Like so many companies, PFS’ customer care team had to make the quick shift from a fully on-premise operation to a work-from-home model during the coronavirus pandemic shutdown. Also, like many companies, the global provider of e-commerce services had been considering a work-from-home initiative for the contact center for several years but had not yet put anything in place when COVID-19 struck.
Except, that is, for one important move that proved to be crucial. Late last year, company executives had the foresight to bring onboard Dawn Brewster, a veteran contact center leader with a successful track record for deploying work-from-home programs for leading brands. Brewster joined the PFS leadership team as Vice President of Contact Center Operations, but she barely had time to settle into her role before coronavirus cases started to surface in the United States.
By early March, COVID-19 had already reached Texas, where PFS is headquartered. “Dallas was hit fairly hard at the onset,” Brewster recalls. “Our contact center is located in a downtown high-rise, which is a tricky situation when people have to use a shared elevator.”
The PFS leadership team immediately began discussing steps to keep their employees safe while still maintaining customer support for clients. PFS has four contact centers worldwide, and its primary operation in downtown Dallas seats 600 agents.
“We started having these conversations in mid-March, and by April 4th, we had moved all of our employees and had evacuated the building,” Brewster says. “It was literally a three-week turnaround. A week later, we did the same thing with approximately 130 employees in our U.K. operation, and shortly thereafter with our Canada operation.”
Quick Action: Focus on What Matters Most
Shifting an entire operation from on-premise to work-from-home within such a short timeframe is no small task. Brewster knew that frontline agents would need the appropriate hardware at home to access the contact center’s systems and tools, and to ensure that customer data was secure. However, with 600 employees at the Dallas location, the company realized it needed additional hardware before pivoting to work-from-home, so Brewster reached out to the CIO to arrange for company-owned desktops to be distributed to agents’ homes.
"Our first priority was to get our people out of the building, and then we dealt with the issues as we went along."
In Dallas, the urgency for safeguarding employees’ health fast-tracked the work-from-home deployment. “We knew that there was a very real potential that the building was going to be closed,” Brewster says. “Our first priority was to get our people out of the building, and then we dealt with the issues as we went along.”
Understandably, protecting customer data in a work-from-home environment was an initial concern for Brewster. “We acknowledged to our clients that we would not be taking customer payments until we had assessed what that looked like from a risk perspective,” she notes. PFS quickly adapted the ordering process so that agents were not taking customers’ credit card information, but instead walked customers through the steps to make payments on clients’ websites. Before agents were sent home to work, every employee was required to undergo a security assessment and training to ensure that they understood how the ordering process worked on each client’s website and how to help customers access the payment portals.
Connectivity in employees’ homes proved to be another challenge early on. Some employees were experiencing sporadic internet connections because they didn’t have the network speed to support the necessary systems in the same way as the contact center’s on-premise network. However, this issue was rectified pretty quickly by employees as they saw the benefits of a work-from-home model when things started to spiral with COVID-19.
Leveraging Virtual Opportunities
As sales and contact volume for some of PFS’ retail brands began to spike, the leadership team soon found that they needed to add more work-from-home agents—and would need to design a new virtual process for doing so. But first, Brewster realized that the profile of the ideal customer care candidate needed to be expanded to include new skill sets and qualities.
“We found that we needed more capabilities than prior experience working in a contact center,” she explains. “Customer service skills are paramount. The ability to multitask has to be exemplary because you may be on a phone call and then potentially working in email. Also, we operate in an untethered environment” so agents need to be self-managed and self-motivated.
Attracting customer care professionals with the necessary skills and capabilities was not difficult since the work-from-home model opened up the talent pool to candidates from out of state, Brewster says.
New-hire training also has transitioned to a completely virtual model. Each new-hire attends an IT session on the Friday before their training is scheduled to begin to ensure that they have received their hardware equipment and log-in credentials, and can navigate the system.
Training classes are segmented by learning style, and every new employee is assessed to determine whether they are a candidate for self-paced learning or will need one-on-one coaching. “Our ability to delineate the different learning styles allows us to then apply our resources to those that need more attention,” Brewster says.
PFS trainers found that the virtual learning process requires more formal feedback methods. Trainers lack the visual cues that usually help them to determine trainees’ engagement, understanding and retention of the material. Instead, they rely on post-module assessments to ensure that there are no knowledge gaps.
Similarly, PFS incorporated various types of employee surveys as another means to gather feedback. For instance, through wellness surveys, leaders discovered that the shift to work-from-home had created a sense of isolation among many employees, who were also suffering from elevated COVID-related stress.
For Brewster, the findings revealed that employees were missing the casual interactions and camaraderie associated with the workplace culture. “We needed to make sure that we were more intentional in the way that we engage our work-from-home teams,” she says.
The contact center’s approach to employee engagement differs by brand and team, she explains. Communication, awards and recognition methods are tailored to meet each team’s needs. Brewster adds that finding ways to incorporate public recognition into meetings and communication “touch bases” works well across teams since it’s a brick-and-mortar practice that the work-from-home staff have missed.
“We try to promote inclusiveness in our communication because employees don’t have that synergy that they had when they were in the same office,” she says. “You can’t talk to your co-workers. So, we’re using Communities within [Microsoft] Teams, which allows them to connect in a way that brings people together. It could be something as simple as, ‘What does your weekend look like?’ It’s different from the typical team communication channel where they’re asking questions or sharing knowledge. This is more truly the type of communication that you would find in an on-premise workspace.”
Benefits Outweigh Early Challenges
Despite early challenges of the sudden move to work-from-home, frontline agents in the Dallas contact center were happy to say goodbye to the daily time and costs of commuting to the center.
Supporting multiple brands with varying customer service volume and hours also allowed the PFS workforce management team to provide flexible scheduling to meet agents’ needs for work-life balance. “We try to tailor it to the employee,” Brewster explains. For example, “if someone needs a 4x10 workweek or four nines and a four—we will place them in a brand that will allow for that. Whatever their need is, we will try to accomplish it. Our model allows for tremendous flexibility, which boosts employee morale because they’re working a schedule that works for their lifestyle.”
An immediate benefit of providing flexible scheduling in a work-from-home environment was that adherence and attendance issues declined considerably, and the center’s shrinkage dropped from mid- to high-teens down to single digits.
Looking back on the sudden transition from on-premise to virtual, Brewster admits that the first few weeks felt a little like flying blind. But with the team’s efforts and willingness to pivot with daily changes, PFS has not only maintained high performance levels, but in fact, has reported record revenue increases.
As lockdowns ease in some parts of the country, Brewster says that PFS customer care staff will remain remote for now, adding that: “We are an employee-centric company, and we are committed to maintaining a safe environment so that our employees can do their job well.”