Rich Pearson of Upwork: Using the Cloud to Spin Up Distributed Customer Support Teams On Demand

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Small businesses have been using freelancer services like Elance, oDesk, and a host of others to put work they need done up for bid. While the early focus was on getting things like logos created and websites designed, today they are also using these services to hire customer support agents to handle important customer interactions.

Rich Pearson, SVP of marketing and categories for Upwork, an online workplace for freelancers, discusses why small businesses are using freelance services to build distributed customer support teams, and how it is allowing them to provide better customer experiences at scale.

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Distributed Customer Support TeamsSmall Business Trends: Give us a little bit of your personal background?

Rich Pearson: I’m a long time marketing vet. My career started with Del Monte foods, and I can tell you anything that you want to know about fruit cocktail, but while I was doing that the Internet happened, and I noticed the amazing ways that marketers can be effective on the Internet. Since then I’ve been with start ups and joined Upwork, formerly Elance and oDesk, three years ago.

Small Business Trends: I’m sure a lot of folks knew of the two companies that grew together and became Upwork. Maybe you can fill in the blanks as to what Upwork does.

Rich Pearson: Upwork is the combination of two companies that have a history of providing businesses with access to great talent: Elance and oDesk. So we’re now Upwork and we launched earlier this year. But really the rise of our service has been driven primarily by small businesses and now larger businesses who find themselves in an era where it’s possible to find people and work together via the Internet unlike any other time period we’ve been in.

Companies are embracing the benefits of distributed flexible teams, as I think you have seen and probably heard of agile teams where working in small groups has become mainstream. And more and more, talented people are now freelancing and choosing freelancing as a career path. In fact, according to a freelancers union study, 53 million Americans freelanced last year.

So when you think of businesses needing to move faster, wanting to work with smaller teams, and services like Upwork, which provide businesses access to talented freelancers — where they can find higher end pay through our platform — it’s kind of a natural marriage and we’ve seen fantastic growth as a result.

Small Business Trends: I remember years ago going to Elance at the time and hiring a freelancer to do some creative work, develop a logo, but it seems like the breadth and depth of what people do on a service like Upwork is way more than that now. And in particular around being able to provide businesses with customer support opportunities. Maybe you could talk a little bit about what’s driving that move and this whole area of distributed customer service, particularly when it comes to what small businesses may be able to do for themselves?

Rich Pearson: I think the digital/Internet revolution has caused a disruption in customer service in a couple of ways. One, consumers have direct access to businesses and their expectations frankly have increased by some of the innovations that online only companies like Amazon or Zappos have provided. So consumers now expect very rapid and very high quality customer service.

And with that, businesses of all sizes have had increasing access to cloud based tools in order to provide their customers with great service. So companies like Zendesk and others enable businesses of any size really to have a 24/7 customer service operation. Where Upwork fits in, and in this case specifically for customer service agents, is we provide businesses of any size with access to high quality customer service agents. And this enables businesses to hire people who aren’t necessarily in their location and provide 24/7 support, or be able to scale up and down as their businesses necessitate.

And it’s really become a way for small businesses to compete with the big boys if you will, by providing world-class customer support for a fraction of the cost they used to in the past.

Small Business Trends: Give us an example of how a small business uses Upworks to basically spin up customer service?

Rich Pearson: One great story I like to tell is about Thumbtack which is a marketplace that introduces customers to professionals to help them accomplish their personal projects. And what Thumbtack did, and this is typical of a lot of small businesses and even larger businesses, was created a hybrid team of online email support reps with an in house phone support team. And so what they did is they built a remote operation that could compliment their in-house team. And as more and more requests came in, they were able to filter that group, those customers, through their online distributed team and they would answer what we would say are Tier 1 responses. And then as the complexity of the customers’ questions increased, they could pass them on to the in house team.

Now they’ve built a team of over 250 agents where they’ve got 150 in the US, and 100 remote. And so they are using this to test new ideas, new support models. And have raised their customer satisfaction score from 67 percent to 92 percent.

