A Success Plan for Remote Agents

By Donna West

If you look the word “remote” up in an old dictionary, you’ll find that it has five meanings listed.

1. Distant in space or time – a remote star in the galaxy

2. Far off, hidden; secluded – a remote cabin in the woods

3. Not closely connected – a remote cousin

4. Not warm and friendly; aloof – remote from the group

5. Slight, faint – a remote chance

In a newer dictionary, there might also be two more definitions.

6. A controlling device – The TV remote

7. An employee who works from home or another location – a remote agent

For those of us in the telecommunications industry most of these definitions have meaning. We would like to have a remote workforce (7) that is distant from our office, both in time, such as (1) a different time zone and in location (2) in their own home, but we are afraid that they will feel they (3) are not closely connected. We are also afraid that they will not be (4) warm and friendly to our customers if we aren’t there to oversee them.

Having a remote workforce is not the fearsome thing that many make it out to be. We have a call logger, a (6) device that gives us good control over a person who is not on site. We need to relax, to understand that there is only (5) a slight chance that a (7) employee who works from home will not be just as good as the employees who work in our offices. Actually, that could be turned around; there is only a (5) slight chance that the (7) employee who works in our office won’t be as good as the one who works from home!

It isn’t likely that any of our employees used to say, “I want to be an agent in a call center when I grow up.” While our agents may have come to truly like their jobs, it was probably not their destination. That is why (in part) it is difficult to hire good people in our industry; people can’t imagine themselves doing what we do. However, they can imagine themselves working from home. And we can allow our employees to work from home. It is our advantage when many entry level positions simply will not lend themselves to such conditions. Just about all retail positions and many service positions require the employee’s presence in the building and meeting the customers.

In a field where we are all competing in the same educated, but unskilled labor pool, what can we offer that will bring us the cream of the crop? We can offer the carrot of working from home! That is a competitive advantage that is hard to top. Employee longevity is something that gives one company an edge over another that has frequent turnover. Longevity (and good management) equals more knowledgeable agents.   More knowledgeable agents (and good management) equal better service. Employees who are able to work from home are happier and more willing to work odd hours. Everyone wins.

What does it take to have a remote workforce? It takes a well thought out program that has been committed to paper and is adhered to without fail. It takes consistent and careful monitoring and coaching. It takes faith on the part of the employer.   And it takes a good program for keeping people feeling connected and appreciated! Let’s take a closer look at these requirements.

The first step in developing a program for a remote workforce is to meet with the top people in the company and get feedback, talk with other companies that have a remote program and listen carefully to what they do, ask what works and where they have difficulties. List all the pros and cons you can think of and determine how you will handle each area. For instance, will the agents who work from home work in the office part of the time. If mistakes are made, how will you discipline? Will remote privileges be revoked? Under what circumstances?  For how long?

When you begin your program make, sure everyone is issued a letter stating the rules, that this is a pilot program and subject to change at any time. Have every person involved in the program sign a statement that they understand and agree.

With remote agents, monitoring and coaching will become a full time job. It will be nearly impossible to have a true remote workforce without a call logger. Pulling calls from a call logger to listen for that warm inviting tone and scoring them objectively using the ATSI Award of Excellence (or other) criteria will be a daily job. This must be done by someone dedicated to getting the best from your agents. Any agent who does not score well should not be working outside your office, and they probably should not be working in your office either. The truth is your employees either care – and will do so no matter where they are working – or they don’t care and will try to get away with whatever they can, wherever they are. Put away your fears; the agents who do well on site will probably do just as well, or better, at home. That is because they want to work from home and will not want to jeopardize that privilege.

Having a remote workforce takes faith on the part of the owners and managers: faith that it will work and faith in their employees. The success of this program will come when employees know that their leaders trust them to work without direct supervision. People live up to (or down to) our expectations; they will be proud that trust and won’t let you down.

Finally, actions that are rewarded are repeated. Make sure that the excellent results you find during that monitoring are rewarded. If you require scores of 90% to maintain the ability to work from home, reward scores of 95% and above with a bonus. Nothing says “thanks” quite like money, especially if they are not one of the world’s more highly paid people.

Keep your agents connected by installing an instant messaging program that works with your equipment. Allow them to chat a bit when things are slow, but be sure that everyone knows that this is a permanent record, the supervisor can see what is being written, and that management can review what has been typed. That will keep snide remarks and hurt feelings from happening. You may want to give each agent an employee e-mail as well.

Set up accounts in your equipment so that agents have a place to ask one another for coverage, a place to list accounts that need to have corrections made, or a place to post happenings in their lives. Have a bulletin board in each office where photos of every agent and administrative person are posted. Create a website where staff photos are also posted.

Create a company newsletter and make sure things such as policy changes and customer requests and happenings are noted. Record the things that are happening in your employee’s lives, such as new babies and new cars, old friends, kids starting school, and kids finishing school; let folks know about all the highlights. Have a recipe exchange; give hints on using Outlook or Word shortcuts. Make sure that your employees all know the goals you are setting for each quarter of the year, what you will accomplish in the next year. Bring them into the group. Will you be designing a new website? Creating a client newsletter? Designating a customer appreciation month? Make sure everyone is in the loop.

As you work on projects, try to include your remote staff members in part of the preparations. Ask them to look up specific account information. Give them a part in whatever is happening in your company, even if it is only to review a new policy, or check over a new client account for ease of use. We all need to be needed. When a new account comes on make sure that training is available, you can use power points and/or create training videos using tools such as GoToMeeting.

Send your employees emails and notes through your system; tell them that you noticed they did an exceptionally good job on a specific customer service call. Thank them for working extra hours. Send a “thought for the day,” or a message with meaning. Share anecdotes about how the company got started, go through old appointment books and share some history. Let them know that eight years ago today this customer came on board, or five years ago today this agent joined the company.

Show everyone you appreciate him or her. Now that so many people will be working from home, they can’t see the smile you flashed at them when you walked through the operations center. They can’t hear your cheery “Good Morning.” It is more difficult – and now more necessary than ever to say, “Thank you” whenever you can. Write hand written notes and send them through the mail; we all like to receive a card or letter.

Call into your company lines and compliment the person who answers.  Tell them how glad you are that they are answering your customer’s phones so nicely; tell them they make your company a better place.

Having remote agents in your company will make it a better place. Your clients will love the stability and knowledgebase they find in your agents.  Your sales people will love talking about the longevity statistics at your company. Your agents will love the savings and the flexibility. And you will appreciate the calm atmosphere that will prevail in your office. Yes, “going remote” will allow you to find a remote (1) or (2) space of you own to relax in occasionally.

[From Connection Magazine October 2009]