Being such a big proponent of the home agent model, I love hearing about organizations that have kicked talented staff out of the contact center. I particularly love hearing about traditionally conventional organizations that have done so after seeing the light. So when I heard that the Employees Retirement System of Texas – a government entity – had a successful virtual program in place (and has for several years), I was eager to feature them here.
Following is my interview with ERS’s Assistant Director Scott Murphy about his contact center’s thriving work-at-home initiative.
How long has ERS’ home agent program been in place? What were the main reasons your contact center decided to go virtual?
We started our home agent program about four years ago. Our initial goal was to create a disaster recovery option that would allow our call center to operate in the event that our building had to be evacuated, was damaged, or lost power for an extended period of time, etc. This was also at a time when gas costs were very high and we were looking at alternatives for our employees to save money by not having to commute to work.
Being a government institution, were there added obstacles in getting the green light for the home agent initiative?
Luckily, ERS is very progressive when it comes to new ideas and different ways of thinking when it comes to solving problems, so the support of our senior leadership was there. That being said, we did have some very large obstacles to overcome. Since we deal with health insurance and financial related matters, we had to satisfy the requirements to protect our members’ private information. We collaborated across the agency and with other organizations to understand best-practices when it came to issues related to work-at-home programs that dealt with sensitive and private information. Through that process, some of the things we determined were to require our home agents to work in a room that can be closed off from the rest of the residence by a door. We require that our home agents not allow others, including other family members, etc., in the room while they are working. We use monitoring tools that allow us to ensure these practices are being followed, and the home agents are required to sign a contract outlining all of the requirements before they are deployed to work at home.
How many home agents did the ERS program start with? How many home agents are there currently? Do you expect to grow the program significantly?
We are a small contact center with about 35 total seats, which includes the work-at-home employees. We started slowly with two [home agents] to prove the concept. Once we realized it was working, we ramped up to 10 full-time home agents, which is what we still have today. We may explore other home agent options for some of our back office departments in the future, but have no set plans at this time.
What impact (if any), has the home agent initiative had on the following:
-Recruiting and retention?
I think it has a minimal impact on recruiting, but a much larger impact on retention. We currently only send our more tenured employees home so our new-hires may have to wait before they are eligible based on availability. When employees are hired they know we have a home agent program, but they also know that they may have to wait before they are able to work at home so it is not really something that impacts the recruiting effort. However, retention is a key benefit. Our home agents are much more likely to stay in their positions for much longer periods of time. Our average tenure for our work-at-home agents is about four years compared to about a year for our in-house agents.
We did see an initial spike in productivity through higher availability when we first launched the program. However, over time, that gain has adjusted and is now just slightly higher than the in-house. We do see lower average handle times for our at home agents, which it is most likely due to their longer tenure in addition to fewer environmental distractions at home.
Performance quality is consistent with our in-house employees.
Our hours of operation are 7:30 am to 5:30 pm Monday through Friday, which creates some unique challenges since our peaks occur in the morning and late afternoon. The home agents are much more likely to work split shifts that allow us to staff higher during the peak periods. We provide some of our home agents with a two-hour lunch, which allows them to take care of errands, go to the gym, etc. and allows us to schedule them to start their shift at 7:30 and end their shift at 5:30.
Facility expenses really have not changed; however, we were able to maximize the space in a more productive way.
Do you ever hire agents to work from home immediately, or must they first work onsite for a set period of time?
Due to the complexity of the types of calls, we have found it difficult to move a newer employee to a home agent position. Our home agents are more tenured employees that have already been fully trained.
How do you provide continuous training and coaching to home agents?
We have an online knowledge base that supports the ongoing general call handling information, and we bring them into the office once a month to handle any recurrent or required training.
How do you keep home agents “in the loop” and feeling like a part of the “brick & mortar” team?
We did have a challenge with our home agents feeling like they were not part of the team, and we noticed we were experiencing some mild morale issues as a result of the isolation. We decided to incorporate cameras so that the supervisors could have video “face-to-face” conversations whenever they called their home agents. We also use video conferencing software that allows the supervisors to incorporate the home agents into team meetings. We also discovered, during one of our fire drills, that the home agents were not aware of the drill and were concerned about the sudden spike in the queue and not being able to reach anyone on site. We have since added a camera to our intranet site that displays the contact center and allows the home agents to see what is going on in the contact center in real time. Now when a fire drill occurs, our home agents can see that the contact center is empty.
