Virtual contact centers - contact centers in which agents are remotely located in a variety of locations - are becoming an increasingly attractive option for business. In addition to increased productivity, boosted employee morale and reduced operational costs, virtual contact centers can give your business an added edge by promoting flexibility across the enterprise. But that doesn't mean that they're easy to operate. Perhaps the biggest challenge facing businesses that operate, or plan to operate, a virtual call center is handling the facility's human assets. Getting agents who may be spread across several cities, states or even continents to work together as a team can be a daunting proposition. On the other hand, it's certainly possible to manage a virtual call center as effectively as a brick-and-mortar facility - as long as you are willing to adapt to a new way of supervising agents.
1. Start small. Most companies ease into a virtual-call-center venture by beginning with just a small team of agents. Management mistakes made in a small-scale pilot project are much easier to correct and overcome than initiatives that risk inflicting damage on a companywide scale.
2. Start on-site. If your business already operates a brick-and-mortar call center, recruit your first virtual agents from within your own ranks. These individuals already know what's expected of them and will be able to begin working from home with only a modest amount of additional training.
3. Position logically. It's easier to manage a call center with virtual agents who are located within driving distance of your business. In other words, a 40-employee local plumbing service based in Milwaukee probably doesn't need a virtual call center with agents located in Bangladesh. Plan your virtual call center logically and try to balance the benefits of a widely scattered agent team against the inconvenience of not being able to reach out to local agents for on-site training and support.
4. Recruit locally. Your virtual call center may have a national or global scope, but hiring workers from a national or global pool can be almost unmanageable. Instead, start by identifying geographic areas that have a pool of skills or a cultural fit that works with your customers, then use job boards and online classified services to locate job-seekers in the communities in which you plan to hire.
5. Adopt quality monitoring. Quality monitoring is a great idea for any call center, but it's vital for assessing the working behavior of at-home agents handling calls without direct supervision. With a quality-monitoring tool, agents can be remotely supervised to ensure that customers are given the appropriate and correct information for ordering products and/or solving problems. Quality-monitoring vendors include AIM Technology, Aspect Software, Enkata Technologies, Stratasoft and Voice Print International.
6. Embrace e-learning technologies. If you can't train agents on-site, you must rely on e-learning products offered by vendors such as ISI eLearning Solutions, Ulysses Learning and Voice Print International. The technology you choose should be simple and allow agents to guide themselves through the training process.
7. Make frequent phone contact. Emails and instant messages are great, but nothing is more effective than talking to someone in real time. Regular phone contact reassures virtual agents that they are still in the loop and are valued team players. Voice is also a more reliable way to deliver important news and information to agents, as a phone call can't be overlooked or get caught in a spam filter.
8. Create a tech hotline. Home-based agents need someone they can immediately contact to report equipment failure and other tech-related glitches.
9. Hold in-person meetings. If your virtual call center isn't too widely dispersed, it's a good idea to ask agents to come into the office every month or so. Individual and group meetings are great for building team spirit and can be held in conjunction with on-site training.
There's no getting around the fact that virtual work-force management can be tricky and difficult. On the other hand, there's no reason why a virtual contact center can't run as smoothly and efficiently as its real-world counterpart — all that's required is some careful planning and the willingness to confront and surmount challenges.
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