The United States is home to over 66,000 call centers, and overnight, many of them disappeared. In March, millions of call center agents packed up their workstations and took them home. The impact that this will have on the call center industry now and forever can’t be understated. Questions around how to lead a virtual call center, what to do with call center operations and what does new call center management look like, have arisen. The question is, now what?
Call center leaders have a responsibility and an opportunity to lead their call center. Leading a virtual call center is no easy feat. Having our own call center at Balto, we thought it would be invaluable to have a guide on leading a call center remotely. In collaboration with great minds of the past and those of the present, our guide aims to detail specific actions call center leaders can take to lead in this time of uncertainty. Now is the time to adjust, improve, and lead your call center better.
Know the 3 principles call center leaders need to follow now more than ever.
Learn how to tackle a remote call center’s 4 biggest problems. In this section, there are numerous practical strategies, backed by managerial theory and remote-work studies.
Read exactly how Balto’s call center manager is managing our remote call center with technology.
See how the best call center managers should schedule their days to increase efficiency.
Tackling The 4 Biggest Problems All Remote Call Center Leaders Have
You’re no longer on the call center floor with your agents. You can’t hear calls. Leading is much harder. Take this as a challenge and an opportunity to lead better.
The secret? Focus on the 4 areas that are proven to bring remote success.
In a 2014 study, Greer and Payne studied high performing teleworkers and their supervisors. Out of the study, they found 4 major areas that correspond with remote success. These areas include:
- advanced technology
- task planning
- striving for heightened productivity .
Keep reading this section to find strategies, tips, and tricks to improve communication, task planning, and productivity in your call center. Read part III to learn about how we are using technology to lead our call center remotely. Have a sales team? Check out this article on how to manage your work from home sales team.
How to help reps achieve high productivity.
Inside a call center, agent productivity is usually pretty high due to the atmosphere of the call center. With managers walking around offering advice, leaderboards showing how everyone’s doing, posters with your company’s core values, and coworkers making calls all around you, it’s easy for agents to stay on task. In office, these kinds of things reflect intrinsic (an internal desire to achieve for the sake of achieving) and extrinsic (a desire for external rewards, like money) motivation, goals, and purpose.
Without the call center atmosphere, you’re going to find that some agents have a difficult time staying on task, which directly impacts productivity. In a remote environment, you’ll want to set and explain expectations. Define what your agents are trying to produce (goals). Then define how they will hit those goals. Finally, explain why it’s important to achieve those goals (purpose).
Your strategy to double down on motivations, goals, and purpose in a remote environment is to create a community around common purpose.
In times of crisis, people tend to ask themselves, ‘Does my job even matter?’ Remind them. Remind them by posting your core values front and center, just like you did when everyone worked within the same four walls. Communicate to all agents that we are making these calls to achieve ____. This could be your mission statement but we suggest you take it further. Expand it to the current COVID-19 situation and make it super relatable to them.
Tell your agents we’re going to achieve this purpose by making ____ amount of calls, hitting ____ first resolutions, or making ____ sales between nine and five, no exceptions. By telling agents exactly what they’re going to do, you create a virtual environment that’s similar to the normal in-office environment. Now more than ever, make sure there’s buy-in around the goal. If possible, ask your agents what they think before setting the goals.
During this time, strive to understand first before judgment, especially in the area of productivity. The next time you notice a productivity issue on your team, ask yourself, “How can I make this agent’s environment better to help them succeed?” Remember that your team is developing completely new habits: how to stay productive with kids in the house, what to do for meals, how to manage bathroom breaks, and a million other changes big and small.
One of the largest problems you’ll hit here is the fact that everyone will have a very different situation. Help your agents succeed by removing any boundaries, like equipment, wifi, and a work-from-home area. If they live in a house full of people, help them by suggesting ideas for a work from home area. If agents have a proper space away from the rest of their home and have set hours (9am-5pm) then you’ll create a great space for success because there will be work-life balance.
“Managers who implement work–life balance practices enable their agents by reducing stress levels and increasing motivation, dedication, and commitment, which in turn increase productivity.” 
