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The future of customer care: built-in flexibility

By Susan Lahey

Published June 9, 2020
Last updated June 9, 2020

Customer contact centers have always been divided between remote work and in-office work, with arguments for both. But now a lot of those arguments are moot. With the COVID-19 lockdown, many businesses had to scramble to figure out how to set up contact center employees at home. That brings with it a lot of new headaches: Does everyone have a powerful computer at home? Do they all have fast internet? Is their connection encrypted and compliant with customer data and payment security? And how do you make sure agents are productive and handling the stress when so many customers are agitated and so many businesses are delayed or shut down?

New rules for contact centers

A New York Times article pointed out that some companies, like Charter Communications, aka Spectrum, refused to let employees work from home at first—and more than 230 Charter employees tested positive for COVID-19. About half worked in offices or call centers. Many customer service representatives, earning a median income of $34,710 last year, don’t have fast internet. Companies have had to send their employees computers and headsets to allow them to work from home.

Other companies have gone to extreme measures. A Forrester article stated that one customer service outsourcer with sites in the Philippines opened centers for agents to move into to ride out the crisis. “With better facilities than what many of the agents have at home — the agents especially love the commercial clothes dryers — the response has been overwhelmingly positive.”

[Related read: Stop for a CX moment—4 lessons from leaders guiding their teams through change]

While many initially expected Coronavirus to be a problem for weeks or months, COVID-19 now is projected to be a health risk, potentially, for years. So many companies are trying to figure out how to hunker down and change their employment model. That may work out well. It turns out that now that employees have gotten a taste of working from home, as many as 43 percent don’t want to go back. And this has led to companies of all sizes evaluating safety and real estate and thinking about making the shift permanent, especially now that they’ve seen that remote work doesn’t necessarily ruin productivity or organizational culture.

It turns out that now that employees have gotten a taste of working from home, as many as 43 percent don't want to go back.

Some outsourcing companies were already remote

One company that already had a remote/office hybrid model in place is Simplr. The company offers outsourced customer service staffing for all digital channels. Up to now, its customer care representatives—called Simplr Specialists —worked from home, while other employees worked from offices in Nashville or San Francisco.

“We’ve been fortunate during this crisis because our Simplr Specialists have always worked remotely,” said Adam Grace, head of SimplrFlex, the branch of the company that hires and connects Simplr Specialists to businesses in need of scalable customer support. “Since flexibility is at the core of our business, we’ve been able to adapt to the ‘new normal’ better than your average call center.”

Simplr was designed, in part, with stay-at-home parents in mind. Simplr Specialists are gig workers who may work from anywhere, and work when, and as often, as they choose. All they need is a computer, reliable internet, the latest version of Chrome, and a Paypal or Venmo account for payment.

[Related read: Transitioning to a remote workforce]

Learning from gig economy customer care

Since Simplr Specialists work only when they want, Simplr sometimes runs incentives to ensure the company can cover specific high-volume contact periods, offering bonuses to people who work those hours. This is a little like surge pricing for rideshares except the end customer isn’t paying the extra cost.

Performance management is also built into the company’s model. Instead of paying by the hour, Simplr pays per resolution. Typically, Grace said, people can resolve 10 - 15 tickets in an hour. Simplr’s platform automatically rewards Specialists who perform well with more ticket volume and earning opportunities.

Performance management is also built into the company's model. Instead of paying by the hour, Simplr pays per resolution.

As with other contact centers, the company also uses software to collect data like how long the interaction took, how many contacts it took for the customer to get their issue resolved, and how satisfied the customer was with the interaction. And the company gamifies performance using a leaderboard of top Specialists.

Specialists also receive a mix of ticket types to keep them engaged—complaints, questions, cancellations, refunds, and so on—but within their interest areas. So Specialists who are fans of fashion but not makeup, for example, will handle more interactions on behalf of Simplr’s fashion brand customers.

[Related read: 7 ways to build your team’s communication strategy—especially when remote]

Of course, working remotely, a manager can’t see when an employee is upset to pull them aside for a walk or cup of coffee. Simplr addresses that by creating an internal online community where Specialists can unload about a stressful experience or celebrate one another’s big wins. The company sends gifts and swag to Specialists, holds virtual meetings, and syncs with managers in order to help bridge the gaps that come with operating a remote workforce.

How future-ready is your contact center?

If there’s one thing businesses can glean from this crisis, it’s that the evolution model holds: how sustainable you are depends a lot on how flexible you are, and are prepared to be. From simple cost structures to tool agility to gig economy employment models, there are many ways that companies can find efficiencies and support increased flexibility for the days and months ahead.