The opinion of 6 experts on the future of contact centers in a post-corona world

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Lately, I have been thinking quite a lot about the future of contact centers, especially now that we are dealing with a huge health, social and economic crisis triggered by the pandemic.  The sector was already under pressure because of automation: with chat bots and voice assistants increasingly taking over the role of contact centres that are, let’s be honest, not always as easy to reach as we want them to. I wondered if the pandemic would be a heavy blow to their approach and business model, and how they were bouncing back. So I decided to turn to my contacts in the sector and just ask them. You can read their reactions below.

It seems almost weird to me, considering the nature of contact centres offering remote voice advice to customers, that so many of them seemed to be asking their service employees to work at the office. Obviously, there were quite few infrastructure adaptations (equipment, software, server capacity, network stability…) that needed to be considered to allow people to work at home, but the ‘rewards’ of this approach seem to be a no-brainer to me. So, in spite of the dreadful situation caused by the corona virus, I love how most of them now realize that remote working is a valuable alternative.

Here are the components of the contact center of the future:

A Hybrid Model

No surprise that all of them will take the learnings of the crisis with them, though they all do see the future in hybrid mode: a mix between virtual and brick-and-mortar. The reason is of course that scarcity (real-life contact being the scarcity in this case) increases value. People now realize more than ever how valuable face to face contact is: just as much between employee and customer, as between colleagues helping and coaching each other or even just simply having fun. So the future will definitely offer a mix of remote working and office.

Better Work-Life Balance

But the contact centre leadership realizes, too, that remote working is a true blessing for the engagement, well-being, and happiness of employees. That would be already great in itself, but the biggest bonus (and the most important one to the leadership, of course) is that this positivity obviously rubs off on the contact with the customer: the employees talking to them are clearly more focussed, more relaxed, more engaged and more willing to help. The result often is happier customers. Zappos’ Tony Hsieh understood this better than anyone else: “To make customers happy, we have to make sure our employees are happy first”.

Trust your talent

I already said that the COVID-19 crisis is the biggest digital stress test that we have experienced throughout history, but it is just as much a stress test in HR and employee wellbeing. Trust is now more than ever a differentiator in that aspect: those companies that always trusted their employees to work remotely, had a head start, and could thus focus on adapting their customer channels and business model to the changed environment. Those that quickly learned to trust them, were following closely. But those leaders that still hold on to command and control and will try to go ‘back to normal’ when this is over, really don’t stand a chance. They will lose their biggest talent and no longer attract new ones. It’s as simple as that.

Create a (remote) community

But it’s not just about trust. Especially today that real life contact is  still mostly a no-go, leaders realize that communication and building a sense of community is crucial, just as much for reasons of efficiency as for cherishing the mental health and emotions of employees that are highly isolated. When contact will again be acceptable, this conundrum will remain: people working remotely have different needs than those that are in the office. I love that the concern for wellbeing and community was on the agenda of a lot of the experts below: with games, quizzes, contests and digital cocktails. People really took care of each other in the pandemic. That’s beautiful to see. I also loved to see some fantastic opinions among the experts on making work more personal and more tailored to the talents and skills of individual employees. That will be a big part of the future of work and building a fantastic customer experience too.

Usage of smart technology

Most of the reactions below, mention automation as well, obviously: AI, analytics, chatbots, voice assistants, etc. Contact centres are not “safe” from that at all. Chat bots and automated voice assistants still need quite a lot of evolving, but the day will come that they will respond better and faster to routine questions than humans. But that’s a good thing. Who wants to be stuck in a mind-numbing routine and repetitive job anyway, right? The same scarcity principle applies here: the more that contact centre responses will become automated, the more added value humans will be able to offer in the cases that they are truly needed.

The Experts from the field

The future of contact centres will definitely be hybrid (a mix between virtual and real-life contact) and augmented (human capacities being augmented by technology, allowing them to be more human themselves in relevant situations). Read all about that here below. Thanks to all contact center experts for sharing their expertise and wisdom.

José Teunissen, Projectleader Innovation Implementation @ bol.com

What was the biggest challenge for contact centers to work remotely?

Before the Corona crisis, the bol.com contact center employees did not yet work from home. But we had had the modest ambition, in line with our 2024 vision, to fire up small initiatives in 2020 to explore the possibilities and impact of service experts or agents working from home. When the corona crisis stepped it, it forced bol.com and their contact center partners to extremely accelerate the efforts around this ambition while ensuring a balance between a safe work environment and the liberties we grant service experts in order to personalize service and risk mitigation. The biggest challenges were (1) to have qualified work-from-home hardware and software available and have those (2) delivered to a large number of Service Experts and (3) to adopt a virtual and safe way of working in a short and turbulent time.

What are the first results after running a contact center in a remote way for a month now?

