Great questions arise whenever we host webinars, give one-on-one demos, and even as we onboard new customers. When these questions require technical answers, I like to go straight to our in-house expert, co-founder and CTO Bracken Fields.
Last week I sat down for a Q&A with Bracken to hear first-hand what he had to say about the importance of an all-in-one technology solution. In this next installment of Ask a CTO, Bracken and I discuss how work-from-anywhere (WFA) enables brands to broaden their agent talent pool. After hearing nonstop about remote work expanding out of pandemic-driven necessity, I wanted to explore if WFA can help elevate the support experience for agents and customers alike. See what he had to say.
Bracken, to what degree do you think 2020’s sudden shift to WFA is here to stay? Why?
I 100% believe it’s here to stay. Over the last five years, contact centers have slowly been figuring out how to send agents to work from home. As enterprise contact center managers began looking for cloud solutions, they did so for two reasons: to modernize their contact center software and to be able to stop paying for 200 square feet of real estate per agent. When you get rid of these costs, you can keep your contact center onshore as well; the capital cost to hold a building of 2,000 agents evaporates.
Why pay for top-tier real estate when you could pay for top-tier talent? Starlink -- which is the Space X satellite-delivered internet system -- delivers 150 megs of internet on top of a mountain. So, our incredible connectivity options today really remove the old concern of battling poor connections with distributed agents.
The tools exist right now to enable agents to deliver amazing customer experiences from anywhere. It’s what we do, so we know the solutions are accessible and we know that agents are able to work from home, from the car, from a café, from anywhere. This scenario is here to stay.
How can more traditional contact centers overcome the barriers to WFA?
Companies must teach their contact center staff how to use their software solution, ensure it’s easy to use, and understand how to solve issues together inside of the company. It really comes down to ensuring that managers are trained to coach their agents on how to use the technology to do their jobs from anywhere, because delivering great customer service is very possible, even when not sitting at a desk at a contact center.
People just need to know how to get all of the information they need, including support from product experts, their managers, etc., to deliver a high level of service. We designed Edify to solve all of these problems. We have a tool called task interactions that enables agents to easily connect with the right person instantly, in order to deliver great real-time service, even if they aren’t physically working alongside their managers.
One of the ways we train new agents is to deliver training within the Edify platform itself. Once someone logs in, e-learning courses show new users how to navigate the software and what internal processes to do. It’s truly all housed in one place.
Have you seen any brands do things really well in regards to WFA in 2020?
Nothing memorable comes to mind, but it’s hard to know whether agents are remote or not. That’s the goal of running successful distributed teams. You wouldn’t want customers to know whether or not agents are working from home!
So while I don’t have any crazy stories to share, some companies are doing things well. Apple is one example; most of their agents work from home. OnPeak also understood the unnecessary problem with expensive real estate and moved agents home years ago… they were really ahead of the game.
The price of real estate is the unnecessary weight applied to millennials to keep boomers retired. Baby boomers own 65% of the assets in America and most are real estate buildings. This group of people needs to stay retired with the income from their properties but unfortunately, it’s a rising cost that fewer millennials can or want to afford.
What do you think is a benefit of WFA?
I think WFA can help alleviate some common stressors. For example, with nearly everything happening over video chat lately, life feels a little calmer actually. No one is frustrated arriving at work or returning home from a bad commute. We’re all essentially in similar situations and are giving each other more empathy. WFH/WFA helps us all relate. When you have 10,000 people in one building, it can be stressful and noisy. When you’re remote, however, I feel that a lot of that has gone away.
As a marketer, I believe the ‘A’ in WFA can also stand for AnyONE — meaning it’s time to rethink what we mean by “agent” or “customer service rep.” Technically speaking, what do brands need in a solution in order to tap new pools of talent — like gig workers, college students, and at-home parents as “agents”?
When it comes to consumer brands, the first thing you need are people who are passionate about what you’re doing. I would start by hiring true fans of your product… people that really understand what the product is and why it matters. From a technology perspective, your communications platform needs to be flexible, easy to log-in to, quick to learn, and fully reliable with global availability. Your best talent may not be next door, but it’s possible to operate like they are!