You may have to help your agents create their work from home area during this time. It might mean going past the basic call center necessities and getting creative. If an agent has very slow wifi, pay for high-speed wifi. If an agent is working in a house full of people, buy your agent an “On Air” sign from Amazon. Joe Fecarotta, a top Agile Programs Coach and a remote work veteran, talks about using the “On Air” sign to help his family know when they could come in and when he was working and helped improved work-life balance . Anything you can do to make their environment better and to improve work-life balance will help tremendously with productivity.
Empathize with each of your agents during this time. Know they will have different home setups that will impact productivity. Keep your goals front and center and use this time to lead your virtual call center better.
How to increase learning opportunities for agents
Agents shouldn’t just learn from you, they should learn from each other. In a call center, it’s much easier for agents to help other agents. They can hear other agent’s calls and jump in to help one another learn. In order to replicate these learning opportunities, create mini-communities and a buddy system.
A mini-community is a community within your broader community, in other words, a team within a larger team. Mini-communities should use gamification to create a sense of “us.” Each community should be accountable for hitting certain metrics. Define Good, Better, and Best for them so they know what real success looks like. Your Better should be your targets. Your Best should be the all-time record for your most important metric (save rate, dollars collected, meetings, etc.). You’re going to want to have both the mini-community goals and the company-wide goals readily available to everyone. This means creating a common online dashboard available to everyone.
Incentive mini-communities to compete by offering rewards. We recommend setting up short and long term rewards. For short term rewards, offer virtual “badges” that can be collected after certain completions. There could be a weekly badge if an entire mini-community hits a certain number of calls, uses a certain word on every call, reaches a certain number of objections, has the most rebuttals, has the best win rate, or reaches a certain threshold for a different KPI (key performance indicator). Don’t reinvent the wheel. If possible, rely on what you’ve done in the past, but aim to improve it, even slightly. Creating the badges will help create a remote culture too. As such, don’t copy other companies. Make it hyper-personal to you and your situation.
Badges are great because you can give them to mini-communities or individual agents, and it’s an easy way for agents to see their accomplishments. Badges are also super easy to create. Simply find images that connect with your brand, name them, connect them with a KPI, and have a place to put them. For example, you could name badges after various kinds of dogs (husky, golden retriever, English bulldog, etc.) and find corresponding images. The husky could be awarded once a day to whichever agent has the most dials, the golden retriever could be awarded once a week for the agent with the most meetings, and the English bulldog could be awarded monthly to the mini-community with the most overall discovery calls. Have a place to put all the badges so agents can see how they compare with other agents (a virtual whiteboard). When you give them out, make sure you give them out publicly (in a call center wide email or chatting). Use these badges to improve the KPIs that matter most to you and your virtual call center.
Larger goals should coincide with badges. There could be monthly or quarterly goals with big prizes. Some examples include Amazon gift cards, TVs, or upgraded headsets. You know your people best, so make the rewards align with them. Make these larger goals attainable and their rewards irresistible. Especially now, you want to incentivize as much as possible. You can reward both mini-communities and individuals that have the most specific or total badges. After you give away the larger reward, reset the badges and think about how you could make the badges better. Maybe you need to redo when badges are given (only sending them out weekly or monthly), maybe each agent can only get a badge once, or maybe you need to make the badges easier to get. Even if you have a perfect system, your KPIs will eventually shift, so try to always improve your badge system.
While running the badge system, you’re going to encounter people who could be performing better. The idea is that the mini-community will try to lift up those who are not performing at a high level. To do this, make sure they have a place to discuss what’s working and what’s not. We will touch more on this later when it comes to feedback, but for now, know that every mini-community should develop best practices and ways to improve. Communication should be daily, whenever people discover something that works well for remote work or handling calls. Create different communication channels for different mini-communities. Your job is to encourage regular use of the communication channel. If possible, attach these channels to your goals dashboard.