What would you say is the biggest challenge of implementing and managing a home agent program?
I would say that the biggest challenge for us was figuring out how to protect the sensitive data that we handle and creating processes that minimize the risk.
What quick advice do you have for contact center managers who are considering implementing a home agent initiative of their own?
Talk to other organizations that have implemented work-at-home programs because there are a lot of lessons that other organizations have learned that may be beneficial to your company. Search contact center industry message boards for information related to work-at-home programs.
ERS – The Big Picture
Contact center locations: Austin, Texas; Harlingen, Texas (outsourcer)
Hours of operation: 7:30 am to 5:30 pm, Monday-Friday
Number of agents employed: 35 plus outsourcer
Products/services supported/provided: Employee benefits to State of Texas employees and retirees
Channels handled: Phone, web self-service, Facebook, IVR, email, face-to-face
What’s so great about them: They are one of the few government organizations that have embraced the home agent model, resulting in several big benefits for the contact center – namely increased retention of talented agents and more flexible staffing.
For more on the blazing hot topic of home agents, be sure to check out the following OFF CENTER resources:
"The State of Home Agent Staffing" (research report) - http://goo.gl/XoDAH
“10 Reasons Your Call Center Should Use Home Agents” - http://goo.gl/5MC2Z
“Making Home Agents Feel ‘At Work’” - http://bit.ly/eSyctW
“Home Agents: A Call Center Game-Changer” - http://bit.ly/hXI62g
“Contact Centerfold” article on VPI Pet Insurance - http://bit.ly/gCzLRT
“On the Phone at Home” (song parody) - http://bit.ly/8X3uQj (After clicking link, scroll to the third song sample on the page.)
In addition, my ebook – Full Contact – contains ample info on home agent programs, as well as a comprehensive sample work-at-home agent agreement donated by a real contact center. So be sure to buy about 12 copies of the ebook. http://bit.ly/cl745j
Back in 2008, Allianz Global Assistance (formerly Mondial Assistance) won ICMI’s Global Call Center of the Year Award (large category). I chaired the selection committee during that year’s competition, and was thoroughly impressed by how good Allianz was at customer care and contact center management.
I saw first-hand how the company backed its claims of customer-centricity by focusing intently on things like C-Sat data/feedback and contact quality; how they nailed an ambitious service level goal and other accessibility objectives without hammering agents over the head about Average Handle Time; how they created high levels of agent engagement and retention via an impressive array of rewards & recognition programs; and how they sustained such levels of engagement and retention by empowering staff to participate on teams and task forces aimed at continuous process improvement.
As a contact center, you can’t really do much better than that.
Leave it to Allianz to prove me wrong.
I recently touched base with the good folks at Allianz and discovered they have hardly become complacent since winning the aforementioned coveted award. With a new state-of-the art facility being built as we speak, a burgeoning home agent initiative in place, and a proud culture of corporate social responsibility, Allianz is redefining what it means to be a world-class customer care organization.
Moving on Up
When I heard Allianz had recently outgrown its contact center in Richmond, Va. – with its spacious workstations, ergonomic furniture, stylistic meeting rooms and ample natural light – and was planning to move at the end of this year, I felt bad for the hundreds of employees who will have to say goodbye to the impressive facility.
Until I heard about the new one.
“We have hired a team of leading designers and architects to ensure that this will be the most associate-friendly building of its kind in the area,” says Daniel Durazo, Director of Communications (USA) for Allianz. “The build-out has just begun, but we expect to have an expanded cafeteria, a state of the art fitness facility, a coffee bar, video conference-ready meeting rooms, and much more.”
Employees needn’t worry about any major changes to their commute – the new site is just a hop, skip and a jump from where they work now. “We’ll be moving into the former Circuit City headquarters,” Durazo says, “located a couple of miles from our current location. We can’t wait to move in!”
