This sponsored post is produced in association with Upwork. 

One of the biggest challenges facing companies — from bootstrapped startups to global enterprises — is determining how to build a great customer support team across a rapidly evolving multi-channel marketplace. Fortunately, advances in technology and collaborative productivity tools have disrupted how organizations build their support teams. And as a result, businesses are able to deliver a stellar customer experience — even in today’s always-on social media world of real-time tweets, photos, and customer service complaints.

To create an integrated multi-channel customer support team, a growing number of organizations are building distributed customer support teams of specialized agents around the world. This allows them to deploy a real-time contact center comprised of the top talent globally that can handle requests across a variety of channels including voice, email, chat, social media, mobile, video, and written communication.

What is a distributed customer service team?

This virtual workforce has disrupted the notion and economics around how organizations need to operate a traditional customer service center. Gone are the days when conventional outsourcing was the only option that organizations had if they could not find the right talent nearby. Through the speed and convenience of technology and an increased demand for workplace flexibility, distributed teams have become more common than ever before in the workplace.

With technology making remote work as productive as sitting in an office, and processes available to handle communication problems that may persist, location is no longer a barrier to finding quality team members. Online platforms like Upwork allow companies the ability to quickly scale capabilities and resources either up or down by offering simple solutions to build and collaborate with distributed teams.

Why build a distributed customer service team?

There are several organizational benefits to having a distributed team. The biggest advantage is the ability to tap into a global talent pool instead of just focusing on people within a specific geographic area. This allows you to find support experts with the channel-specific skills that you need. Additional benefits include decreased employee turnover, access to 24/7/365 coverage, as well as multilingual and multicultural support. You also avoid the expense of added real estate costs and overhead for on-site staff, and paying salary scale according to the location you are in (for example, if you’re a startup located in Silicon Valley).

How to structure your distributed team and build a channel management strategy

Implementing a cloud-based customer service strategy is predicated on identifying the company philosophy around a few key position statements.

  • What service channels do you want to provide to your customers?
  • What service hours are you looking to provide?
  • What do you want customer service reps to sound like? And what are they saying?
  • What tools do you need to provide proper support both internally and externally?

Upwork’s ebook, Happy Customers, Successful Companies, outlines a great framework on how to build a customer support dream team.

  1. Describe the job/project: Let potential candidates know if this is a long-term position or a short-term project. Skills and experienced needed based on the channel(s) you need covered.
  2. Select short list of top candidates: Request additional information from your strongest applications to access support skills, experience, technical capabilities, and communication skills.
  3. Conduct insightful interview: Be on the lookout for these traits when talking with your top candidates: Passion, Communication Skills, Technical and Process Skills, Hardware and Connectivity.
  4. Create goals, objectives and set expectations: Set clear goals at the beginning of the working relationship to avoid misunderstandings. Check in often with distributed team members to make sure everyone is on the same page.
  5. Develop a communications plan: Build an agreed upon communication schedule and plan with team members.
  6. Collaborate: Encourage the team to chat over a virtual water cooler (i.e. Skype chat room) to replicate the casual hallway conversations they would be having if everyone were at the same location.
  7. Adapt and iterate: As the relationship between team members grows and changes, be sure to adapt to individual personalities, strengths and weaknesses to focus on motivation and engagement.

Communicating and managing a distributed team

For a distributed team structure to be successful, companies must completely embrace the concept. If remote workers are treated as faceless, low-value laborers that are doing mindless tasks — then they’ll submit subpar work with generally little motivation. However, if distributed team members are regarded as important contributors to the overall growth and health of the company, they will respond with high-quality work and enthusiasm that will ultimately be contagious by the greater team.

Regardless of location, all customer support members on a distributed team must be included in and receive all relevant project communications, meetings, and events. One of the keys to success with a distributed team structure is leveraging the latest in web and mobile technologies to turn location and time differences between team members into a collaborative advantage to accomplish more in a shorter amount of time.

Recommended technologies to effectively communicate:

  • Customer service platform: Zendesk,,
  • Video conferencing equipment / communication systems: Slack, Google Hangouts, Upwork, Skype
  • Communication and file-sharing infrastructure: Slack, Dropbox, and Upwork
  • Live Chat: Zopim
  • Document collaboration systems: Google Docs, Upwork
  • Project/task management software: Basecamp, Wunderlist
  • Screen-capture or image-sharing tools: Jing, Snagit, or Greenshot 

Creating a company culture

Building a collaborative team environment with a cloud-based customer service team is based on the same principles as a co-located workforce where everyone is at the same location.

  • Communicate: Allow everyone the ability to talk in real time.
  • Encourage: Make everyone feel like they are a part of the company. Involve them in discussions, send a monthly newsletter, schedule one-on-one meetings and calls to share your goals and project feedback.
  • Create long-term career paths: Distributed team members have the same career ambitions as on-site employees(s). They want to be a part of an organization that features long-term career opportunity. Allow your superstar reps to gain additional responsibilities and grow into leaders and managers within your distributed team structure.