Are we witnessing the evolution or the demise of the customer contact center?

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Pre-pandemic, hearing the term “customer contact center” would probably elicit a vision of a large room filled with headset-wearing agents. The bigger the company, the larger the room … or maybe it spanned many floors in a building, was its own building, or perhaps one of several such facilities around the world.

Over the years, there have been advances at the heart of what runs a customer contact center: among them, telephony; cloud-based customer service software; and the ubiquity of high-speed internet. Despite these advances which have made work-from-anywhere possible, most companies have continued to locate customer service staff together in those large rooms and facilities for reasons like better collaboration and easier onboarding.

Then COVID-19 changed all that.

Prior to lockdown orders around the world, some companies might have already had a small percentage of their customer service representatives working from home. For the majority, however, the pandemic forced businesses to frantically move in-office agents to a work-from-home model. And so began what some dubbed “The World’s Largest Work-From-Home Experiment,” with customer service arguably the most impacted. In the case of Discover Financial Services, Inc., it affected nearly one-third of its workforce.

With several months of experience now, many companies’ customer service departments have ironed out the wrinkles of work-from-home customer service. This is just in time to now consider how to navigate a safe return-to-work. The South Korean call center outbreak early in the pandemic is a grim reminder of what could result from a rushed return.

Opinions differ on when and even if COVID-19 can be eradicated, complicating the timing and steps needed to safely return to work. And if customer service operations are currently running smoothly, the benefits from being in one location may no longer exist. As companies debate if the traditional customer contact center model continues to make sense, three technologies will be key to invest in for whichever route they choose.

Workflow

Customers want answers as quickly as possible. Those solutions might come from customer service, or they might require assistance from some outside department. In either of these scenarios, workflow is the secret to a rapid response.

Consider a situation where a problem has been plaguing customers and is a significant contributor to contact volume. The good news is customers can address it by following a few steps themselves. Those steps must be quickly published as a knowledge base article. Workflow can help, by routing the solution details from a closed case through an editing and validation process, and quickly making it available online to customers as well as agents.

Another example are times when the root cause of a widespread customer issue lies in another department and must be addressed by them. Imagine an erroneous fee appearing on multiple customers’ statements. The details of the problem and the affected customers must be brought to the finance department’s attention, and workflow can do that. Workflow then allows the progress to the solution to be tracked to completion while minimizing delays.

Really, though, the most important role workflow plays is in its ability to structure and deliver tasks regardless of where a customer service agent (or any other employee, for that matter) is located. Customer-oriented work is not stalled as a result of what might have previously been manual processes performed in an office.

Self-service

Even before the pandemic, savvy companies had already embraced customer self-service in its many forms–knowledge bases, chatbots, online communities, and automated solutions. It’s an excellent first line for customer service, providing resilient and scalable assistance by:

  • Offering searchable articles to common issues in the knowledge base
  • Responding to customer queries in a conversational manner with a chatbot
  • Delivering answers from fellow customers or customer service in an online community
  • Performing common tasks such as registering a product, opening a new account, or resetting a website password with automation

As the virus’s impact started to take hold, Gartner reinforced self-service’s importance, urging companies to continue to promote it to customers and even begin new projects.

Machine learning

Machine learning is helpful because it’s like adding a member to the team. This team member, though, can process limitless amounts of work quickly, accurately, and without breaks. Its precision also improves over time. It lends a helping hand in two ways.

When self-service channels don’t surface an answer, it becomes necessary for customers to create a case online. That case must be directed to the appropriate agent. Machine learning taps into prior case routing history and “learns” from the various attributes. Using this information, machine learning automates the process, ensuring the case is routed to an available agent best-skilled to assist.

Machine learning can also serve as a sidekick to agents. As they work with customers, it can suggest solutions from knowledge base articles, online community responses, closed cases, and other sources.

The new contact “center”

Customer service has experienced many changes over the years. Before the invention and broad availability of the telephone, customers would write letters to companies if they needed help. The telephone brought the first live interaction channel, and also served as the vehicle for one of the first knowledge base-type systems. The internet put things into high gear: customer service websites, social channels, and mobile apps to name just a few. But from those early beginnings to early 2020, delivering customer service has by-and-large remained a location-based activity.

Will the customer contact center return to what it once was, or will it now act as a hub with many spokes (at-home agents)? Time will tell if the pandemic has changed that thinking. Between “The World’s Largest Work-From-Home Experiment” and the technology available, it’s clear the seismic shift forced by COVID-19 could easily remain permanent.

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