Remote Agent Program Bringing Home Results
As excited as the Allianz crew is about the new digs, not everyone will be making the move. A team of 75 agents – roughly 15% of the center’s frontline – currently handles customer contacts from home, and are more than happy to be staying right where they are.
That’s a pretty significant number of remote staff, especially considering how new Allianz is to the work-at-home model. “The Remote Agent Program was piloted in December of 2010, and then graduated to an ongoing program in July of 2011,” explains Durazo. He points out the initiative was a direct response to the company’s annual agent survey, which revealed that agents were looking for more job flexibility. “Fortunately, the initiative turned into a win-win situation by ensuring we were meeting the needs of our associates while providing for our growing workspace needs.”
Allianz will likely add more remote agents in the near future, which should come as no surprise considering the positive impact the program has had on engagement and retention throughout the contact center.
“The feedback we have received has been very positive. This role has been received as a privilege and associates look forward to being able to join this team,” says Durazo. "The home agent program is a very attractive benefit in the eyes of our new hires. It is one of the most frequently asked questions in new-hire training.”
Many agents may ask about home-based work, but only a relatively small number qualify for such popular positions. To do so, an agent must first work at least six months on site, consistently meet or exceed all performance objectives, demonstrate the ability to work independently, and be highly customer focused. Each candidate must also have a home office that is free of noise and interruptions, and that is equipped with high-speed Internet and a hard-wired phone line.
Having such comprehensive selection criteria has paid off thus far, not only in terms of engagement and retention but performance as well. As Durazo explains, “We’ve been able to achieve both a slight increase in quality as well as a reduction in unplanned absenteeism for associates working remotely.”
Not Your Typical “CSR”
More than its new facility and remote agent program, Allianz prides itself on the memorable service it provides. Not just to customers, but to the local community and beyond. Where in most organizations CSR stands for “Customer Service Rep”, the acronym stands for something different at Allianz.
“We have a comprehensive Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) program that provides opportunities for all associates to become involved,” Durazo says.
Among the CSR initiatives and activities that agents, supervisors and managers participate in include assembling food-kits to be sent to hungry families in developing nations, volunteering at Ronald McDonald house, painting houses for Elder Homes, and more. In addition, whenever an employee gives a donation to their favorite charity or non-profit organization, Allianz matches it.
Durazo doesn’t like to toot the company’s own horn when it comes to social responsibility, but with a program as popular outside the organization as it is inside, it’s hard not to.
“Our CSR program is well liked [by agents], and the community recognizes us as a responsible corporate citizen.”
Allianz Global Assistance – the Big Picture:
Location: Richmond, Va.
Hours of operation: 24/7/365
Number of agents: Approximately 500
Products/services provided/supported: Provide support for a number of products/services, such as travel insurance, event ticket protector, concierge and third party administrator services.
Channels handled: Phone, email, web self-service
What’s so great about them? Their focus on contact center facility design, a burgeoning home agent program, and a culture of social responsibility keep staff inspired and performing at optimal levels.
Almost as challenging as handling all the customer contacts that Active Network’s contact center receives is managing the slew of job applications and resumes that arrive daily. Once you hear about how much Active Network values and empowers its staff, it’s easy to understand applicants’ attraction.
The San Diego-based company’s heavy emphasis on agent wellness, development and empowerment – as well as its popular work-at-home initiative – are among the key reasons why the resumes keep flowing in and existing employees keep sticking around. In fact, San Diego Business Journal named Active Network among San Diego’s Best Places to Work in 2011 and listed it among the finalists for the magazine’s “Healthiest Employers Award” in 2010.
“The leaders of Active Network believe in our mission of connecting people with the things they love, want, and need to do,” says Dennis Triplett, Senior Vice President of Operations at Active Network. “This extends to, if not begins with, our employees. From the first day of training, our call center agents feel empowered to provide high-level customer service to our clients.”
Active Network is the largest network of activities, organizations and people linked by world-class technology. The company’s flagship media property, Active.com®, is the leading online community for people who want to discover and participate in activities about which they are passionate.
A Healthy Approach to Contact Center Management
Agents at Active Network don’t merely feel empowered; they feel powerful –thanks to the company’s passionate commitment to employee health and well-being.
