Skip to Content
Skip to Content

3 challenges of building a virtual service centre and how we overcame them

In 20+ years of working in customer service, EVP Customer Support Jim Roth would have never guessed that we would move completely out of the contact centre in a matter of weeks – and that the entire world, together, would be going through this with us.

Salesforce customer support is 2,800 Salesforce and outsourced engineers in 12 countries, supporting customers in 11 languages. Prior to the coronavirus pandemic, only 216 worked from home. Here, Jim shares how the whole team turned into a virtual service centre in just 16 days. 

One of my favourite museums in the world is Churchill War Rooms, the underground bunker complex where Churchill and his staff ran war operations, safe from the bombs that pummeled the ground above. In the midst of the crisis, engineers had to reinforce the ceiling to ensure bombs could not penetrate the bunker. Not only is this museum one of the best WWII museums in the world, it also provides an inspiring view of how a committed team can successfully execute while it moves to an entirely new and unplanned work environment on the fly.

The pandemic has me thinking about cabinet war rooms

I’ve thought of the cabinet war rooms often during the COVID-19 pandemic: how operations moved to protect the team and how the team responded. While shelter in place may feel like we’re cut off from the outside world in a bunker, the invisible virus is quite different from bombs falling from the sky. And while Churchill’s team used rotary phones, switchboard operators, typewriters and giant maps, we have the benefit of Quip and Zoom to collaborate, and cloud-based applications and automation to help us stay connected and productive, even when we are apart.

Two goals for setting up a virtual service centre

With a strong sense of urgency, commitment to the goal and dedication to our customers, amazing teams across our company moved almost 2,800 people to work from home in 16 days.

We did face challenges along the way, but during those 16 days we stayed focused on our two goals: 

  • Reduce backlogs: A lower backlog is integral in setting customers up for success in periods of risk and uncertainty. With an uncertain time frame to be at full capacity and the possibility of offices closing, people getting sick, or other unanticipated reasons, we immediately started running overtime.

  • Move quickly: Starting earlier brought us some time to iterate, considering the complexity of doing this at scale.

Challenge 1: Outsourced service workers

For our Salesforce employees, the move was relatively smooth. We had the systems, home internet, and VPN access already in place to make this work. What we quickly learned, however, is that we were not in such great shape when it came to our outsourced workers. We had never previously considered having outsourcers work from home. They were not set up, so we had to get creative. 

  • Equipment: 80% of our outsourced team had desktops. With the COVID-19 pandemic causing a shortage of laptops, we asked them to take their desktops home. 

  • VPN access: Because we had virtual desktop environments set up for our outsourced engineers, our network team recommended our outsourced personnel get VPN access through their employers. As an alternative, we also tested providing some engineers with Salesforce-provisioned laptops that could be connected directly to the Salesforce VPN.

  • Infrastructure: We had to make sure home internet connections were fast, systems had enough memory, everyone was set up with the right kind of headset and network access worked. A critical piece of this phase was troubleshooting latency for individual engineers, which will continue over the coming weeks.

Challenge 2: Capacity planning

The next scenario we are actively planning for relates to capacity. What will we do if COVID-19 impacts more engineers and their families? What would we do if we lost 10% of our capacity? 20%? 40%? 60%?

We have three contingency plans that we hope that we don’t have to use:

  • Upfront capacity notifications: Post notifications on our support portal, being transparent with customers that our capacity has been impacted, and asking customers to hold on any low-severity issues. This is exactly what travel companies did during the initial surge of mass cancellations and rebookings. 

  • Internal help from other teams: Solicit other experts within Salesforce to help with support, notably our product engineering and professional services teams.

  • Allow more overtime: Increasing overtime is always an option, although some may not be able to work overtime due to their situation. However, we have been exploring this option to help reduce the open cases.

Challenge 3: Keeping the team connected and supported

It’s critical that our team feels supported and cared for, especially during this time of change and uncertainty. Salesforce has done three key things to help: 

  • Communicating early and often with all of us

  • Showcasing empathy and embracing change

  • Allowing flexibility in everyone’s schedule

We are all living the joys (and stress) of full-time work from home. It is more important than ever that we all stay connected and have a little fun. For example, our friend and customer Nick Mehta, from Gainsight, introduced the team’s pets.

Nick Mehta (@nrmehta) March 13, 2020

Our team members, who’ve been working from home now long enough to have the routine down, share some tips:

Get a work station high enough that your cat can't jump on it

Get a desk that’s high enough so your cat can’t jump it. Also, make sure not to clutter your desk. A clean space will help you concentrate better and keep a clear mind.

— Luc Winkelmolen, Senior Success Agent, Salesforce
Use your time at home for hobbies, like developing your painting skills

I use my time at home to develop my painting skills. I also make sure to reach out to a friend or family member to check on them. We all are in this together.

— Tarjani Patel, Senior Success Engineer, Salesforce
Make the most of your balcony to help find your zen

Make the most of your balcony to help find your zen. My WFH setup is rather mundane, but one of the benefits of covering the APAC shift is that I get to spend my mornings in my green zen space amid the chirping of birds and clear blue sky!

— Neha Porwal, Manager,
Technical Support of Signature Success, Salesforce

There is a lot for all of us to learn from what we are going through, which will only make us stronger in the future. We’d love to hear from you!

I’ll leave you with Churchill’s words of encouragement that apply during this global crisis: “Never give in, never, never, never.” It may be tempting to give in to stress and uncertainty, but we can also find many opportunities to adapt.

Find more advice for leadership, remote work, leading your business and more in the Leading Through Change series — our community is sharing insights and expertise to help businesses survive and thrive.

Helping Business Manage Through Crisis
Salesforce Staff

The 360 Blog from Salesforce teaches readers how to improve work outcomes and professional relationships. Our content explores the mindset shifts, organizational hurdles, and people behind business evolution. We also cover the tactics, ethics, products, and thought leadership that make growth a meaningful and positive experience.

More by Salesforce

Get the latest articles in your inbox.