and data connection to the application, and agents are often connecting to the Internet via Wi-Fi. This creates another point of failure and quality issues. Without a hard-wired connection, agents might find themselves trying to get close to the wireless router or having to reconnect when the Wi-Fi signal disappears. Ensure your contact center agents have a wired connection to their devices.
 
The Right Tools – In the contact center, we’ve always stressed over providing agents with good headsets. Well, this need persists for home agents — yet in the rush to WFH, availability of a professional headset with good microphone capabilities has often been neglected.
 
Besides leaving their headsets behind, most agents went home with a laptop but not their ergonomic keyboards and chairs, or their standing/sitting adjustable workstations. Furthermore, there isn’t one contact center I’ve been in over these past many years in which an agent has only one display screen. Most have at least two, and I’d argue that necessary for numerous reasons.
 
What’s more, proper lighting is another environmental aspect taken seriously by many organizations and contact centers I’ve visited. Yet, once an agent is working from home, all these great strides we made in providing an ergonomically, healthier work environment have been left behind at the office. Organizations have to step up to the plate and provide the right tools for a successful WFH environment.
 
Appropriate Space to Work – Many contact center agents aren’t going to have a spare bedroom/office in which to work, especially if they’re vying for office space with others in the home. But when working with customers, it’s important to have a quiet environment — no barking dogs or children in the background, for example. That’s not acceptable if I’m asking about my banking, insurance, lost order, or whatever, that added activity is a distraction and it adds to the overall average handle time. I seen some comments that background WFH noise and activities make interactions more human, and while that might be true in a business meeting, such distractions do not facilitate a better interaction between customers and agents in the contact center.
 
Dependable Power – Power outages can be an issue when contact center agents live in close proximity to one another. This could be caused by the many storms that have been hitting North America and taking down power and agent connectivity to their applications; most agents again do not have the means to own backup generators to their homes, apartmenst, or condos. If extended power outages are an issue, the WFH model has to be able to adapt to allow agents to go back to the office or to a remote location with reliable power. Contact center agents must be available when customers need them and when the workforce management team has scheduled them.
 
Responsive IT Support – Supporting WFH contact center agents (and business users) has given rise to new IT support issues. At the same time, IT often expects WFH agents to know more about their home setups and how their applications work than they really do. Contact center agents need good education and training on certain home technology components, such as Internet connection, router setup, and so forth. Contact centers should have a contact center applications team that is dedicated to the contact center and sits between agents and the IT support desk. That team must be responsive and willing to help. They need to understand that time is precious to a contact center agent, and their systems must always be working.
 
A good contact center WFH model must be well thought out and fine-tuned continually. I have touched on but a few of the process/technology aspects, and the people side is even more important to plan and review thoroughly. Most organizations rushed to get their contact center agents working from home; now it is time to begin the really hard work of evaluating your WFH model, with the goal of retaining quality contact center agents and preventing even more of the attrition that is typical in a contact center.

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"SCTC Perspective" is written by members of the Society of Communications Technology Consultants, an international organization of independent information and communications technology professionals serving clients in all business sectors and government worldwide.

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