We recently caught an article in TechCrunch where Ashley Verrill, CRM analyst at Software Advice and managing editor for the Customer Service Investigator, reported on some research she conducted on the intense training process for Apple’s remote customer service employees, dubbed Apple At-Home Advisors. Curious about what she thought her findings meant for other customer support training programs, we checked in with her to see how other organizations might employ (or not employ) Apple’s methods for customer service success.
eBLVD: Your TechCrunch article covered some rigorous tactics Apple uses to train their at-home advisors. What do you see becoming part of most training procedures for other remote support or help desk employees?
Ashley: Many of the tactics I think are only applicable in Apple’s case, primarily because they are Apple, and only they can ask this much of people without them quitting. But there were a few approaches I thought could be really relevant in training remote call center workers with other companies. One of the big ones is creating a sense of team. I think a lot of remote workers really struggle with feeling isolated.
Apple does a really good job of building a team environment. All of the advisors I spoke with said they talk to other advisors all the time, even people who no longer work for Apple. One guy even said he and the other remote agents in his territory meet up for coffee. Apple created this culture by putting training groups into teams and having everyone sit in the same “virtual classroom” at the same time. Between trainings, the mentors also encouraged participants to talk about themselves. They’d ask things like “what is everyone having for lunch today?” or “what did you guys do this weekend?” Many of the advisors talked about constantly chatting their cohorts in sort of mock study groups. I think anything companies can do to create this kind of teamwork will help keep employees engaged.
I think another really useful tactic Apple used was dividing training into self-paced and live modules. Give your team two hours to read some content, then have them “meet” in class to talk about what they learned.
eBLVD: Are there any tactics you discovered in your research that might not work well in training customer support employees from other organizations?
Ashley: I can’t say for sure, but I think the level of intensity as far as testing goes might be a stretch for other companies. Apple At-Home Advisors are required to make a really high grade on four different tests during training, otherwise they are kicked out of the program. Some of these people quit their other jobs to do the training, so I imagine a lot of people would be really upset about the risk of not getting full-time employment.
I also think it might be a little too intense for other companies to monitor mouse movements and call cell phones if they suspect a trainee is not at their desk. These tactics definitely worked for Apple, but other companies might be seen as too big brother-ish if they tried something like this.
eBLVD: As you discuss in your article, training is obviously a challenge with remote support teams. What are some other challenges faced by remote customer service teams such as Apple’s at-home advisor program?
Ashley: I think managing productivity is always going to be the biggest challenge. There’s no one physically there watching to make sure the worker is always working. This was the challenge that led Yahoo! to banish their program all together. You can of course monitor key performance indicators from another location.
Another challenge could be managing a remote workforce that is “on-call.” One of the reasons a lot of companies use remote workers is that it gives them the ability to adjust the size of the team on an as-needed basis (if the remote workers are on contract). But knowing when to turn on the faucet, in terms of turning up the response capacity, and by how much can be a challenge. If you bring on too many at once, you end up paying for workers to just sit there. But if you don’t have enough people on call, hold times might increase. This can negatively impact customer satisfaction.
eBLVD: You describe how Apple creates “buy-in” among their at-home advisor trainees by educating them on the company’s history and culture, as well as welcoming them with care packages. Explain the importance of creating “buy-in” when training help desk employees.
Ashley: I think this is more important for retention. I actually did some research earlier this year on retention strategies for call centers. Keeping workers “engaged” at work was one of the top factors. We spoke with Daniel Pink, who wrote a best-selling book called “To Sell is Human.” He told us that workers really need a deeper motivation to stay engaged -- one that’s based on making them feel like they have a purpose to their work. Steeping your workers in the company culture is one way to do that.
eBLVD: One of your sources mentioned that “Apple has no qualms with saying if you are not the best, you can always work somewhere else.” How can other organizations successfully demand superior performance from their customer support staff?
Ashley: Unfortunately, in customer service often times beggars can’t be choosers. Turnover for this industry is so high, that many companies just want to do everything they can to keep workers from quitting. They don’t have the same luxury as Apple. But I also think people want to be challenged. It’s been my experience that the more someone is challenged in their role, the more they grow as a professional. Quality employees will care about growing as a professional and appreciate the challenge, and you could make the argument that you don’t want the other kind on your payroll anyway. It’s a tough balance. Risk turning off a lot of workers by having high standards, or possibly increase retention by keeping expectations low.