Currently, bol.com works with approximately 700 Service Experts mainly on chat and e-mail from home. In the beginning it took some time to get used to this remote and virtual situation, but everyone is really motivated to offer the best bol.com worthy service from home to all the bol.com customers. Although we are still learning, this behavior also reflects on our KPI’s. The latter are on par or sometimes even higher compared to the brick and mortar sites. The coming months will prove whether this is a lasting effect once habituation sets in.

How do you see the future?

Even before Corona set in, our longer-term vision is that a service expert will be able to work for bol.com whenever and wherever it is suitable to him or her. This does not mean that we expect that brick and mortar sites will disappear completely, but that there will be more freedom of choice for a service expert to adapt working conditions to ensure a personal work life balance. So basically that means working-from-anywhere at home, from an office or from a location while travelling the world. We also envision that we will be able to provide a personalized workload that ensures a perfect match between the preferences, skills and competencies of our individual service experts as well as the needs of our individual customers. We strongly believe that being able to adapt working conditions and workload to individual preferences will ensure we attract a wider variety of service experts with different qualities and traits. This will enable us to continuously find the best match for individual customer needs. This is the vision we were already working towards before the crisis. The crisis definitely accelerated development of our vision and also proved its relevance even further.

Karin Van De Velde, CEO @ Calexcell

What was the biggest challenge for contact centers to work remotely?

In the first phase it was very important to communicate clearly, to allow everyone to work from home with the right equipment. Step by step, we have drastically expanded our homeworking program with a mix of company and private hardware. We also paid extra attention to our server capacity, in order to ensure smooth running systems.

On the other hand, it is a great challenge to guarantee the sustainability of our business. We have managed to survive and maintain our business in Corona times, but meanwhile some of our projects and ideas are put on hold. We want to keep evolving and innovating as a company, which has become harder and quicker since we are dealing with this crisis.

What are the first results after running a contact center in a remote way for a month now?

The measures may paralyze various companies, yet we as a contact center keep going. In some cases we even notice an increased volume. For example, one of our partners – a premium coffee brand – had to close its stores, which tripled our inflow. Now that these customers have found their way to the contact center, we believe it is possible that they will continue to contact us even when the stores are open again.

In general we conclude that, despite the measures, our workload remains stable and that there is little difference in terms of agent productivity. The productivity of the support services on the other hand, is more difficult to monitor. We also notice that remote leadership has become more complex, due to the lack of direct contact. Most employees work at home while some others still work in the offices, which requires a more hybrid leadership style. We are preparing to continue with this style in the near future.

How do you see the future?

I always tend to look at the bright side. This crisis shows that remote contact centers are indispensable and that we can respond to the needs and questions of customers and partners, no matter where. I believe we still need contact centers because they still offer some advantages: close leadership, personal coaching and support are just a few examples. Contact centers are KEY in daily contacts! They are the SAFE way to keep in touch with customers and partners. Social distancing can be guaranteed by contact centers even in COVID 19 crisis.

On the other hand, I am convinced that homeworking and digital meetings  have earned their place and that we have to evolve towards an individual approach, in order to create some kind of hybrid model which combines the advantages of homeworking and working in the office. I am convinced that when we have the skills and technical requirements, we can work across borders of our offices, of our cities, even across provinces, countries and continents.

For the future, in addition to a permanent place for homeworking, the virtual meetings have proven to be of great added value and efficiency as well. Without a doubt we will continue to meet virtually for countless occasions.

Hans Cleemput, Director @ Belgian Customer Contact Association

What was the biggest challenge for contact centers to work remotely?

Customer contact centers and inhouse customer contact departments within companies have again shown the ability to adapt within a short timeframe to changing circumstances. In a lot of cases tele-working was already incorporated in the company processes. For those who were not yet embracing work-from-a-distance the first challenge was to provide every customer contact employee with the right equipment, software licenses and adjust the processes, both within ICT and the business, to home-working. One of the biggest challenges, though, was dealing and negotiating with the social partners (unions) to provide more flexibility to home-workers and to adjust or create new CAO’s on home-working.

And while home-working was often already embraced by the customer contact sector, the fact that your newly employed customer contact employees suddenly need to work from home, without physically seeing them on the floor and guiding them, proves to be a challenge. In the future most companies seem to believe in a hybrid approach: new employees working a few days from home and a few days in the contact center.

Not every contact center employee’s life is fit for home-working, of course. Certainly, for those who have families with (smaller) children, it’s a big challenge to remain focused. So that’s one of the reasons why more flexibility needs to be considered in the CAOs. Also, all of your processes on managing, coaching and monitoring your quality from a distance need to be redefined and your team managers and coaches will play an important role in the follow-up of your customer contact employees.

