Avoiding Call Centre Crisis in the Time of COVID-19

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As COVID-19 continues its spread and disruption to the global workforce, there are many organisations who are already putting in plans to either reduce working weeks or reduce headcount. One of the top questions on everyone’s minds is how India, a country that sent 1.3 billion people home for a mandatory 21 day lockdown, and home to much of the world’s ‘back office’ call centres, will continue to provide the same levels of customer support.

Many reports so far show that the country is struggling to piece together technology solutions to address the problem. Because much of the world is on lockdown, people are consuming more media and enquiring after refunds for just about everything. The result is that customer service volume is rising across many industries, and brands are hiring across all walks of CX.

It’s interesting to consider that if we were facing this pandemic even 20 years ago, most of the workforce would be made redundant by now, as remote working capabilities were much more limited. However, the good news for India is that during this crisis, new technologies exist to bridge the gaps in all walks of work, from development to customer service.

Technology Can Save Jobs

In the 12 years that have followed the last, and quite likely comparatively insignificant economic recession, technology has become much more embedded in running every element in business. Following the crash of 2008, businesses were told to do more with less and technology became leaner, with greater expectations from boards to the c-suite to work smarter. The use of data and analytics has progressed rapidly, and businesses are able to use data-driven insight to target products and services in a better, more efficient way.

We’ve also seen the adoption of so many disruptive technologies that it’s become much more accepted to question business operating models, and to seek out alternatives.

Whether it’s innovation in AI and Machine Learning, cryptocurrencies, self-driving cars or the gig economy, disruptors have paved an impressive path since 2008, and companies are much more open to technology adoption amid a crisis.

If there’s one thing that will become increasingly clear as widespread home work becomes the norm, it’s this: businesses can, will and are finding their feet, even as they are forced to adapt to completely new operational models.

People are being laid off in greater numbers, but some virtual work is available and companies, particularly e-commerce companies, are taking advantage of the opportunity by making use of people’s existing skills so that they don’t have to retrain.

Ikea, for example, has closed its doors, but has stepped up its e-commerce services as it recognises its expertise in home workstations and home-schooling environments as ‘the experts of life at home.’ Its customer service agents that were previously working in-house have now been deployed as virtual agents to assist people looking to set up or improve home working and school areas.

This is helping the company maintain business continuity via online sales, while deploying people in a way that mirrors their in-house roles. Most importantly, it’s keeping Ikea’s customers connected with the brand and providing direct contact with customer queries.

Enter Gig as a New Force in Customer Service

Though a force majeure event is most businesses’ biggest fear and no one wants to be forced into technology adoption, as witnessed by recent events, many companies are looking to adopt not just AI-driven call centre solutions, but also gig workers for the level of continuation and connection that frontline customer service demands.

The model is cost-effective, with businesses only paying for what they need, and flexible, with gig able to fluctuate to meet the increased demand that some brands are seeing in customer service centres. There are a number of fundamental challenges that organisations of all types tend to face – each that have their own solutions – but importantly, as much as demand can soar, what happens when the unthinkable happens and customer demands drop?

But imagine if you could actually use existing expert customers to provide what is quickly becoming known as ‘GigCX?’ Some of the world’s largest brands, including Microsoft and Unilever, are using GigCX to transform their customer service models, and many during this time of challenging workforce constraints are rapidly following suit.

In the case of Microsoft, customers calling into Microsoft Support or using their Virtual Assistant are provided the choice to ‘message an Expert’. Upon choosing this option, customers receive an instant text message with a link to a messenger widget. This enables Microsoft to leverage its fans’ knowledge and enthusiasm to resolve customer queries regarding managing user accounts, billing and subscriptions.

The additional benefit of calling on customers to provide customer service is unparalleled flexibility, which lends itself well to planned and unplanned trading and customer service environments without compromising on quality. With dedicated, knowledgeable customers to hand at a time that suits the business, there is little to no negative impact of fluctuating customer demand on the wider customer base. In fact, customers are more likely to be supplied with a positive, personalised service that does not falter in quality; they enjoy endorsing brands they love.

Both technology and this new relationship between supplier and customer breaks down the traditional hierarchies and models of supplier versus customer, and actually presents a wonderful leveller of people, which can provide a greater sense of togetherness during difficult times.

Riding the Wave of Disruption

What’s become clear during the force majeure event that is COVID-19 is that businesses are using all the tools at their disposal to rise to customer service demand, and to bridge the many business gaps the pandemic is causing. Through AI, chatbots and expert customer service gig workers, brands are riding the wave of disruption and making a solid attempt at business as usual during highly unusual times.

The forced adoption of technology has had some surprising outcomes, and what many organisations are finding is that the new technology, coupled with the new operational models, have earned their place as effective permanent fixtures. It’s proof that we can find inspiration even amongst extremely challenging business conditions, and that customer service is fully capable of evolving even amongst the COVID-19 crisis.

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