How Contact Centers are Responding to the COVID-19 Crisis

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“While we’re not back to ‘business as usual,’ we are starting to see business reopen and adapt to a new normal,” said customer service expert Shep Hyken.

We tend to agree with Hyken’s assessment, but for contact centers specifically, what does “business as usual” in this “new normal” look like?

Many contact centers, including those with carefully crafted disaster recovery plans, were not prepared for the rising COVID-19 pandemic tide. A large number, Transparent BPO included, quickly transitioned agents to a work-from-home environment, while others simply shut their doors, leaving customers and clients without support.

Now that some time has passed, we decided to scour the web to see what trends are taking place in the industry, how companies are responding to the COVID-19 crisis concerning their customer service contact centers, and what advice they may have for the rest of us. Here are the results of our search.

Current Contact Center Industry Trends

These examples highlight some of what is happening in the contact center industry.

Agents Working Remotely Is the New Norm

What happens when you take the “center” out of call centers?

Agents working remotely has become the new norm. That’s the case for Transparent BPO and many others. But the transition to work-from-home hasn’t been smooth, which is why TotalRetail, a retail industry publication, recommends that companies introduce remote options for onboarding and training.

“Now that everyone’s on lockdown, remote options for onboarding and training are the only way you’re going to get new hires up to speed and ready to contribute in a timely manner. And bear in mind that 80 percent of employees believe working remotely increases their productivity on the job … Therefore, more robust remote work options should be a win-win.”

TotalRetail also advises companies to take advantage of advanced collaboration tools that give agents quick access to the resources and information they need to be effective and ensure excellent customer experiences. They also recommend that companies seek support from strategic partners, such as outsourcers, to take up any slack.

Customer Requests are Skyrocketing

Zendesk, in a benchmark report on the effects of the Coronavirus on its clients’ customer support operations, found that companies of all types are experiencing surging ticket volumes as the virus impacts business operations worldwide.

“Customer service requests are currently at the highest levels we’ve seen since the crisis began, with a 24 percent increase in the average weekly requests handled by global support teams this week compared to last year.”

That sentiment has been echoed throughout the industry — and many report that the result is longer wait times and frustrated customers. 

“The pandemic has caused a perfect storm of customer service issues, with companies and government agencies struggling to keep up while keeping their employees safe, and customers struggling to keep their cool,” said the Washington Post

The result of long wait times could have an even more disastrous effect: customer churn. Customer experience expert Stacy Sherman tweeted this ominous warning:

Stacy Sherman's tweet about consumer patience running out.

Contact Center KPIs are Eroding

According to Persado, an AI-driven digital marketing company, contact center KPIs are eroding, and cites these and other examples:

  • Average Handle Time (AHT) will rise above the average three- to six-minute range for most contact centers to closer to 10+ minutes; 
  • First Call Resolution (FCR) rates will fall as multi-step workflows force contact center agents to defer full completion of transactions, and consumers inevitably call back to understand where their requests stand in the queue; 
  • Customer Experience (CX) may further erode in the contact center, as new processes to handle quickly-implemented policies lead to new workflows and groups to manage these policies.

Use of AI Has Gone Way Up

With call volumes rising, companies are shifting to the use of artificial intelligence (AI) and finding new ways to interact digitally — channels that in the past were considered alternatives but in light of COVID-19 are being adopted as mainstream.

The shift is due, in part, to changing customer behavior. Customers who can’t reach someone through a call are now exploring mobile and digital.

To that point, Matt Wujciak, a customer management practice expert, writing for Customer Contact Week, said, “[I]f you’re a contact center or customer service department that doesn’t have AI-driven infrastructures, effective digital channels, and cloud-based communication COVID-19 is your wake-up call. It’s the industry divergence in customer service that will force many to adapt, while competitors watch their termination unfold.”

That’s not to suggest there is no need for human interaction (people still want to talk to an agent). It’s just that, in the COVID-19 era, the spotlight has turned to AI.

Considering these trends, what steps can companies take to forge a path forward? Here are a few ideas worth considering.

Give Customers a Choice

Colin Taylor, CEO of The Taylor Reach Group, recommends that companies give their customers a choice in how to reach and interact with customer service.

“Be in the channels that your customers wish to use, chat, SMS, messaging, Facebook, etc. Implement self-service, AI, and automation with the aim of delivering service without adversely impacting the customer experience or customer satisfaction,” he said in an interview with Forbes.

Show Employees Empathy and Concern

Not that contact centers don’t already pay a lot of attention to their frontline staff, but the shift to remote work means placing added emphasis on it.

According to Andy Haas, customer operations leader at Deloitte Consulting, speaking with the Wall Street Journal, some centers are “seeking to support their representatives by offering empathy training, supporting flexible work arrangements, and even delivering lunch to representatives’ homes. Many managers are interacting more frequently and informally with representatives to build a deeper sense of connectedness and engagement.”

Focus on Making Long-term Improvements

While contact center executives are making the necessary short-term decisions about staffing and serving customers effectively through the crisis, many are also exploring ways to improve operations and customer service for the long term.

“Contact center leaders are rethinking many facets of their business, including strategy, channels, technology, service models, and staffing,” Haas told the Journal. “Leaders are clearly committed to learning from the current challenges and applying those lessons to emerge stronger from the crisis.”

Hold an After-action Review

ICMI is always a good source of contact center information and advice, and an article by Josh Streets, CEO and founder of Scoreboard Group, about how contact centers can evolve after the crisis is no different.

He recommends that once the dust has settled, contact centers should gather key players and hold an after-action review (AAR) to find ways to move forward strategically.

“While COVID-19 is a wholly unique situation, there will likely be more unique situations that arise in the future. The AAR takes the time to review the moments, issues, or measures seen as relevant for the next unique situation. It’s also then followed by action taken by the same small group of key players who were brought in to discuss and strategize. It’s a simple process – hold the meeting, document the findings, and then move to action.”

Streets recommends that companies answer four questions:

  • What were the intended results? (goals/objectives of the action)
  • What were the actual results? (goals/objectives met or not met)
  • What caused the results that we got?
  • What actions will we keep, what should be revised/improved, and what should be dumped?

“When this model is adopted, the chances of meeting performance objectives and protecting customer experiences greatly improves,” he said. 

Rethink Outsourcing

I could not end this post without including one more recommendation: Rethink contact center outsourcing as a way to offset the effects of the crisis.

The same reasons to consider outsourcing — quality assurance, reduced costs, skilled agents, scheduling flexibility, etc. — are just as valid now as at any other time, pandemic or no pandemic.

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