Flex Boost: Shopify's Advice on Operating a 100% Remote Contact Center

April 01, 2020
Written by
Lenore Files
Opinions expressed by Twilio contributors are their own
Chris Wilson
Opinions expressed by Twilio contributors are their own

Flex Boost_ Shopify.png

Twilio is offering a new program called Flex Boost to provide up to $100,000 in free Active User Hours to organizations impacted by or responding to COVID-19. 

You can find more information about Flex Boost, including links to helpful technical and operations resources, along with information on how to get started on the following page.

Amid the new reality of social distancing and ‘shelter-in-place’ orders, businesses worldwide are scrambling to adapt to this new climate. Nowhere is this more evident than in contact centers, who bear the massive burden of inbound communications whether calls or messages that are oftentimes emotionally charged.

The challenges encountered are often unique and therefore contact centers are left wondering how they can adapt and asking questions like: How do you shift the culture to fully support a remote agent model? How do you keep agents motivated and empowered? How do you effectively manage a dispersed workforce when you’re used to being in one location? How to create an open and seamless communication?

As part of Flex Boost, we are excited to launch a new series focused on providing support through actionable information that addresses all aspects of contact center business operations. To do this we have partnered with several of our customers who have had success in shifting their model along with other changes to ensure business continuity.

The first featured Twilio customer is Shopify. Shopify is a leading global commerce company, providing trusted tools to start, grow, market, and manage a retail business of any size. Shopify operates their contact center with a highly dispersed agent workforce, giving them the ability to go where the talent is.

We decided to meet with Chris Wilson, Director of Support Technology, from Shopify to understand their approach and document their best practices to share with you. Chris was gracious enough to answer several questions on how to successfully structure and execute a remote agent model and his answers are shared below.

What advice would you give someone in your position who is looking to move their agents from in office to a working from home?

It’s important to lean into it. You need to have a remote first approach. For example if you’re hosting a meeting and some of the folks are in the office ask them to join independently of each other so the room doesn’t over power the remote folks. Also, real life happens at home and sometimes there might be some background noise so we decided to lean into that as well and acknowledge someone is working from home. Very rarely will you ever hear push back from a customer.

Another critical piece for a successful remote model is consistent communication. You need to be articulate and authentic, but not scripted. It’s also important to use video if you can for meetings. The physical body language in communication is very important. At the very least use voice so you can pick up on tone. With communications being so very important you want to be sure to talk to them about what’s working and what’s not. Acknowledge constraints and encourage creative solutions to issues that arise.

Trust is also a very important factor, if you’ve hired them you did it for a reason and hopefully that extends to trusting them. It’s important that when you can’t see someone, your default mode is trust. Resist wanting to micromanage because you can’t physically see people, that is the fastest to damage trust.

How do agents communicate with each other and with their supervisors? Are you using an internal chat tool to facilitate this? If you are, how have you set up your channels?

We use Slack, email, Google Meet and Zoom. We’re also using Fellow.app across the company for meeting and 1:1 notes, and tracking the list of to dos. Typically agents work in smaller teams and are able to determine how best to communicate with each other.

Additionally there are the usual tiers of leadership groups and each of those has a larger Slack channel so we can communicate with the entire group if needed. We also have Slack channels for various escalated teams so the teams can get right onto issues in real-time and ask questions before escalating if needed.

In more traditional contact centers it’s typical for supervisors to walk around and physically monitor and assist agents. How do you approach this with agents who are in a separate location from their supervisors? How do you handle 1:1s and ongoing feedback?

Ideally you will have some real-time data and reporting that will give you a sense of how things are going, however you will still want to default to trust and then verifying. If something feels off it’s worth verifying especially if an individual isn’t handling things well or isn’t getting their work completed. Trust and validate first, then reporting will give you an indication of outliers.

All one-on-one meetings are done with video. Conversations and check ins, group chats etc. can definitely happen in Slack, but ultimately any conversation with “weight” (high emotional or cognitive load) should happen using video if possible. We found through experience that it is best to avoid weighty conversations using Slack, as it’s too easy to miss context, especially if it’s a more important topic.

How do you motivate agents who are working from home?

We’re overly transparent, we think of everything remote first and we openly talk about the perks of remote and the side effects of it. Teams have come up with all kinds of activities whether watching movies together, gaming, hanging out etc. We’ve tried to avoid being prescriptive with how to motivate each other and teams. Our remote teams have a culture of their own alongside Shopify culture. We’ll host leadership AMA’s open to the entire team and give an anonymous option so folks can voice opinions that may not be popular or ask tough questions.

