Evidence suggests that for customer service teams hybrid working has started well. The challenge now is to maintain momentum and make sure people are recognised for their efforts - wherever they choose to work.
Recent research shows that more than half of contact centre agents (53%) want a blend of home and office working, and only just over a third (39%) want to be in the office all time.
So what does this mean for those that manage customer experience teams, who have been used to managing staff in person? Should they be worried that there will be a long-term impact on performance?
Reasons to be positive
In the first throes of the pandemic, managers and HR teams could have been forgiven for thinking that the idea of home working for customer facing staff was going to be a disaster.
The traditional image of customer service is of rows and rows of agents in centres kept under a watchful eye. There was certainly a feeling that results, and customer satisfaction scores couldn’t possibly stay on the same level if people were dispersed and not being physically monitored.
The good news for many businesses is that this assumption has been proved to be wrong. In fact, the initial results from the enforced home-working experiment have been good, if not very good. According to figures from the Institute of Customer Service UK Customer Satisfaction Index (UKCSI), customer satisfaction in July 2021 was higher than in 2020. The Index also says that satisfaction with complaint handling is currently it at its highest ever level – providing ample proof that hybrid working has, at the very least, been a successful short-term response to a major challenge.
Digital is working, but watch for the warning signs
Partly, this success has come about because businesses have adapted and provided customers with more flexible service options through digital channels like online chat, video and self-help. Customer service employees have also been able to adapt and found it relatively easy to deliver these services wherever they are working, assisted in many cases by new investments in advanced, AI-driven technology and with less need for management intervention.
Customers have also been receptive. Research from SITEL shows that while 76% of consumers were initially driven towards digital interactions with brands because of pandemic restrictions, 57% intend to keep using these channels because they appreciate the extra value.
At the same time, however, there are a few warning signs that businesses need to look out for. The ICS Customer Satisfaction Index says that 14.9% of customers experienced a problem with an organisation, the highest rate since 2009 – significantly adding to stress and workloads among customer service staff. There’s also been a rise in the number of customers that are vulnerable financially or health-wise that need empathy, understanding and support from customer service employees. They are only human and likely to be fatigued from the increased volume of calls to handle.
There is also the risk that the initial sense of freedom that many customer experience agents got from home working will start to wane. Employees could easily start to feel isolated and disengaged from both their colleagues and their employers – particularly if they don’t get the right support they need to meet the ongoing challenges they face.
There’s no reason for this drop-off in the initial positivity around hybrid working to be inevitable though – just so long as you have a plan in place to maintain momentum and motivation.
The way forward
The best way to build a permanent, hybrid future, is a complex issue and a debate that is likely to rumble on for some time. We can however, pinpoint three areas that employers of customer service teams are definitely going to have to do really well to make sure they get this right.
- 1. Balance the way you communicate
When you need to get messages and instructions across to a remote workforce, the temptation is to over-communicate on email, Slack or whatever channel you might be using to aid collaboration. Anyone who has been on the receiving end of a barrage of such communications knows that this can be overwhelming and confusing.
One way to address this is through meetings on Zoom or Teams, but managers also need to beware of virtual meeting fatigue and the feeling from employees that they are being dragged into mass get togethers that don’t engage them. The best way to solve this is to prioritise weekly one-on-ones either online or face-to-face. This will not only allow you to get across important updates – it will also enable you check in on employees’ workloads, their mental state, and pick up on problems that you can’t see when you’re not all regularly in the same place.
- 2. Set boundaries
One of the biggest impacts of the pandemic and increased remote and hybrid working has been the blurring of work and home life. When we researched this earlier this year, we found that many people are working longer hours because of shortages of people in their team, new demands from employers, concerns over job security, pressure from managers and juggling childcare.
People, customer experience agents included, are unlikely to produce their best in these kind of circumstances, so it’s also important that you set boundaries and proactively manage the hours that people are working. Again, one-on-one meetings will be key to getting this right.
- 3. Recognise and reward agents for their efforts.
When it’s difficult to say a simple thank you in person, it’s also critical that you recognise people for their efforts to keep them motivated - regardless of where they are. Many research reports in the past have shown this is crucial to maintaining productivity, keeping employees engaged, reducing staff turnover and creating an innovative and winning culture.
This year more than ever, it’s important to thank customer service reps for their high performance with an end-of-year reward that could include anything from reward eCodes, gift cards and experience days.
This should not be a one-off though. It’s also important to keep motivation levels up by following through with a robust and sustained recognition strategy that provides rewards throughout the year. In the age of hybrid working, where flexible delivery is key, the best way to facilitate this is by using digital reward or recognition platforms that give people the flexibility to choose the rewards they want, wherever they are working from, and that suit their changing lifestyles the best.
- 4. Ensure everyone knows they are responsible for customer service
You may have a team or an individual who has customer service in their job title, but they shouldn’t be the only ones concerned with helping customer queries.
Recognising and rewarding customer-centric behaviour throughout the organisation will not only reduce the workload for your customer service team but help result in greater loyalty, business referrals and reputation in the market.