Agents at each contact center location participate in a comprehensive employee participation and wellness initiative called “Active X”, which includes such offerings as daily exercise programs, walking/running groups, nutritional behavior workshops, smoking cessation courses, yoga classes, nutritional seminars, and community volunteer opportunities.
“ActiveX is the internal manifestation of our company mission, and one of the reasons why we are frequently listed as a best place to work,” says Triplett. "Our wellness beliefs are rooted in participation and the intrinsic outcomes of being part of something healthy. And our [wellness programs] are filled with success stories – in just a short period of time, they have made significant changes in our employees’ lives. These lives have touched others, infecting active participation across our company, spreading to their families and into their communities.”
Ensuring Agent Success
Having physically and emotionally fit agents on the frontline is a big benefit, but wellness programs alone don’t drive lasting agent engagement and performance improvement. That’s why Active Network invests a lot of time and effort in agent development and recognition, too.
After a careful applicant selection process, new-hires are immersed in a rigorous and engaging training program featuring a healthy mix of traditional classroom training and role-playing as well as e-learning via the center’s Learn.com web-based training/testing application.
Active Network’s agents continue to receive ample training and coaching throughout their tenure. Those committed to serious careers in customer care can take part in the contact center’s Leadership Development program, which grooms staff for more advance positions within the division. “Agents are able to apply for open positions not only in the call center,” explains Triplett, “but also in other departments in our division – particularly with the Customer Service and Help Desk departments. The majority of our call center Support staff, Supervisors, Team Leaders, and Call Center Senior Management began their career as call center agents."
There’s still plenty of opportunity and allure for agents who don’t go the Leadership Development route. For instance, all frontline staff are encouraged to participate on teams and task forces committed to enhancing performance and employee engagement. Direct agent involvement on such projects has led to numerous new programs and initiatives, including a couple of rewards & recognition programs (“Kudos” and “Shining Star”) and improved system workflows (e.g., scripting for sales calls).
Driving additional agent engagement and performance is the extra cash that agents can earn by learning advanced new skills, and by achieving goals set around such key metrics as quality, attendance and sales productivity. Says Triplett, “We foster a ‘The more you know, the more you can earn’ philosophy.”
Not all incentives in the contact center are monetary; agents enjoy plenty of public praise and recognition whenever they exceed key performance objectives, show notable improvement and effort, or receive positive comments from customers.
Work-at-Home Works Well
Many agents get to enjoy Active Network’s enticing culture without ever even having to show up to the contact center. That’s thanks to the company’s progressive and thriving work-at-home initiative, which features up to 170 home agents during the peak season.
Unlike home agents at many other organizations, Active Network’s virtual crew members are truly untethered – they can live pretty much anywhere in the U.S. Having such a non-restrictive geographical policy is a big boon to the contact center’s recruiting efforts and ability to handle an ever-fluctuating workload, says Triplett.
“We have the ability to hire high quality customer service agents in a seasonal environment without expanding the operational hours of our ‘brick & mortar’ locations.”
The only people happier than him and his management team are the home agents themselves.
“We have seen an increase in our [overall] Employee Engagement results," Triplett says, "specifically with the work-at-home team.”
Active Network – the Big Picture:
Location: 7 brick & mortar centers (+ numerous home agents) located throughout the U.S.
Hours of operation: Most centers are 8 am-10 pm ET. One center is 24 x 7.
Products/services provided/supported: Inbound sales and inbound/outbound service for Active Network’s technology solutions (for online registration, transaction processing, and marketing services)
Channels handled: Phone, IVR, email , web self-service, and social media
What’s so great about them? Their heavy emphasis on agent wellness, empowerment and development drives a highly engaged frontline to deliver exceptional customer service.
Many use the expression “There’s no ‘there’ there” to insult a city or town. In the case of the company VForce, I use it to commend their call center.
VForce is an entirely virtual customer care operation, with each of its more than 50 agents interacting with customers from the quiet comfort of their respective homes across the United States. While many companies have recently started using home agents to some extent, VForce has completely torn down the walls of the traditional call center staffing model and, in doing so, has opened the door to viable employment opportunities for many talented individuals who would otherwise likely remain jobless. The majority (roughly 75%) of VForce’s agents have some type of physical disability that limits their ability to work outside of their home – but certainly not their ability to provide excellent customer care.
