At-home Employees Are the Future of Retail

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Last year, online sales hit a new record on Cyber Monday when sales reached $3.45 billion, a 12.1 percent increase over the previous year, according to Adobe Digital Insights. Online sales are expected to continue climbing as customers increasingly shift to online shopping. But as consumer behavior changes, shoppers still expect great customer service.

This can be a challenge for retailers who don’t have a robust online support team or the resources to invest in a contact center. Luckily, there’s another option. Consider remote or at-home customer support. Employees who provide customer support remotely are an ideal solution for the needs of today’s shoppers, who may have questions about products and services, but don’t want to have to go to the physical store. Here are some tips for making the transition as smooth as possible.

Why at-home works

Overall retail employment has fallen drastically this year. Within six months, department stores including Sears and JC Penney had shed 89,000 jobs. For context, that’s more than the total number of people employed in the U.S. coal industry, which employed 76,572 miners according to the U.S. Census Bureau’s most recent report.

Among the retail associates who lost their jobs are experienced employees who are knowledgeable about the brand’s products and know what customers want. Transitioning in-store associates into at-home work allows companies to hold on to those valuable workers. Employees who work remotely also tend to have more flexible hours than in-store workers and don’t require additional space.

Tips for a smooth transition

There are a number of things companies can do to help work-at-home employees successfully provide customer support. First, figure out which channels (voice, email, chat, social) your customers use most often to reach your brand and which ones need support. Next, consider how many employees you’ll need to staff those channels and how many are available to make the switch.

Remember that working remotely isn’t for everyone. Look for candidates who are not only tech savvy, but are motivated enough to enjoy their job and leave a positive impression when interacting with customers. Your part-time staff list is a good place to find remote workers. A recruiter can also help in this area. Also, don’t forget to check in with your remote workers regularly. Video conferencing platforms like Google Hangouts and Skype are helpful tools for staying in touch with remote employees and making them feel part of the company.

Additionally, partnering with a company that has experience in managing an at-home workforce saves significant time and money. An experienced partner can ensure employees have the proper equipment and software to serve customers remotely in addition to making sure sensitive data is secure.

For example, it’s recommended that when handling payments, companies use an IVR system to validate spoken or keyed credit card numbers from customers. This way the associate never hears the card number or the touch-tones used to enter the card number. PC administrator access should also never be granted to home-based workers, and applications should be delivered through a virtual desktop instead of installed locally on the PC. A partner can also see to it that tests are conducted periodically to ensure security protection is maintained across the platform.

While there’s still a demand for brick-and-mortar stores, the reality is not as many locations or associates are needed. At the same time, the digitization of retail shopping is here to stay and customer service associates need to be where the customers are. Therefore, the sooner retailers can adapt to these changes, the better off they—and their customers—will be.