One of the biggest concerns is of course the wellbeing of your customer contact employees. Contact centers and customer contact departments are being very creative with non-work-related video conferences, games, quick chats, messaging groups etc. to keep the employees engaged, to get them out of their isolation.

What are the first results after running a contact center in a remote way for a month now?

In almost all cases, within the two weeks of the corona-crisis, more than 95% of the workforce was working from home. Technical unemployment remained rather low, depending on the nature of the business. Call volumes have gone up mostly in the first 3 weeks but are at a more stable level now.

The biggest result is the higher customer satisfaction. Mostly the productivity levels are up, people can work more flexibly. Absenteeism has dropped in most of the companies and adherence to schedule is much higher than before. Nobody is arriving late because they were stuck in traffic or the public transport was delayed.

Future of customer contact

The last few weeks have shown us that customer contact plays a crucial role in the relationship between companies and customers. Certainly the human touch has grown more important. The contact center shows a new sense of purpose, bringing people together, adding human conversations in a day filled with isolation and sometimes loneliness. We see the average handle time going up because customers want to talk to a human customer contact employee, somebody who listens to their needs. While the customer contact sector has always been at the forefront of innovative solutions and while we are convinced that artificial intelligence will play a big role in optimizing the customer contact between companies and customers, the human touch is now more than ever the most important factor in the contact center. Humans have shown in the last few weeks to be able to adapt very quickly to a new way of working, to show EQ and be solidary with others. Our role in the customer journey will be redefined in the future.

In the future tele-working will be continued and will be part of the day to day processes, albeit on a smaller scale than now. Business processes will need to be redesigned and refined and companies will need to create new engagement programs to retain their employees, to keep them engaged and happy and healhty…

And last but not least this crisis will have an impact on the younger generation, who in a few years’ time will be our new workforce and our new customers and we’re curious to see how they will react to these times when they grow older…

Gianni De Gaspari, Co-founder @ Viata

Just to put things in perspective: we don’t see our customer support as a contact center but rather an advice center. We pride ourselves in providing health and pharmaceutical advice for our visitors, with a mission to surpass a typical pharmacy visit. In that regard, our customer service team resides at the core of Viata. The team is composed of pharmacy assistants and pharmacists and their goal is quality, not quantity. As a rather young and fully digital company (started in 2014), all our systems and technology are in the cloud, meaning that wherever there is a computer and internet, we can work. Excluding fulfilment and logistics of course, but even there we are organized so that we can remotely start up our logistic systems and operations. As a matter of fact, we are in the process of starting up in Italy.

What was the biggest challenge for contact centers to work remotely? 

From a systems and organizational perspective, this was easy for us. We only use laptops in our company and have a voice-over-ip phone system so, with internet, all systems work anywhere. We already had several people working from home on a regular basis and we also have a home office policy in place. The real test was to have the whole team work remotely, but also there we have seen fast adaptation. We offer text and video chat to our customers, so it was easy to start doing this internally on a daily basis.

What are the first results after running a contact center in a remote way for a month now?

Actually the results have been pretty good, both in quality and productivity. We have gone through a very busy period (customer contacts tripled for several weeks) so there was plenty of work for everybody, no doubts aboutanyone’s activities and productivity was very high as well. This busy period has been instrumental to set the tone of our expectations and that of our team.

How do you see the future?

For Viata I believe in a mix of these two: home office combined with local office. In our case we want close connections and communication between our advice center and logistics and marketing to provide the best quality service (left hand really knowing what right hand is doing kind of thing). So having face to face contact there will be important for the quality of the service our advice center provides. It is already clear that more members of our teams will work from home after Corona (whenever that is…). Before it was only driven by the distance one had to drive to come to the office, but going forward it will be to find the best work-life balance, as the past month has proven it can be done.

Frank Plehiers, Area lead Client Services @ ING

After 7 weeks of complete remote working, 100% of our contact center colleagues – we call them Customer Loyalty Members – now work from home. It was a big bang (with 1 test day): ‘from 0% to 100% at home’ on Friday the 13th of March!

What was the biggest challenge for contact centers to work remotely?

First of all, from a technology point of view, a big challenge is the stability of the network (at home and in the bank) that is crucial to maintain a good productivity and offer a stable connection and contact with the customer. We guided our members on a frequent base through “Do’s and Don’t’s” and “best practices” related to all type of IT stuff (how to use the home network at best, offering each colleague an extra ‘daily bonus’ for costs related to homework, such as the purchase of a second screen (to increase the comfort and productivity of working at home, …).

From a customer experience point of view, we combined the 100% ‘contact center from home’ with the closure of 50% of our branches: so it was a double challenge to forecast the impact of higher inflow, act upon it with workload and capacity balancing between the branches and the contact center, and to integrate extra customer journeys in the contact center, as it was no more possible to execute these in a face-2-face setting. This went quite well and fast and we discovered that there was extra engagement of our contact center members because they can bring in a higher added-value in their contacts with customers.