“Once we tapped into this labor pool, we learned that it was a win-win situation for everyone,” explains Erin Blunt, COO for VForce, which handles renewal calls for AAA Clubs across the U.S. “This group is hard-working and professional, with fantastic education and skill – and represents a segment of our society that statistically shows an unemployment rate of 70%. The VForce company model is ideal for employees who have disabilities and who are more comfortable or only able to be employed in a work-at-home atmosphere.”
A Socially Responsible AND Business-Smart Staffing Model
VForce is hardly a newcomer to the home agent model. They started using virtual staff as far back as 11 years ago realizing that it would give them the ability to greatly expand their recruiting reach and select from a national pool of high-quality candidates.
What they didn’t realize immediately is how going virtual would enable them to tap a viable and highly underemployed labor pool like that of individuals with disabilities. That all started to change in 2008 when VForce began working with National Telecommuting Institute (better known as NTI), a nonprofit organization dedicated to finding and developing work-at-home customer service and technical support jobs for homebound Americans who are physically disabled.
“Throughout the years, we have established a wonderful relationship with NTI,” says Blunt. “NTI understands the needs of VForce and does a phenomenal job recruiting candidates that fit our employment needs.”
Dr. M.J. Willard, Executive Director and Founder of NTI, naturally likes hearing such sentiments, as she knows that satisfied clients mean more job opportunities for people with disabilities.
"We pay a lot of attention to our employers,” says Dr. Willard. “Making them happy means they hire from our candidate pool first".
Dr. Willard points out that VForce and other customer care organizations that actively recruit individuals with disabilities do so not merely because it is a socially responsible thing to do, but because it is a smart thing to do from a business perspective, as well. In addition to what Blunt has already mentioned about this labor group’s availability, strong work ethic and good education level, there are attractive cost benefits associated with hiring individuals with disabilities. For one, call centers become eligible for a $2,400 Work Opportunity Tax Credit for every agent with a disability they hire. In addition, organizations like NTI receive government subsidies that enable them to price their agents aggressively, and these savings are passed on to their client companies who hire those agents.
Call centers that hire agents with disabilities also stand to reduce the costs and headaches associated with high employee turnover (a problem that has historically plagued the call center industry). This is because, generally speaking, individuals with disabilities tend to remain committed and engaged for years once hired by a good company, as they recognize how few viable and attractive employment opportunities are available to them.
Blunt says she has definitely found this to be the case at VForce.
“I have many employees who have told me that they love their job. More importantly, we have several employees who look at their position with VForce as life-saving/life-changing. Some of our employees never dreamed of ever being employed again. The ability to work and make a difference in life while earning a paycheck has been life-altering.”
Dispelling Myths about Ability, Accommodation
Two common (though often-unspoken) questions among call center managers with regard to hiring individuals with physical disabilities are:
1) Can they do the job as well as their peers who don’t have a disability?
2) Is it expensive/difficult to accommodate these employees?
Those who have bought into the common myths and negative stereotypes surrounding this labor pool are quick to answer the above questions “No” and “Yes”, respectively. However, conversations with managers like Blunt who have actual experience in this area reveal an entirely different picture.
“ALL VForce employees are expected to meet the same performance and attendance expectations,” explains Blunt. “When a disabled employee makes the decision to submit an application, they are prepared to adhere to our goals and expectations. It is our mission to support the AAA brand and do everything in our power to enhance the AAA member experience. We do this by hiring the best work-at-home agents available.”
NTI’s Dr. Willard acknowledges that some agents with disabilities may have stamina issues that might make it difficult to work full-time shifts. However, she adds, this isn’t typically a problem, as most call centers benefit tremendously from the added staffing flexibility of having a part-time virtual workforce in place.
Blunt agrees. “Employing part-time employees works well for VForce.”
As for accommodation, most concerns are unfounded. More than half of the required ADA (American Disability Act) accommodations – including adjusting workstations and implementing assistive office equipment – cost employers absolutely nothing, and another 30% cost less than $500, according to the U.S. General Accounting Office (GAO).
