Serving Customers through Virtual Teams

“A Virtual Team working together as one – side by side, separated by waters brought together by technology.” – Virtual Team Intelligence

Companies are expanding and how! A single company could have offices and teams working across the globe, serving customers in those many locations. The distance and time zones make it tough to manage actual office locations and many companies are now moving toward virtual teams. A virtual team (also known as a geographically dispersed team, distributed team, or remote team) is a group of individuals who work across time, space and organizational boundaries with links strengthened by webs of communication technology, as per the definition provided by Wikipedia. While virtual teams have their myriad advantages, they also have a large number of challenges – especially for those responsible for ‘managing’ these teams. The different time zones, teams spread over almost the entire globe – could be an administrative and managerial nightmare, especially if the company has no clear policies and well-defined strategies to manage them. The fact is that in order to serve customers well, every member of the company – whether in real or virtual teams – must work cohesively with their co-workers.

The managers responsible for managing virtual teams must be adequately trained to carry out this job and should be adept at forming relationships with each member. Given that a company is serving the customers through these virtual teams, they must be cohesive and willing to interact with each other. They must feel comfortable, valued and know that their manager is approachable and will support them when they require it. Managing virtual teams is probably more challenging than handling real teams – keeping everyone ‘together’ and synergizing the energies and capabilities of people ‘interacting’ only through technology is a herculean task.

Managing customer expectations is not easy especially if the teams within a company are uncoordinated and do not work as one. Therefore, managing virtual teams requires communication, planning and strategizing – probably even more than ‘real’ teams. Real world teams not only interact formally but also ‘bump’ into each other in corridors, lunch room and other common use areas and use these ‘opportunities’ to discuss and talk about things. The problem with virtual teams is that these informal interactions do not take place and it is a challenge for the managers of such teams to get these ‘technology connected teams’ to interact with each in an informal manner so as to build rapport and open communication with each other. If these virtual teams – hired specifically to manage customers and the company’s operations in offshore locations – do not communicate and work together, they would fall short of serving customers and meeting the goals of the company.

It is the job of the managers of these virtual teams to ensure that each member is able to contribute optimally and any issues or problems resolved swiftly and efficiently. Does your company work with virtual teams? What are the strategies in place to manage them well?

To get the most out of your company’s virtual teams, it is imperative that they feel part of a team and know that there would be someone available for them if they need. Working individually even though as part of a team can be hard and the feeling of being ignored is very real. Managers must ensure that they interact with each member of the virtual teams to keep their morale high and they in turn ensure that customers are taken care of well.

Technology has improved rapidly and is probably the reason that companies are able to look beyond domestic markets, teams and customers. It is crucial for a company to ‘meet’ with their virtual teams through methods such as videoconferencing, webinars and other such technology that enables teams spread across the globe to ‘meet’ and discuss with their counterparts. This is a necessary investment for a company and using these methods consistently, helps to build and sustain relationships and camaraderie between the team members.

Ensure that your virtual teams are transparent – each team member must be aware of the happenings in their own and other teams. This builds feelings of trust, especially when they can chat with each other on an informal level. Just as people working in ‘real’ teams have the opportunity to engage in light banter and share their emotions and feelings, it should be likewise for virtual teams. The managers of virtual teams must encourage these informal interactions and be part of them as and when appropriate.

Cross-functional or even cross-location movement of virtual team members is a great idea to keep them engaged and keen on continuing their work as ‘standalone units’. This method gives them the opportunity to interact with other team members and get the enhanced feeling of being a contributing member of a team. Such practices encourage bonding between the team members. Sharing achievements, recognising and rewarding deserving members, celebrating occasions – even if it is through a virtual means – helps virtual teams to feel united and one with the others. Keep virtual teams united is essential in order to achieve common goals – including high levels of customer service.

In order that virtual teams function to their best ability and have an indefatigable spirit to serve the company and its customers, it is crucial that the company and its managers thoroughly understand and are sensitive to time zones, cultures, beliefs and other demographic differences. Not only must the manager be aware, the other members of the teams must also be trained and coached to sensitize them to these differences. What is ‘done and acceptable’ in one part of the world, could be considered offensive and unprofessional in another and only when members understand these differences, will they be able to adapt to them. It is the responsibility of each member of the virtual teams to ensure that they understand the distinctions of the particular country / region, when interacting with members of teams located in that part of the world.

Putting together a common ‘page’ on social media, is a great way for team members to ‘socialize’ and share things of common interest outside of the working relationship. Ensure that new ‘recruits’ are introduced to all and included on these ‘pages’ such that there are no gaps or breaks in the team. While recruiting new virtual teams or members ensure that, the people hired have the relevant experience and have had some offshore work experiences. The project for which they are hired should be something that they would be aware of or have experienced. The fact is that when a company makes a local hire, these employees would have a better understanding of the local markets, customers and demographics and it would be simpler for them to form connections and build trust with their customers.

Companies are now realizing the importance and usefulness of global virtual teams. In order for these teams to become and remain successful, companies must invest time and resources in them and ensure that everyone in the organization is respectful of the diversity and lends support to these virtual teams especially in managing and serving customers. It is everyone’s responsibility to ensure that there is a feeling of inclusivity and bonding between the real and virtual teams, which in turn would lead to enhanced customer service, better products and a company with a formidable workforce.

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