How Virgin Media handles workforce management in a hybrid working world
- Managing a workforce of call center agents around the world in the new hybrid working environment called for a change of approach.
Agent engagement and empowerment, simplifying the coaching process, providing more training in less time, reducing unproductive shrinkage and achieving an AHT (Average Handle Time).
All of these objectives were on the table at Virgin Media when it deployed call center workforce management (WFM) software from Intradiem to support its 500+ agents. Speaking at this week’s European Call Centre and Customer Service Exchange conference, Faye Herring, WFM Manager at Virgin Media, cited a period of change for the firm as the COVID crisis pushed the organization into a hybrid working model.
Virgin Media already had experience of managing a remote workforce as it operates agents around the globe, in Manila, India and South Africa, as well as in the UK. Herring recalled:
Amongst our challenges was a huge need for a new communication platform to unify our communications and make sure agents were hearing things at the same time. AHT was rocketing, which I'm sure was a familiar story across contact centers during COVID. As part of that, obviously, people [were] working from home and we needed to make a shift in terms of what we were doing in terms of training as well. So that old world of classroom training, getting 12 people in a room to look at a PowerPoint or a whiteboard for seven-and-a-half hours, we just didn't have those opportunities anymore. That really gave us a new opportunity to look at how we do things differently moving forward.
The initial move to home working at the start of the pandemic had an impact on the company, she added:
We actually lost a lot of our visibility for a short while. I think everyone would love to say, 'Oh, we were totally prepared for this. We knew what was going on. We knew this was coming and we had homeworking technology up and running'. The truth is probably a lot of people didn't. We very quickly set up a telephony model where our agents could go and work from home, but with that, we lost a lot of our capabilities. So we lost our adherence monitoring, we lost our Average Handle Time monitoring, wrap, hold and those sorts of things. And by the time we got it back, we realized we really didn't have a handle on it at all.
The first priority was to improve visibility into AHT metrics and then to drive those down. Herring explained:
One of our biggest areas is cable serve. If you were to call into Virgin Media to talk about your broadband or your digital TV, you would come through to our cable serve area. It's a couple of hundred thousand calls a week, our biggest area. When we put Intradiem in, we shaved 30 seconds off immediately. Just that step change in terms of the visibility is back, agents [are] able to see, 'Oh actually I am in wrap. I am on hold’, that kind of understanding of needing to move the call on a little bit more because we were very, very busy at that time, just that initial visibility helped massively. We saw a huge reduction straightaway.
Today, AHT isn’t such a huge focus for Virgin Media, she observed:
We've changed our Target Operating Model multiple times since then. AHT has never gone back to pre-pandemic levels, but that was never the intention. We've moved to a more case management style, where the agents really kind of hand-hold the customer and see things through to completion. We're focusing more on NPS (Net Promoter Score) and first touch resolution now. So AHT was an initial problem - I guess it still is a problem, it's still something that needs to be monitored - but it's no longer the primary focus.
Managing the workforce
The Virgin Media workforce is now on a hybrid model of two office days, three home days for most people. The Intradiem system is helping to manage this, including providing visibility on when agents are on personal time. A pop-up prompt will provide an accumulative total of time away from work during work hours. While that might sound a tad ‘Big Brother’ in the wrong hands, Herring argued that it’s been welcomed by the workforce as a useful tool:
Most people do want to do a good job, and they want to know how much time they're spending with customers and how much time they're non-productive for. So most of the agents really enjoyed having that kind of empowerment to help them understand how they were spending their time. We also went in quite light touch. It's not jumping on you straightaway, it's accumulative throughout the day, and it's a gentle nudge. It's not saying, 'You can't take this time!'. It's just saying, 'We're highlighting to you that you've used this time'. We definitely didn't get any negative feedback with that one.
You've got to get the prompt thresholds right and we've learned a huge amount as we've gone along around. There's no point prompting an agent on every call because they soon learn a negative connotation with the system. So we've really worked to kind of get that right and make sure there's a finite balance.
The other major area of change has been around workforce learning and training. The old classroom-style approach is not appropriate for the new hybrid world, said Herring, with online training taking its place:
My favorite thing about [the new approach] is it allows the agents to go at their own pace. So in the old world, you would sit in a classroom or be scheduled out in WFM for an hour because someone somewhere had said this training takes an hour. And actually it doesn't take an hour for everyone. It might take half an hour for some people, it might take 70 minutes for others. With Intradiem, because it's so dynamic, we've been able to give that flexibility, and actually we've been rewarded because our agents are actually taking less time than they would have done previously. So our training sessions are actually 26% shorter than they were previously because you haven't got that walking into a classroom, stopping to chat to your mate on the way out. There's that, 'I've got my training time. Let me do my session. I'm back on the phones'. So that's huge for us and it's meant we've been able to do more training. We delivered 1500 more training sessions in Q1 2022 versus Q1 2021....That's definitely great for the agents as well. It means they're empowered, they can just get on with it.
That said, this training revolution did bring its own issues initially. Herring recalled:
I think we underestimated just how big of a shift this was for agents, in terms of their mindset, in terms of helping them to move with the new system when it came to training. If you can imagine, in the old world, a scheduling team would input a training session into your schedule. Your manager would tell you to be in room B at one o'clock and you would sit there and you would have training given to you. We've totally flipped that on its head and we're almost saying, 'This is your responsibility now. We're going to tell you when your time is, when your time is available, but you need to load the training up, you need to sit at your desk, whether that's in the office or at home, you need to complete the training, you need to click that you've completed the training, you need to absorb that information’.
I think we really underestimated how much of a change that was for agents. We had a lot of agents declining the sessions or ignoring them… A lot of agents were saying, 'We're constantly being told to stay on the phones and now we've got this system telling us to come off the phones, and ultimately it's a robot and we're not quite sure what we should be doing!'.
Fixing this took effort:
We really went back to basics of that and helping them understand [that] this is our new operating model for training. If it pops up and tells you to come off [the phones], it's because we've done our due diligence and the rules have assessed it's a good time. But we definitely underestimated just how much of a change that was for the humans to begin with. I would say it took a good six months for us to get that exactly right. But our adoption rates on training now are increasing every month. We're around 70% and I'm aiming for 85%.
Up to speed
Pop-ups are also helping to keep the workforce up to speed on organizational and product changes in what is a fast-moving industry. When Herring joined Virgin Media, she found that there were a lot of complaints that it was too difficult to keep up with product changes, new propositions, new compliance changes etc:
We've implemented a rule that means that agents can have up to 10 minutes a day that will just pop up to them and introduce them and say, 'Now it's time for your catch-up time. Go read your emails, catch up on message center, go on the internet', whatever that might look like. That was a really quick win that we did to answer a really obvious problem, something that agents were crying out for.
And while all of that is a win for employee experience, there have also been customer-facing benefits to rack up. With AHT used to minimize shrinkage, there’s more customer time, so less queuing. Intradiem pop-ups are used to alert agents if a customer has been waiting more than five minutes, enabling them to get on the line and apologize/set expectations. Herring concluded:
Our agents are more tooled up. They're more knowledgeable. They know straight away if there's a broadband outage in southwest London, they know straightaway if digital TV is down in Glasgow. That's so important. That's something we didn't have previously. So although subjective, I would definitely hope that it's had a positive impact on the customer.