Call Center Workforce Management Strategies: Evolving with the Pandemic
By Bill Messer, Practice Director, Hire Dynamics
Great call center workers possess many skillsets, including the capacity to listen with empathy, analyze and solve problems quickly, stay calm under pressure and, at times, to negotiate. From a management perspective, a good hire like this will go on to be a successful employee if they are effectively provided three things: onboarding, training and performance management.
The pandemic is bringing unprecedented challenges to each of these elements, particularly in the U.S. where a resurgence of cases is dragging out remote work scenarios that were never intended to be more than short-term, stopgap measures.
The effect on workers, even skilled and experienced ones, has been profound. To adapt, call center managers are responding pragmatically and creatively, calling on both traditional tactics and new ways to support quality outcomes amidst ongoing change.
Flexible Performance Management
When the global pandemic first hit, the main challenge most call centers faced was how to rapidly transfer centralized operations to widely dispersed work-from-home scenarios. In roughly two and a half weeks in March 2020, T-Mobile, for example, transitioned 12,000 customer representatives from 17 different call centers to WFH scenarios.
Suddenly remote, workers faced a surge in both call volume and difficulty. A Harvard Business Review article reported that a study of roughly a million customer service calls across a full spectrum of industries, saw a spike in difficult-to-resolve calls (from a baseline of 10 percent) to an average of 20% during just the first few weeks of March.
At the same time, workers in many cases were also juggling home office hindrances like sluggish connectivity, children at home, sickness or increased health risks, uncertainty over job security due to factors beyond their control – all while lacking the support and camaraderie of on-site co-workers.
Setting Goals – Together
Not surprisingly, key performance metrics need to adjust to the WFH setting. In the immediate aftermath of the migration home, before CIOs could implement communications architectural changes to accelerate data speeds, it made sense to adjust some numbers down. For many, KPIs later returned to pre-COVID levels. Good managers listen to the underlying issues and work creatively with employees to set and achieve aggressive but feasible goals.
One organization saw its newly home-based workforce consistently struggling to attain the target number of calls per day. After assessing the situation, managers took a counter-intuitive approach, actually raising their expectations by 41%. The result? A few weeks later, the majority of workers are falling short of the new goal – but nearly all are now hitting the original target.
Many managers are also finding flexible ways to help representatives adapt while ensuring their home routines include structure, clear expectations and deadlines, and clarity on roles – including who to turn to for help on a variety of issues. Increasing the cadence of meetings can help, adding more touchpoints to offset the loss of in-person availability.
How do you coach a team member through a problem when you can’t simply walk around and observe signs of distress or respond to a raised hand or flag when help is needed on a call? It can be tough on anyone, but perhaps hardest for newer, less experienced workers who didn’t get the chance to absorb successful strategies alongside co-workers and managers.
Managers are being resourceful. Some are using a second laptop dedicated to monitoring and responding to needs. For example, just keeping Microsoft Teams open all the time, allows them to catch and respond to questions or calls for help on issues as they arise. T-Mobile reported an increase in use of other collaboration tools as well, using WebEx, Teams, and Slack as well as creating “a special WFH channel where reps could message coaches for help.”
Unfortunately, every issue does not always have a happy resolution. Some call center workers have lost their jobs – for a variety of reasons. Workers face widely differing experiences in their WFH environments.
Access to communications is one factor. Where once, every call center worker could count on access to on-site software applications (guaranteeing speed and resiliency) now some workers – even skilled and experienced ones -- may discover their home location has poor accesses to their employer’s newly reconfigured cloud architecture, which in many cases involves routing calls through various broadband providers.
One call center representative, a consistent performer in the call center, happened to live with a sibling and an in-law, all of whom were sent home to work in a space too small to accommodate three offices and not enough computer speed to attain target goals. She had to leave the role, a loss for employer and employee alike.
Some workers were downsized simply due to drop in demand in their industries. In all these situations, managers can help by listening, advocating for approaches that can keep valued workers, and, when necessary, simply being honest and transparent when cuts must be made.
Onboarding New Workers
At the same time, many employers are looking to hire now. After employment lagged from March through May, it has picked up in June and July for a variety of reasons. In many cases, employers that sent workers home and had let some go are now exploring how to transition the WFH force back to call centers. In one case, an employer that had sent 200 home and let 50 go is now bringing back all two hundred. They need at least 50 more, too, but are looking to hire different workers than those let go. It’s an interesting trend and appears to be more than just a matter of performance issues past employees.
More significantly, the search for new workers to fill roles seems to be driven by the change in the workplace itself. The requirements for today’s call center workers are changing, calling for a fresh mindset and new approaches.
This brings management challenges full cycle to the original three points of this article: the need to onboard employees effectively. These new hires are coming to employers in new ways. The vast majority, perhaps 80%, are applying through a mobile app of some kind. Their interviewing looks different, too. Interviews are taking place via Skype, Facetime, Zoom or other virtual platforms. The ability to use this technology and to work and connect effectively with people through them is in itself a newly valuable skill for call center workers.
Just as home connectivity, fairly or not, is a factor in the success of call center reps in this ongoing WFH setting, in some cases having one’s own device can play a role in making a candidate more attractive. Although most call centers initially sent workers home with office equipment, in the future BYOD (bring your own device) could become the norm in some situations. Certainly, a higher level of competency in using technology -- and comfort in independent problem solving -- are going to be assets for new workers.
Beyond Typical Training
Call center training is an established practice and generally has taken place with groups of workers participating in a variety of on-site trainings. These often include a week of classroom sessions, some applied side-by-side or “nesting” work including role-playing and practice with co-workers and significant hands-on mentoring and guidance over the first month.
What are managers and trainers doing to adopt effective remote instruction? To overcome isolation and give workers the benefits of learning alongside peers, many are teaching via platforms like Teams. To gain efficiencies, they may conduct one live training session, record it, and re-use it for additional workers. Some are creating interactive online training modules that allow workers to progress at their own pace, achieving required milestones along the way. Another great approach can be a combination of live, individual training, along with assigned follow up or homework to advance skills through virtual practice sessions.
Rolling with the Changes
When pandemic first hit, the initial task was to transition all to WFH, chiefly using workers that were already onboarded and fully trained. Next, managers began to explore new ways to adjust performance expectations and sustain great results. Today, as hiring ramps up while uncertainties continue, managers are using technology, their human instincts, and creativity to help shape an agile workforce with the skillset to perform in flexible and evolving environments.