Within mini-communities, there should be accountability buddies. Accountability buddies should be self-selected. Give accountability buddies a variety of ways to hold one another accountable. Block off the last 15 minutes of the day or 15 minutes after the lunch break for accountability buddy meetings. Have each pair of buddies use the first ten minutes to talk through what’s working and what’s not working, both in their remote environment and in handling calls. During the last five minutes, encourage them to get to know each other better. This is crucial in letting them know they’re not alone and giving them a direct outlet to talk with others while remote. You’ll want to have them make notes of each meeting and send them to you so that you can collect feedback and know when they are meeting too much. Have them leave the “get to know your coworker better” out of the notes.
If you successfully implement just a few of the ideas above, then your job as a leader will get much easier. You’ll also see an increase in learning opportunities, which leads to productivity and better work-life balance.
How to communicate with agents better remotely
We already talked about blocking off time for agents to talk to their accountability buddies and creating communication channels for mini-communities. In the Greer and Payne study, the best supervisors of remote workers said communication was the hardest part. If you have a central focus, put it on communication. In addition to the above strategies, you’ll want to have open availability, defined rules of communication, and a communication code.
You are central to better communication. In addition to your agents being available 9-5, you should also be available.
“Greer and Payne noted that both managers and employees believed that being accessible was key to showing availability, strengthening relationships, and maintaining communications across the team.” 
Accessibility is your opportunity to foster a culture of communication and to lead by example. This might mean taking lunch with your computer open or working past the usual hours of 9-5. During this time, it will be worth it. If agents encounter any problems at all, you need to be there. Communicate your accessibility by defining how to communicate.
At first, you’ll want to over-communicate. The worst situation is if things fall through the cracks. If someone’s wifi isn’t working, make sure you know about it. If there’s a problem with a call or an important application is down, make sure they tell you immediately.
Make sure the over-communication is in some way organized. You don’t want agents calling, texting, emailing, and chatting you in order to solve different problems throughout the day. Focus on a couple channels and make it very clear what they should be used for. Here’s an example of guidelines you might set.
This is a short term fix. Once you get a handle on it, tone the over-communication back. Figure out which channels work and which don’t. Then, create a second iteration based on communication channels that correspond with the seriousness of the situation. How you set up your communication channels will depend entirely on your preferences. You could tell them to keep track of all non-important communication and send it to you at the end of the day in an email. Texting may mean it’s super urgent. Define these ways of communicating and make sure everyone is on the same page.
Once you get here, you get to the real strategy. Call center operations and management depend on agility and quick responses. You’ll need code communication.
Code communication works by creating codes that correspond to situations. Think about abbreviations we use to communicate faster. “WFH” instead of work from home and “ETA” instead of estimated time of arrival are just two examples of ways we communicate faster. Create codes so your agents can tell you their exact situation in three letters.
Codes should correspond to three levels of importance. You’ll want a code for not urgent, kind of urgent but it can wait, and I need immediate assistance. An example would be:
1 = It’s not urgent
2 = It’s urgent but can wait
3 = I need help now
In this example, you would correspond the 1, 2, and 3 with situations. For example, let’s say there’s a difficult customer on the phone, you could create a code 3DC, which means get on this call NOW because there’s a difficult customer and I need help. Another code could be 1WE, which means I would like to talk about my work environment, but it can wait. Codes could be infinite, so focus on the most important ones, group them in different categories, and give agents an easy way to access them, so it’s always right in front of them.
If you have a smaller team you could create codes for anticipated concerns. If you have a larger team, you may want to devise a way to keep track of all the codes coming in (because you probably won’t be able to get to all of them immediately). Alternatively, you could place leaders in your mini-communities that act as semi-managers. These leaders could handle some of the codes and pass off any level 3s that they can’t handle to you.
Defined rules of communication and a communication code will help your call center move with agility. Making yourself as accessible as possible will help
If you can make yourself extremely accessible and can implement rules of communication and communicaton code, you’ll have the closest thing to being on the floor with your agents. This means putting out fires faster, letting less slipping through the cracks, and creating a virtual call center that can adjust quickly.