A Virtual Success
Having an entirely remote workforce requires effective virtual approaches to training and team-building. Over the years, VForce has honed its ability to keep home agents up-to-date, in the loop and fully inspired.
“Our training is done using phone-based training combined with web-based training,” explains Blunt. “And we rely heavily on telephone, email and instant messaging for day-to-day communication. We also utilize a company blog and chat for company updates.”
She adds that VForce is big on incentives and recognition, with agents participating in frequent sales contests and other fun “events” from the comfort of their home.
Does the lack of actual face-to-face time with peers and management have any negative impact on agent engagement or performance? Not really, says Blunt.
“For those employees who have never worked from home, there is typically an adjustment period to our virtual culture, but the majority adapt and truly enjoy the independence.”
Hoping Other Centers Emulate
Considering the success that VForce has experienced with its unique staffing model and workforce, it’s not surprising that Blunt encourages other call centers to consider a similar approach. To those who are serious about taking the next step, she recommends partnering with people who have the experience and the passion to help make it happen.
“Work with experts who can guide you through the process. NTI is available to us to answer questions, as well as give support and advice. The ability to consult experts is crucial to managing our employees.”
VForce – the Big Picture
Location: U.S. (100% virtual call center)
Hours of operation: 8:00 am to 9:00 pm Monday-Friday; Saturday 10:00 am to 5:00 pm
Number of agents: Over 50
Products/services provided/supported: Works exclusively for AAA Clubs throughout the
United States, renewing AAA expired members
Channels handled: Phone, IVR, email, chat, web calls
What’s so great about them? They have fully embraced the virtual agent model. In doing so, the company has greatly expanded its recruiting reach and been able to tap the largely overlooked and highly motivated labor pool of workers with physical disabilities to provide excellent customer care.
If the high level of job satisfaction enjoyed by agents in Scotiabank’s Toronto Customer Contact Centre ever starts to erode, they’ll likely have themselves to blame. After all, they help make many of the key decisions regarding the center’s programs and policies.
You’ll find few front-line crews as empowered as these customer care specialists. From serving critical roles on cross-functional committees to discussing ideas and concerns directly with executive level officers, Scotiabank’s agents are positively instrumental in helping to continuously improve the call center – and the customer experience.
“[They] are the lifeblood of the entire contact center – that’s why we give them the autonomy to tell us how they feel about how things should be done,” says Stephen Gaskin, VP of Scotiabank Customer Contact Centres. Having our [agents] involved and in control of these things is important in making it ‘theirs’, and ultimately it brings a very positive attitude that moves across the center every day like a wave.”
Such a high level of empowerment and respect for agents is a big reason why Scotiabank’s Toronto operation recently earned Platinum Level Certification from CCEOC (Contact Center Employer of Choice). “It’s difficult to describe in words how very important it was for us to achieve the Platinum CCEOC designation,” says Gaskin. “You could meet all the bottom lines you want, and achieve as many statistical goals as you can, but if your employees aren’t happy then you will have difficulty sustaining your success.”
Agent-Assisted Committees Elevate Performance and Engagement Center-Wide
Scotiabank’s agents don’t point fingers when they see a problem; they work together in dedicated groups to improve it. The center has a variety of committees that agents can take part in to help solve issues, enhance performance and raise the overall level of enthusiasm on the front lines.
A prime example is the Professional Development Committee (PDC), which is focused on career as well as personal development for employees. “They’ve gathered a whole treasure trove of resources that are accessible to everyone and put them all online for easy access,” Gaskin explains. “When you top all that with career fairs and learning workshops, you quickly realize their importance.”
Gaskin is equally proud of the center’s Rewards & Recognition Committee (R&R). Agents who serve on this committee help plan a special monthly activity or campaign aimed at increasing employee motivation. “It’s always something fun…and something that promotes our business objectives,” says Gaskin. “These events are fantastic: They bring people together and always cause an exciting ‘buzz’ around the center.”
