Should Call Centers Follow Apple’s Lead?September 6, 2013
Recently, I wrote an article for TechCrunch that revealed details about how Apple trains its remote support team, known as Apple At-Home Advisors.The post generated more than 130 comments, some of which lauded the company for its intensity; others that scoffed at them.
Since then, I reached out to six call center and remote work experts to get their thoughts on Apple’s approach. I wanted to know if they felt Apple’s methods could be used to run a successful telecommuting program, or whether remote call center workers would call them “micromanaging” to “an offensive degree,” as one person commented on my TechCrunch article.
Most of the experts agreed that at least some of Apple’s strategies could be extremely effective for training and managing remote call center workers in any company. Though, there were a few areas where they disagreed with their approach. Below is a summary of their opinions.
Disclaimer: The summaries below cover just one opinion from each expert. Many expressed both support and opposition to Apple’s approach, depending on the method we discussed.
You Should Intensely Monitor Remote Worker Engagement
A large portion of the comments on my TechCrunch article talked about Apple’s methods for monitoring remote worker engagement. I described how Apple tracks mouse movements, sends prompts that trainees have to respond to immediately and sometimes asks them to turn on their screen cameras.
I asked Donna Fluss, CEO and founder of DMG Consulting LLC, a contact center consultancy, if she felt these tactics were too over the top for other companies. In other words, would most remote call center workers accept this level of supervision, or would they quit?
She says that, where the technology is available, companies should absolutely do what it takes to monitor remote worker engagement in this way.
“If you were on-premise being trained, you would go through the kind of training you described in your article, and then some,” she explains. “You can’t just get up and take a break whenever you want to. There’s no reason the expectations should be any different just because the employee works off site.”
Fluss admittedly says a lot of companies won’t have the resources to monitor mouse movements. She suggested using a workforce management system that automates schedule adherence. These tools provide a dashboard where managers can see who is supposed to be logged in when, as well as how active each person is during a designated time period.
Here’s a screenshot of a schedule adherence report from Kronos.
In addition to using technology to monitor engagement, Fluss says her company creates a buddy system between one remote worker and a senior manager. Apple does something similar in their training program. This way the worker always has a mentor to go to when they do have a question.
You Shouldn’t Need to Intensely Monitor Remote Agents if You Hire Right
One of the Apple At-Home Advisors I spoke to said the job was his first time working in a remote environment, and he realized pretty quickly that the remote work environment wasn’t really for him.
When I told CrowdSPRING Co-Executive and founder Ross Kimbarovsky about this person, he said Apple should have asked this candidate questions that would have revealed whether he would thrive in a remote environment. Once you get the hiring right, he argued, you shouldn't have to monitor them to the degree I wrote about in my TechCrunch article.
CrowdSPRING has a physical office, but most of the time only a handful of people work there, and often no one will come in. Kimbarovsky says this works because the company has the right team for this type of work environment.
While he doesn’t require candidates to have previously worked remotely, Kimbarovsky does screen for characteristics that he’s found lead to people being more successful in the remote environment. He says not having these attributes can literally be a “deal breaker.”
“We’ve turned down a lot of really smart people because they didn’t have the characteristics needed to work remotely. We’ve found that if we overlook that deficiency, the rest of team will find it hard to work with that person,” Kimbarovsky says.
To screen for someone that can work in this type of environment, CrowdSPRING asks questions such as, “When you work remotely (or if you worked remotely) how do you stay focused?” They look for answers that are really specific. So, rather than just saying, “I find somewhere quiet,” the ideal candidate would talk about a specific place in their house, and steps they would take to ensure they aren’t disturbed.
Beyond that, they look for candidates who are comfortable working with a collaboration software system, such as Campfire by 37signals. Kimbarovsky says not having this experience is a “red flag.” His customer service team has their own virtual room, where there is a constant thread of conversations, and he makes sure that potential employees will be proactive about speaking up in these kind of environments.
You Should Connect Remote Agents to the Company’s Mission
One of the first things Apple At-Home Advisors do during training is learn about the company’s mission, the California headquarters office and what it was like working for Steve Jobs. Advisors described the experience as “joining the Apple family,” and talked about special mementos they received after their induction.
Jim Rembach, marketing and strategy consultant at Beyond Morale, a workforce training provider, says building this kind of buy-in from call center workers is crucial for driving what’s been called “intrinsic motivation, or motivation that is driven through means other than rewards or punishment.
This type of motivation, according to some researchers, is stronger and more long-lasting. Rembach gave the example of a nurse he spoke to recently that disliked her remote work job and wanted to quit. When he asked her why, she talked about feeling like the purpose of her work was to keep the company from losing money.
