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The benefits of a virtual contact center model

Company investments in contact center agents, facilities and technology can be an enemy to profits. The virtual contact center model may defray some costs.

While contact centers can be a key element of providing customer service, few companies would debate the fact that they pose real costs.

Contact center facilities can drain budgets with expensive rent, customer service agent headcount adds to payroll costs, and training and coaching efforts can also put pressure on budgets -- not to mention the expense of the hardware and software required to keep contact centers up and running.

Enter virtual contact centers, which have emerged as a lower-cost alternative to the traditional model. With virtual contact centers, companies may not pay rent or other costs for a contact center facility. Instead, agents work remotely in small teams or from home. Voice over Internet Protocol and cloud-based services have become critical components of virtual contact center infrastructure, enabling remote employees to receive routed calls and connect to a company's network.

There are some clear cost advantages of a virtual contact center model. But there are other possible advantages as well, including improved service levels, better business continuity and improved workforce flexibility. But companies need to be aware of possible downsides, which, if they're not accounted and planned for, can degrade service quality with a distributed workforce. For a virtual contact center to be cost-effective and successful, it will require additional resource investments, such as talent acquisition software and best practices, new training procedures, and new employee engagement methods.

Benefits of a virtual contact center

Let's first explore some of the strategic benefits:

Improved service levels. Because companies have the opportunity to reduce some contact center costs, they can focus their attention on providing quality customer service, having well-trained, informed agents, and providing an improved customer experience.

So, for example, instead of running two small queues of bilingual agents, where calls are split among the queues, a virtual contact center would enable consolidation into a single queue with one set of agents devoted to handling calls that need bilingual skills. In this way, a company might be able to boost service levels without adding resources.

Improved business continuity. Customers want access to the contact center whenever they want it. They don't want to sit in call queues because employees could not get to a contact center as a result of poor weather conditions or an outbreak of an illness.

Virtual contact centers, especially those with work-at-home agents, can address these issues. Employees no longer have to commute in hazardous conditions and are more likely to work even if they are not feeling 100%. Customer demands can be met as a result of the ability to overcome many challenges of having agents commute to a physical site.

Improved workforce flexibility. A flexible workforce is critical to a contact center operation being able to service customers when they want to be serviced.

Virtual contact centers with a large variety of locations can support the needs of customers who may require extended hours of operation and whose call patterns may not lead to simple staffing schedules. Having a workforce that resides in various time zones and who can work from home provides tremendous flexibility in filling more complicated scheduling needs.

Risks of a virtual contact center

Countering the cost and strategic benefits are some potential risks:

High turnover. Agents working remotely, especially from a home environment, must be able to work independently and be self-starters. Agents who do not fit that profile will struggle in a virtual environment, which could result in high turnover.

Poor quality of service. Training, both new hire and refresher, is more challenging in a virtual contact center environment. Without adjusting on-site training programs to serve a virtual workforce, the transfer of knowledge to agents becomes more challenging.

Poor customer connection. Research shows that engaged employees perform more effectively. A virtual contact center environment creates new challenges in assuring that employees feel a part of the larger organization and can transfer that emotion to customers.

Opportunities to mitigate the risks

Virtual contact centers require additional company investment to ensure quality of service and to minimize agent turnover, which is notoriously rife in the industry (estimates are about 30% of staff is regularly turned over). These investments include time, technology and money.

Refining the talent acquisition model. Contact centers have well-defined talent acquisition processes for hiring new agents. The current model centers around the skills required to successfully interact with customers in a high-stress environment. This model must be refined to ensure that organizations hire individuals who have not only solid customer service skills but also the skills to work in a virtual contact center environment, such as self-direction in an autonomous work environment, proactivity and self-organization skills.

Individuals in a virtual contact center environment must be able to work independently and adapt to problems without depending on fellow agents or managers. Hiring practices have to be revised to ensure that potential employees can not only successfully work with customers but also work in an environment where direct supervision and fellow employees are not nearby.

Refining the training model. Contact center organizations have well-defined training programs that use a combination of classroom training and e-learning techniques. This model must be refined for a virtual world, where classroom feedback isn't possible.

Replacing the physical classroom environment with effective e-learning and developing creative solutions to overcome the gap in learning from others requires thought and resources. E-learning modules must include interactive sessions where students assemble in a virtual classroom for real-time interaction between trainers and students.

Refining the employee engagement model. Contact centers have formal and informal programs in place to ensure that employees feel like they are part of the company. Cultivating that sense of team with employee engagement is challenging in a virtual contact center environment. Working in a virtual environment can be lonely, and being able to mimic the feeling of being part of a larger entity is a challenge.

Programs need to be implemented to support virtual meetings and social events, even going so far as providing opportunities for agents to get together when they live near each other. At the same time, supervisors need to build in regular opportunities to check in with their employees, to provide feedback on strengths and areas of improvement when needed.

When a virtual contact center makes sense

As organizations consider a virtual contact center model, cost savings may be the primary driver, but it shouldn't be the sole factor. In order for virtual contact centers to be successful, they also need to refine their training model to adapt to a virtual world. Face-to-face interaction with supervisors and peers isn't possible, so e-training needs to step into the gap to provide guidance.

Virtual contact center agents also need to be self-directed and autonomous workers. But these characteristics should also be supplemented with good supervisory practices, such as daily, weekly and monthly check-ins, random monitoring of calls, and one-one-one meetings to discuss agent performance and areas of improvement.

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