How to give feedback and replicate in-person coaching
During virtual work, you’ll need to place immense focus on the human element of camaraderie and understanding. You’ll want to incorporate checking in with your agents as much as possible. Direct feedback will also help you adjust and optimize your workflow during this time. Create more opportunities to gather feedback and to get to know your agents as whole people.
First, try to understand the general areas where agents in your call center struggle while working remotely. There are several ways to do this. First, collect information from each of the mini-community communication channels to see common struggles in remote work or on calls.
Your next initiative should be to create a no-judgment feedback communication channel. People like giving feedback. Give them the opportunity to do so. Help them feel heard. Let all agents opt to send you anonymous feedback on how you’re doing and what they’re struggling with. By giving your agents ways to be heard, you let your agents know that their ideas matter.
“Goal feedback provides the worker with a sense of achievement, recognition, and accomplishment.” 
Now, with all the feedback you’re getting, create a daily and a weekly newsletter that outlines the trends you are seeing. Include in this newsletter answers to common questions, how to handle certain calls, updates on goals, specific agent and mini-community shoutouts, and anything else you see as vastly important for the entire team to know. If you have time to go a step further, follow Joe Fecarotta who said, “I would track all interactions on a spreadsheet and reach out via instant message or email. Often, these casual, virtual ‘shoulder taps’ resulted in more in-depth follow-up conversations.” 
Another thing Joe did was set up ask me anything (AMA) meetings. Send out a video chat link at the end of certain days and let agents ask you anything in front of other agents. This could be a great time to build culture and re-create, as closely as possible, an in-person experience. If you have time, I highly encourage you to read Joe’s entire article (which can be found in the resources section). It’s full of gold.
Remember the dashboard with the goals and the communication channels you set for the mini-communities? Add another section with all the notes you’re sending in daily and weekly newsletters and from the AMAs. Having a central knowledge base will help you in the long run because if agents don’t have an immediate problem (1 or 2), they could go to the knowledge base first and see if the question has already been answered. It’s great for quick refreshers and will save you a ton of time.
In a perfect world, you would have way more one on one coaching time to talk with your agents. We know you don’t, which is why all of the above was outlined. But agents will still need more 1 on 1 coaching. Try delegating these extra coaching sessions. Have you mini-community leaders give 1 on 1 coaching and increase accountability buddy coaching.
During coaching sessions, help “the total employee” by addressing as many of their needs and wants as possible. Try to break coaching up in three parts: specific logistics of remote work, specific help with their calls, and getting to know them better. Now is the time to ask them how their remote office is, what challenges they are facing with work-life balance, and how you can help with their situation. Make every coaching session very different, depending on the individual. Lastly, don’t forget that this is one of the best times to have that “water-cooler” talk towards the end. Being away from the office may bring a disconnect and coaching sessions are your way to make your team more connected. If this is a lot to ask for a coaching session, consider making them slightly longer. Know that by making sure your people have access to you and that you want to how they’re doing, you’re investing in them. How much a company invests in its people shows a lot about company culture.
Remember, lead with empathy. Stop looking at your agents as just agents. Instead, look at the total employee. As Hickman and Silva wrote in, Creating Excellence,
“Since the total employee goes to work for a company, the company must serve the total human being. To better serve the total human being, avoid these 5 common misconceptions.
- Assuming you know others’ expectations and needs without discussing them
- Treating all employees the same regardless of differences
- Viewing employees as tools or production units
- Seeing employees as they once were, not recognizing changes or improvements
- Believing employees should respond the way you would respond in the same situation” 
We purposefully left out technology so that any team could implement these strategies. Keep reading to learn how we are using technology to make call centers even more manageable.
How We’re Using Technology To Manage Our Remote Call-Center Team
At Balto, we have a small outbound call center team. Our manager focuses all his attention on managing individual and team-wide metrics. All agents can see the team-wide and individual metrics, like number of meetings and number of calls. By keeping the metrics numbers-driven and open to the entire team, our agents always know how they are performing. Our agents know the standard they’re set to and know if our manager reaches out to them, it’s because of the metrics not because of a personal issue. Typically, our agents actually bring up the metrics to our manager. Our manager hears things like, “Why am I lower than everyone else?” or “What can I do in this situation?” At the heart of our operation is Balto Cloud and Salesforce, which work in conjunction to keep track of meetings, calls, and individual skills. These platforms are readily accessible to both agents and managers.