Her actual job was to check in on terminally-ill patients living at home, including people with two months or less to live. Instead of feeling like she was helping them stay comfortable and safe, she felt like it was her job to keep them at home so they did not cost her company more money.
Rembach says companies need to ensure that remote workers feel appreciated, understand the purpose behind their work and believe they are really providing a benefit to customers. He mentioned that meeting through video calls, which is how Apple commonly communicates with remote workers, is one useful tactic for creating a deeper connections with remote workers.
In these conversations, managers should make sure they tie conversations about performance back to the company’s mission. This should also be communicated in such a way that the focus is on the manager’s genuine desire to help the worker be successful, because that’s what they want for them.
“If you leave the impression on your workers that you don’t care about them, they aren’t going to care about you. As far they’re concerned, they’re just there until next opportunity comes along,” he says.
You Shouldn’t Keep Remote Workers Permanently Off-site
Of the 40 Apple At-home Advisors I emailed for the TechCrunch article, only one reported ever meeting in a physical location. In that instance, it was just one afternoon, the first day of training to pick up their equipment. Every other remote worker said packages were sent to them, and they never physically met with anyone at Apple.
While this model has advantages as far as recruiting—you can hire anyone in any location in the U.S.—Jim Iyoob, Senior Vice President Corporate Development of ILD Corp., a call center operations outsourcer, says he’s experienced greater productivity and success with remote workers who periodically come to an on-premise facility.
In fact, all of their remote workers start as a full-time on-premise worker. “You have to earn the right to be a remote worker. You have to first prove that you are self motivated and won’t take advantage of that privilege,” he says.
Iyoob says when the worker feels like they earned the right to work from home, they are more likely to do what it takes to hold onto that right. It also gives on-premise agents something to work towards. The remote worker has to sign a document recognizing that working from home is a privilege, and that they agree to certain guidelines. This includes things like not having a television in the same room and not being responsible for childcare during working hours.
Iyoob says bringing these remote workers into the office periodically prevents the worker from feeling isolated after they earn the privilege to work from home—something several of the Apple agents mentioned being a problem with their work environment. Remote workers come in at least once a month to celebrate wins with the team. The company uses a gamification program that awards scores based on performance and declares a “winner” for the given month.
Screenshot from Freshdesk’s gamification program.
You Should Mimic the Classroom Environment
Apple’s training program is a mix of group work, self-paced “homework” and teaching presentations. During presentations, they mimic the classroom environment by periodically asking questions to trainees, just as a teacher might engage with students.
Laura Bassett, marketing director of customer experience and emerging technologies at Avaya, which provides business communication solutions, says this format is crucial for ensuring trainees actually absorb the material. Simply using monitoring technology to ensure they are at their desks isn’t enough, since they could still not be listening or paying attention.
In Apple’s classroom, most of the time the “teacher” is the only person on camera. The trainees are visible as an icon showing they are available for chat, or to respond to a prompt or question that is sent to them. Bassett says this virtual classroom can actually be taken one step further.
Companies can now create completely virtual boardrooms or classrooms, where avatars interact in a virtual space. She says this technology can actually monitor how much a person is talking during the meeting or classroom, as well as whether or not they are looking around while the presenter is talking. Also, if a trainee is asked to speak, their avatar can actually walk to the front of the room and their voice would become louder to the entire group.
Here’s a screenshot of a virtual presentation environment in AvayaLive Engage.
You Should Integrate the ‘Fun Factor’
In the TechCrunch article, I described several tactics Apple uses to make the program fun for the trainees. In break periods, the trainers might ask everyone to send around a picture of what they are having for lunch. Or one day of training might be declared “crazy hat day.”
Tamara Schroer, vice president of development and performance for Working Solutions, a remote worker outsourcer, says efforts such as these ensure that trainees are at full attention during the entire program. It can also ensure training accommodates varying learner types.
“You have to make sure you deliver the information in a way that every learner can understand the material,” she says. Kinesthetic learners, for example, have to actually do something themselves to really absorb the material, whereas auditory learners pick up information simply by listening to instruction.
One way Schroer keeps her virtual teaching fun and engaging is through turning the lecture into a game. She will break the class into small groups and have them compete against each other. They might do a charades kind of format where they role play a certain scenario, and the group guesses the right course of action. Or, she might just ask a set of questions and the groups compete to get the most right answers.
“When you are having fun, it releases endorphins and makes you want to learn more,” she says.
These were just a few reactions our experts had to Apple’s approach to remote work. Let us know what you think with a comment here.