One of the most popular recent events was “The R&R Amazing Race.” The committee put together a series of strategic activities, and each team had to complete one activity before moving to the next, with the winning team earning a free dinner. Says Gaskin, “It was just like the actual TV show, only every activity included a learning opportunity in addition to being fun and challenging.”
“My 15” Builds Bridge Connecting Execs and Agents
Scotiabank’s agents are fine with not being actual reality TV stars. After all, they know that 15 minutes of forgettable fame can’t compare to 15 minutes of meaningful face-time – especially when the faces involved are those of Scotiabank executives.
It’s all part of an innovative initiative called “My 15”.
“‘My 15’ is a very popular program that allows anyone in the Contact Centre to spend 15 minutes with any member of our Leadership Team to discuss anything they want,” Gaskin explains. “In fact, it’s so popular that we’ve actually held several of them already. There are no restrictions to the type of topics [agents] can bring up.”
He adds that the leaders find “My 15” to be as valuable to them as it is to agents, and that several ideas have been put into action as the result of the meet-ups. Examples include the creation of a new Career Planning website and an increase in “green” initiatives in the contact center.
Not that “My 15” is all about projects and continuous improvement. Often, says Gaskin, it’s simply about people.
“The program works so well in personalizing the environment in which we work. If our agents know more about their leaders and their interests, it often inspires them to go that extra mile in whatever they’re doing – and vice versa. Sometimes it’s as simple as spending 15 minutes with someone to overcome some automatic stereotypes that are often associated with leaders or executives.”
That being said, Gaskin points out that if you are an executive who is considering implementing a similar program in your center, you’d better be prepared for a little extra work. “One caution I have for anyone who tries a ‘My 15’ program is to book another two to three days after a day of My 15’s in order to meet all the commitments you might make to [agents] during their sessions.”
“Love the One Your with”
When not busy offering valuable input and working on important projects, Scotiabank agents do what they do best: Delivering positive customer experiences via phone and email. Management has made that critical task a lot easier for front-line staff by removing what it feels is a common deterrent of good service in call centers: Electronic readerboards.
Instead of subjecting agents to the constant flashing of productivity-based stats, Scotiabank emphasizes the importance of quality and issue resolution – thus empowering staff to focus on the customer, not the queue.
“For us, it’s about how well we’ve served our customers and met their needs,” explains Gaskin. “We don’t want our agents rushing through a call just so they can get to the next person – it’s not about that. When I speak to new hires – especially new hires from other contact centers – I emphasize this point. I say, ‘Love the one you’re with,’ meaning focus on the customer you are with, connect with them and ensure that the reason for their call is resolved.”
Gaskin adds that the call center’s dedicated workforce management analysts – not its agents – are ultimately responsible for keeping queues in check, pointing out that with proper forecasting/scheduling and intelligent routing, most of the productivity issues are taken care of.
That’s not to say that Scotiabank agents haven’t a care or a clue about efficiency. From the moment they start new-hire training, they learn “how to shorten calls without impacting quality,” says Gaskin.
Phone Pros without Pants
Adding to the perks of being a Scotiabank agent is the opportunity to handle customer contacts in just your underwear. The company recently launched a telecommuting program featuring 45 agents who work from the comfort of their home. That number will grow substantially, says Gaskin, due to the tremendous success of the home agent initiative early on.
“This is just the beginning of this innovative program. The impact is already amazing: Agents who work from home are always on time (they don’t have to travel!); we save on real-estate and parking; and [agents] are happier being where they are because they can be close to their families. We also promote the 'green' benefits.”
Gaskin adds that embracing the virtual staffing model enables the call center to retain highly talented staff who move out of the area due to family/partner relocation, or who cannot commute for other reasons.
“Working from home often proves to be a great solution for keeping some of our best agents we would have otherwise unfortunately lost.”
Scotiabank Toronto – the Big Picture :
Location: Toronto, Ontario (Canada)
Hours of operation: 24/7/365
Number of agents: Approximately 800
Products/services provided/supported: Day-to-day banking, VISA, insurance,
investments, call redirect, disputes, credit adjudication
Channels handled: Phone, IVR, email, TTY
What’s so great about them? They have in place a number of innovative programs and policies to keep agents highly empowered, engaged and focused on the customer experience.