Aside from the metrics, our manager checks in on agents’ calls with Connect Leader’s new feature. We’ve used ConnectLeader (a multi-channel sales engagement platform) for their Team Dialer, which helps reps make 100-120 calls an hour. Now we’re also using ConnectLeader’s new feature (Remote Coach), which allows managers to hop into active calls, one after the other. When in the office, our manager would hear something on a call and then just jump on. With, ConnectLeader our manager can recreate that in-office feeling.
Every hour, our manager checks particular stats on Balto Cloud and Salesforce. The most important stat our manager checks is who has the shortest calls and who has the longest, compared to actual production. If a team member has really short calls and production is low, our manager will use Balto Cloud to check what skills they are lacking and then start spot-checking the calls with ConnectLeader. Our manager uses Balto Cloud for real-time visibility into how the entire team is doing and Balto’s A.I. coaching for individual agent coaching during every call.
At the end of the day, our manager knows he can’t jump into every call and can’t give feedback on every call. He also assists in many other areas of our company, so the call center is only part of his responsibilities. Due to Balto’s A.I. powered real-time coaching, he’s not overly concerned with remote-work because he knows Balto is giving each agent feedback on every single call. Our agents have the tools, it’s up to them to deliver. This is what call center management of the future looks like.
How to implement these strategies and technologies
There’s a lot of information here, we know. Pick one or two areas to start and move from there to implement more. We suggest starting by aligning everyone with your company’s common purpose or defining your communication channels and encouraging over-communication. Both are relatively easy to accomplish and can provide a huge boost to your call center operations.
You might ask, when will I have the time is to implement any of this? Keep reading to look at our call center manager schedule, which includes time to implement both strategies and new technology.
How to Manage Your Time as a Remote Call Center Manager
Creating a call center schedule for a manager is extremely difficult. Below is our suggested routine if you don’t have any of the above strategies or technologies in place.
Note, the most important parts are the beginning of the day (where you make sure everyone is started and you make your coaching plan) and the end of the day (where you start implementing strategies from the above guide and give feedback to agents). Also, we know you’ll probably be putting out fires all day, but try to not let it take up all of your time.
Now, your day will probably vary slightly from this, but the most important part is how much of the day you’re spending on certain tasks. Without the strategies or technologies, we suggest spending 50% of the day managing, 20% coaching agents, 15% implementing new remote strategies, 10% planning, and 5% reporting. With the right technologies and strategies in place, you should aim to lower your time spent managing (aim for a 10% decrease) so that you can increase coaching, reporting, and planning. Most of the 10% should go towards increasing 1 on 1 coaching. To put this in perspective, our manager spends a total of 37% of his day doing everything outlined above.
With the right mindset, strategies, and technologies, you can make time for more.
Thanks for reading! We hope you use the resources above to better lead your call center. If you have any questions or are interested in learning more, give us a ring at 855-GO-BALTO or email us at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Stay safe, stay human.
– The Balto team
 Campbell, K. M.. “Flexible Work Schedules, Virtual Work Programs, and Employee Productivity.” (2015). https://pdfs.semanticscholar.org/ac95/cd1b83436078f24d6dd4fa4b776775a2172c.pdf
 Greer, T. W., & Payne, S. C. (2014). Overcoming telework challenges: Outcomes of successful telework strategies. The Psychologist-Manager Journal, 17(2), 87–111. https://doi.org/10.1037/mgr0000014
 Boone and Bowen, from “The Great Writings in Management and Organizational Behavior”
 Hickman and Silva, from “Creating Excellence”
 Joe Fecarotta https://www.agilealliance.org/resources/experience-reports/remote-coaching-for-accenture-learning-and-leadership-development/
Originally published May 27, 2020 9:36 pm