We’re just months into a new decade, and already, everything has changed. The world is enduring a once-in-a-century crisis—COVID-19. The virus shut down much of public life and forced most businesses to work virtually.
Nobody can say for certain how many months, or even years, it’ll take to get back to normal—and if “normal” will ever be the same. Most probably not.
For those businesses still in operation, the need for fast-and-safe customer service has only intensified. More housebound shoppers, stranded travelers and telemedicine patients are online, calling, chatting and texting for help.
As a result, customer care has suffered, even among those businesses still operating at (more or less) normal volume. So intense has the shortage become that customer service providers have “stopped taking on new clients to free up resources for existing ones,” write Sharon Terlep and Sarah Krouse in a Wall Street Journal article that’s rattled some economic observers.
“Many customers who call the hotlines of airlines, retailers and financial-services firms, among others, encounter hours-long wait times, hearing recorded messages saying help is currently unavailable,” they add. “Some companies ask that customers manage their issues online or suggest that they hold off on seeking assistance altogether.”
The problem is not a surprising one. Traditional call centers, with close-quarters, must be reconfigured to meet COVID-19 guidelines rules. During a time of social distancing, when crowded offices have been all but banned, operators of busy, high-volume call centers are simply unable to bring them fully online.
That’s not the only obstacle to customer care presented by the crisis. Many companies are experiencing shortages after outsourcing service to countries that have already been locked down. Even some businesses with long-established, remote-work policies have been caught off-guard by the sudden need for virtually every employee to work from home.
The shift to remote work also means that all of the required equipment must now be available for every home worker. This requires computers formatted with adequate security and workflow systems as well as a broadband connection that can accommodate voice-over-internet calls and a headset.
This leaves many businesses, across all industries and sizes, facing some serious questions:
• Can we really safeguard the health of service agents working in our call centers?
• Do we need to shift communications to a completely virtual environment?
• If so, how can we ensure seamless operations and full security?
What Does This Mean for Conducting Customer Service?
There is a silver lining to this ominous cloud. The truth is, the work that customer service professionals do can easily be performed off-site—a fact well known to businesses that already engage the services of a virtual contact center.
But as we’re seeing, making the shift to virtual work isn’t something that should be rushed. The proper equipment and software must be assessed, remote work guidelines created and shared, and security protocols created and enforced, among many other operational and logistical steps.
With the right amount of time and expertise, though, it’s not only possible to implement a safe, secure and efficient virtual workforce, it’s practically a necessity. The current crisis has made our new reality unmistakable: We’re now firmly in the age of the virtual workplace, which will increasingly become the de facto mode of doing business.
It means a faster shift to the virtual model of customer care. If you’re already leaning virtual in your customer communications, you’ll want to lean a little faster. If you haven’t yet gotten started, consider the coronavirus your official wake-up call.
Next, businesses and call centers must step up their commitments to security. If even a few of your team members work from home, the security of your entire IT system must reflect a complete strategy for a virtual workplace, including firewalls, virtual private networks (VPNs), authentication protocols—the whole shebang.
The use of automated services, such as chatbots and prompt-based user interface, will grow. Already a key tool for effective customer service, automation helps people make basic transactions, such as arranging a refund for a hotel room or a prescription pickup without involving a human agent.
The Continuing Evolution of Customer Service Delivery
Describing a rapidly evolving situation—in which customers shifted focus from travel cancellations to energy concerns to calls to banks and health providers—shows how unexpected events can raise a need for instant communications scalability. And, as we’re learning from the current crisis, that need can arise at any time, for any industry.
When faced with doubled call volumes, for instance, United Airlines enlisted temps and part-time workers, and even senior executives helped out by taking calls. At a time when human contact has all but vanished from public life and the gulf between you and your customers seems larger than ever, a few executives jumping on customer calls doesn’t sound like a bad idea.
But a smarter approach would be seizing the opportunity presented by the current situation to build a better customer service plan. One that’s based on a firmer foundation, and that uses cutting-edge security, integrates social-distancing best practices, and is fully compatible with virtual workers.
Not all of these steps will be new. Businesses that have already implemented a cybersecurity framework can be confident of an extra layer of protection for the data they process, for example. And organizations that have already embraced some level of virtual networks will be starting with an advantage.
For many, though, the realities of implementing secure virtual systems will require a great deal of focus and attention. With the current crisis putting such stress on our way of life, preserving easy communication with customers is more important than ever.
In fact, ensuring that virtual channels are always open may be one of the most urgent lessons COVID-19 has to teach us.