We’ve also hosted in person events so that remote employees have the opportunity to meet up in person. We’re currently doing these virtually and this ranges from team building events, to hosting regional internal conferences with talks, workshops etc..

Whether you’re remote, in office, or a BPO partner we acknowledge where there are differences but ultimately treat and view everyone on the same playing field. Being in the office has its own trade offs just like remote.

How do you deliver training to remote agents?

We use our on-line tools with team leads delivering some as well as classroom style discussions, hangout time etc. and then content is largely handled in an LMS. We then have folks pair with mentors and engage in call and chat shadowing. We also do this via screen sharing.

How do you handle onboarding of remote agents? How do you handle coaching during the ramp-up period for a remote agent?

Just as with training, we take the same approach with remote onboarding. We do the same things you would in person and use video and screen sharing to execute.

How are you approaching performance management with work from home agents?

Honestly the same way as you would in-office agents and that’s why staying so connected is key here. Ensuring that communication is flowing smoothly.

Has your approach to using Workforce Management changed with a remote workforce vs. an in-office workforce?

When we originally moved from in office to remote, it enabled us to hire folks to work within their local day time working hours. That meant we didn’t have people working overnights or other undesirable hours. We also try to hire around hub cities or geographies so that even though folks are remote, it’s not super difficult for them to meet up in person for events and such.

How do you identify and diagnose technical issues (e.g. call quality, software failures etc.)?

We’ve had to build some monitoring and reporting on call quality but folks were self-reporting issues and working with us. We’re using Slack/Hangouts/Zoom to chat with anyone having issues and troubleshooting it with them. We’re asking folks to have a decent internet connection so we can do some tests. But ultimately it’s treated just like any other issue that pops up, unless their internet is down and the offices are up they’re going to have nearly identical issues.

What are some pitfalls or challenges that you have encountered while moving agents to a work from home model?

Our folks are normally remote. We’ve been lucky in that we haven’t had to move folks to remote working out of an office. At this point we’re hiring, training, managing, and working remotely 100% through the life cycle. However those that were in the office who had been working remotely part of the time and are now 100% remote have recognized that in-office employees have a context advantage. What this means is that if you’ve been in an office and are interacting with other teams in person, you have greater context when you communicate. It is so important to be cognizant of that and communicate everything, every little detail even if you think it’s too small, communicate it. Default to the fact that someone may not have context and validate that before jumping in.

If someone hasn’t prepped for remote, just working at home can be a challenge and adjustment. At home, real life happens so you’ve got to adjust to that. There can be distractions, such as sounds and possibly family, so it will take a bit of time for people to find their flow.

Remote to me is just like having teams in a different office. You’re already kind of remote if you have folks working together across offices in different areas. Same concept, but just blown up a bit and now you’ve got a lot of different offices.

Has offering WFH allowed you to recruit higher caliber agents? Is there anything you look out for that’s different for an agent who is WFH vs. non-WFH?

100% yes. We can go to communities where there are competing jobs and get top-notch folks who may not want to move away from their friends and family.

Ultimately, you can find great people that are highly motivated, smart, and well educated in communities they don’t want to leave. If you provide them with a great gig, good pay, and the ability to do it where they are, you can build a world-class team.

How are your agents handling the disruption to their schedules and day-to-day life with school closures and quarantine?

One day at a time. We’re open and cognizant that real-life happens at home especially with school closures etc. In some cases if folks are asking to work an early or later shift to help with that we’re working with them. I think specifically with the current environment and so many people working from home, the expectations from our customers is, it’s a new reality. So small disruptions etc.. are part of the way of life for the next while. I think it’s a fair trade-off for being able to keep support and services online.

We’ve leaned into it as a company. For non customer-facing interactions, we have kids in the background of meetings and sometimes folks having to step away, it’s real-life so you need to be accepting of it. For teams that are not task driven, or front line, I’ve let them know if they need flexibility to just take it. If you need a day or have to leave early to feel free to make that decision and just do it, don’t start working late nights to make up for lost day time hours, again the trust is really a key ingredient to success.

What are your requirements for a home office fit-out for your agents?

  1. Hardware: We ship them Shopify managed and owned hardware. We send our support team employees a laptop, monitor, keyboard, mouse, headset, and the other basics they’ll need.
  2. Connectivity: We require our remote employees to have high-quality internet. We do connectivity tests to ensure they’ve got decent internet. We’ve also had to build in some connectivity tracking software to alert them if their internet is slow or degraded for calls.

How do you manage offboarding of remote employees?

We’ll wipe the hardware and mail them everything they need to send us back the equipment with shipping labels etc.