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Remote agents require special care

Work-at-home agents need different attention and require uniform training and service level agreements that focus on more than numbers.

Differences in culture and language make managing a global contact center operation difficult. But those issues are only two of the many challenges companies face when they employ agents worldwide. Inconsistencies in the customer experience as a result of issues such as multiple training programs and contact center operations that combine outsourced, at-home, and in-house agents have led companies to reexamine how they manage a contact center organization that may span across the globe.

The solutions are as varied as companies' approaches to delivering consistent customer experiences, but uniform training, SLAs that focus on more than numbers, and integration are three areas that can greatly improve the customer experience.

Some organizations find that providing regular training that is standard across all of their call centers creates a consistent level of agent expertise and service delivery, which can spur both higher customer satisfaction, and lower agent turnover. In fact, a recent in-depth survey of 22 contact center executives in charge of call centers, conducted by contact center technology provider Knowlagent, highlights the benefits of proper agent training. The survey, which examined the challenges managers face overseeing a global call center operation, found that consistency in the way agents are trained led to significant improvements in customer service.

"The main difference we found between companies that were satisfied with their capability to create high satisfaction levels versus those that weren't was whether they had standard procedures regarding how to handle logistics, customer care, and employee satisfaction in place for all agents and call centers," said Debbie Qaqish, Knowlagent's vice president of marketing.

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After management has created standard procedures in those areas, contact center executives must develop a training program that teaches and supports those procedures. Some of the companies surveyed used agent advisory boards to coordinate different centers' areas of expertise, and others offer mentoring programs that pair veterans with new agents.

Creating a uniform training program is especially important when an organization uses an outsourced contact center provider. This will help the outsourced agents feel more a part of the company whose calls they're taking, which often boosts satisfaction, morale, and performance, according to industry experts. It also will assist the outsourcer in delivering on standard performance policies, which a company must have if it expects to deliver a consistent customer experience. In addition, Qaqish recommends developing an SLA that includes guidelines about how the outsourcer should treat and train its agents, as well as how those agents are expected to treat customers. "There has to be consistency in handling first calls, transitioning to upsells, and who is ultimately responsible for satisfaction," she said.

While standardized training is important, so is treating a diversified contact center as a single operation. Many companies achieve this by formalizing information sharing between agents. Every contact center should have access to the same database of customer information, account history, and previous call history.

Some firms even let agents in different countries solve customer problems together. "Using an IP architecture makes agent location irrelevant," said Steve Kowarsky, co-founder of call center communications technology provider CosmoCom. "Samsung organizes its contact centers in three locations based on product lines, and if a customer has to be transferred from one location to another his account information and problem description reaches the new agent as well."

VisitBritain, a quasi-government agency promoting Great Britain's tourism industry, uses a work-sharing approach throughout its 13 contact centers operating throughout Europe, Asia, and North America. Every agent works on CosmoCom's Universe system, which operates on a global unified architecture. Consequently, the entire pool of agents, rather than just the local center, can help to answer customers' questions, which creates more chances those queries will be answered the first time a customer calls. It also means that if an agent in Germany speaks both German and French, he can assist the call center in France during busy times. Additionally, one manager at a central location can manage the entire system virtually, ensuring that customers' calls are routed to the right location while monitoring quality assurance. VisitBritain is so pleased with the benefits of using the system that it is considering using it to support at-home agents.

Whether it's consistent training or creating a seamless agent experience, treating far-flung agents like they're one team working together just down the hall will help ensure that customers around the globe will receive the same great service.

Reprinted with permission from 1to1 Media. (c) 2006 Carlson MarketingWorldwide.

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