The pricing structure of a solution can also be a huge help or hindrance to adding and removing remote agents as needed. Ours encourages leveraging gig workers as agents. Here’s an example: if your part-time agent logs in and works for only 3 or 4 hours, takes 10 interactions in that amount of time, and never logs in again, it still only costs you $7. That is phenomenal. There’s no ridiculous concurrent pricing! I designed it, so admittedly I’m a huge fan of it, but there’s nothing else like it on the market today. This kind of pricing structure protects companies against turnover as well.
What’s more important when it comes to WFA: the technical support or the leadership support?
Definitely leadership. There are agents that will work on a tin can and a string contact center with the right leadership. I’ve known some of these leaders in my tenure in the industry. They can motivate and engage their agent pool like none other; they’re simply inspiring. There is no tech win that can replace a good leader, but there are infinite tech wins that can replace a bad leader.
Adding to that, Unified Communications (UC) should be standard as part of a contact center solution, especially now that more and more teams are fully remote. UC tools are critical, and they shouldn’t be housed separately, yet most of the time they are. The saying “it takes a village to raise a child” can also be applied to solving a customer issue. If there’s no way for the village to meet (i.e. your entire workforce), the issue won’t be solved, and you’ll lose that important client. UC makes it incredibly easy for teams to get together, collaborate, and solve problems together across departments… even across continents.
For those that have serious room for improvement, what’s your best advice and recommendations to them in order to achieve a successful remote workplace?
My best advice is to have software in place that can enable successful remote work. If you have to use VPNs to connect to the contact center, you’ll need to ensure all your agents have good, reliable home internet. Don’t focus on the connection but rather the router in their house. Most often, the routers these home-based agents are using are several years old, aren’t making use of the latest technologies, don’t have the right processing power, etc. These are “the last mile”, really the “last hundred feet”, kind of problems that can make or break WFH agent success.
The ideal solution would be to move to the cloud. Skip the VPNs and enjoy a simple interface to log in and out of. The systems agents need to use to solve issues are all delivered via the cloud. Even the ERP system is cloud-based. Everything lives and operates in the cloud! It’s a one-and-done solution.
What do brands need to be looking for in business communications solutions to ease into a more permanent WFA set-up?
Companies shouldn’t be paying for downtime, so I think 100% SLA would be a great place to start. Here are my other suggestions:
- Seek the right diagnostic tools to understand agent issues
- Do a good amount of work BEFORE moving everyone home (in an ideal world sans-pandemic)
- Look at global availability
- Ask about call quality and look for many data centers
- Get built-in UC tools
Our software gives you the tools to identify where any problem could potentially exist. We are constantly checking the quality metrics between our data centers and the phone to make sure we are going to the one that will optimize that connection. If the problems with an agent’s connection are IN their house, we can tell brands that. We can spot issues quickly and tell you why.
Lastly, in this new seemingly permanent WFA world, do you think customer service will sink or soar? Can agents do their jobs as good, or better, than when sitting in a communal office space?
I think it will soar. I think agents will live a more enjoyable experience working from home. There’s not the stress of trying to figure out office politics, commutes, etc. At the same time, I don’t think they will be taking 85 calls, but if they take 75 and are more engaged while they’re on each call, that’s a win. It will have a bigger impact on your bottom line. Overall, I think remote agents will do a better job even if their productivity dips slightly.
In the late '90s and early '00s, maintaining happy customers wasn’t viewed as a key business objective. And as such, you saw contact centers shrink and move offshore, but it caused problems with agents being overworked and customers generally not enjoying the service experience. As a result, the agents would deliver sub-par service and customers would jump brands for another product.
There is an infinite amount of competing products to whatever your brand is offering, but the service you provide cannot be copied, so this is an area that should be invested in. Most brands now view maintaining happy customers as a KPI, so they clearly need happy agents, too, in order to make this happen. If enabling an agent to WFH makes them happier, that’s a good thing, because their positive attitude will translate to happier customers!
Additionally, I think leveraging remote agents will make customer service teams bigger and more resilient to changes. The workload can be better distributed when there are more people to execute the work. One additional person can spread out an additional 10 interactions, which can be a game-changer to overworked agents.
WFA agents can do their jobs just as well, or even better, when we give them the flexibility and tools they need to do it right.