Small Business Trends: So basically they come to you and say, we need X amount of customer support reps, and they need to be proficient in something like Zendesk or Freshdesk or or whatever, and they may need to be able to speak a certain language. And by giving you that criteria, you’re able to find the right fit for them?

Rich Pearson: Exactly. You come to and post your job; what are your requirements, what hours do you want your agents to be available. What languages or skills that you want. We take that, match that against our database of over 10 million freelancers and are able to present the customer with a recommended list of freelancers based on the skills that you require. You’re also able to look at all their history to see how they’ve satisfied their customers and see their specific skill set such as Zendesk or phone support or email support.

And so this really allows the business owner to see the history and get a good feel for the person, and then we make it real easy for you to interview that person, hire that person and pay them through our service. One thing that we do that we find really helped businesses feel comfortable with distributed teams is provide trust. So we provide trust by showing you their work history. We provide trust by allowing you to talk to them.

But then after they start working with you we’ll provide you access to their work diary where you can make sure they’re actually working for your company. You can see their output and pay them based on that output so it’s almost as though they are in the cube next to you…

Small Business Trends: I think it’s a great way for small businesses to quickly find the help they need when they need it, and I guess also if it’s a temporary push, maybe it’s some kind of seasonal thing, they can get people for as long as they need it and then it goes away. But what are some of the things that a small business in particular really needs to be aware of before they go down this road?

Rich Pearson: The first thing I would say is start small. Start with a few agents. Start with a particular channel. Make sure that you’re familiar with how the model works, and that you build a team that you trust and the process that works. And as I mention in my previous answer, we try to provide a lot of that trust or bridge some of that trust.

Hiring is a personal decision and you need to understand their skills, making sure they understand your business goals, and your culture. The other thing I would say specifically for customer service agents is just making sure that as you think about what your customer service structure is that you model it for success.

For example, Thumbtack as I mentioned, has their tier one agents all online freelancers through Upwork. And then they have an in house team. We have other customers who start with the tier one being freelancers and then as they identify great people, they are able to move those freelancers up to tier two and beyond. So really thinking about your business goals and making sure that you have the right structure in place. And then of course the collaboration tools I mentioned.

Whether that’s a Zendesk or a Freshdesk, we provide really great communication tools that are built in. There’s obviously Skype. We have a work diary as I mentioned where you can see exactly what someone is doing and be able to chat in real time. And then finally when you have a distributed team it can kind of become a hassle, particularly for small businesses, to manage hours and pay people and taxes and everything like that. But we take care of that for you and make it really easy for you to pay your freelancers.

Small Business Trends: And the small businesses, the financial transaction go through Upwork?

Rich Pearson: Correct. You can put a credit card on file or set up a separate invoicing process with us, and you pay us and we distribute the payments to the freelancers in the currency of their choice. For example, if you were looking to build a global team and needed to have multi-language support, that’s a perfect use case for using Upwork. And not having to figure out the exchange rates and we take care of that and it works out really well.

Small Business Trends: And the last thing I want to make sure people understand, you come to Upwork to find the human resources. You don’t supply the licenses to the software like a Zendesk or Freshdesk. They should have them already and then come to you to find the right resources to use?

Rich Pearson: Correct. You can think of us as the people layer that sits on top of whatever customer service tool that you work with. Whether that’s a cloud based tool like you mentioned or if you just have a team on a Gmail account, we can work with all of those. Upwork is people. Upwork is talented people who you can hire on demand and to meet your business needs and scale up as your needs necessitate.

Small Business Trends: Where can people learn more about this?

Rich Pearson: And we just created an E-Book that is called “Happy Customers, Successful Companies,” and it really provides a playbook for businesses of any size on how they can build a world class distributed team.

This is part of the One-on-One Interview series with thought leaders. The transcript has been edited for publication. If it's an audio or video interview, click on the embedded player above, or subscribe via iTunes or via Stitcher.

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Brent Leary Brent Leary is the host of the Small Business Trends One-on-One interview series and co-founder of CRM Essentials LLC, an Atlanta-based CRM advisory firm covering tools and strategies for improving business relationships. Brent is a CRM industry analyst, advisor, author, speaker and award-winning blogger.

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