From an employee experience point of view, the best practice is to ‘Stay connected’: keep your daily agile ceremonies via Skype to coach each other, to focus on operational management, to onboard and train new joiners remotely … and to organize informal chats, virtual coffee sessions, celebrate the anniversary of a colleague, … and organize contests to increase your knowledge of business changes. We also created some specific communities like ‘working at home with little children’, ‘working at home when you live alone’, … so our members can exchange best practices and concerns among each other.

What are the first results after running a contact center in a remote way for a month now?

From a customer point of view: for sure higher volumes, 30% more calls (mainly due to the fact that we closed temporary 50% of our branches): 13.000 calls a day instead of 10.000 calls a day before Corona. So we see clearly a shift from branch to remote (call), and not (yet) from branch to digital. The main reason is that, after one month, there is a need for reassurance of our customers as a lot of uncertainty is out there, linked to the fluctuation of investments, the evolution of the economy, the changes we have in lending (like payment holidays for mortgages, …), many transactions that we moved from the branch to the contact center, …

Our contact center members feel like ‘in a remote branch’, bringing more added value than before, and not the contact center from at a distance anymore. So perceived proximity is (finally) experienced, both by our members as by the customer

From an employee point of view:

In this ‘crisis’ situation I see even more support of teams helping each other, experienced members coaching new joiners, and even more engagement towards our customer promise.

Our members are also more creative to stay connected with a lot of bottom-up initiatives.

Overall working from home is a success, but we need to take into account each specific personal situation and act upon it as a team. We give continuous team and culture-based initiatives to maintain the motivation of each of us.

How do you see the future?

For sure this new way of working, this new way of banking will not disappear. We will certainly maintain our ‘Corona’ best practices:

Structural homework will for sure stay, not 5 days a week but for instance 2 days a week on average as a team, with enough flexibility for each of the team members related to his or her personal situation, maintaining all our best practices to stay connected as a team.

Also we observe that the most of our customers like this remote way of banking and so call, chat and video are finally perfect alternatives for face-2-face, as well for servicing as for advice. Our bankers can do their job remotely, no matter where they are (at home, in a branch or in a contact center). We think that customers in the future will only choose for a physical appointment with their banker for an important moment in their life like buying a house for example. Or if they are not digital skilled.

As from the moment the ‘period of uncertainty’ is behind us, I fully believe in a boost of digital banking for all type of requests, needs and questions, supported by virtual assistants, call and chat bots and the human interactions will focus on added-value contacts!

We will also have a look at our availability: I do not exclude an evolution towards a 24/7 availability, as the contact center and the digital channels will be more and more integrated and the customer wants to have access 24/7 into the digital, and be supported real-time (if needed) by bots and/or human remote interactions

The new normal will bring a better employee experience with structural homeworking, so a better balance between your private and professional life and a top customer experience with a digital (mobile) first approach, supported with easy remote interactions for all type of needs by virtual assistance, call/chat (bots) and video. Customers will only choose for face-2-face banking on moments of truth/life.

Gesner Filoso, Marketing CEMEA & VP @ Teleperformance

What was the biggest challenge for contact centers to work remotely?

This has been an extraordinary and disorientating time for anybody working in this industry. We’ve had to find new ways of managing people and working, new ways of staying connected and new ways of navigating the customer experience process itself. We’re all learning at the same time: vendors, clients, and customers. During this process we have rearchitected our own business to better support our clients and provide them solutions that alleviate the impact of this crisis, almost in real time.

LinkedIn data gives us an idea of just how much things have changed – and just how long-term those changes might be. In the early weeks of this crisis, still in March, already 84% said that their work activity had been affected, 43% were already working remotely, 54% of companies had switched to virtual events and 52% of people were spending more time on video calls. Perhaps most significantly, 45% of people expected this to be a permanent shift (Source: LinkedIn).

Aspects of selling that we’ve always taken for granted are suddenly things that we have to replicate in new ways. Face-to-face meetings are unlikely to be an option for the foreseeable future. We needed to reach our new and existing contacts at home rather, obviously, than work. We had to adjust to people working different hours and more flexibly. And across all of this, we’re dealing with prospects and contacts who are themselves dealing with many different forms of anxiety and stress. It’s no surprise that sales teams find it difficult to figure out whether and how to start conversations in these circumstances.

In this context, we have shifted to digital communication and remote channels. We have armed teams with remote-sales tools, virtual site visits, and a lot of strong collaboration with marketing. We have established new communication channels with client and prospects, for instance, with niche webinars to help our clients through this process. (** Result: Revenue growth in the first quarter remained strong, up +6.2% like-for-like.)

From a services perspective, it all started with ‘Work at Home’ as our primary response to guarantee the safety of our people and continuity of our business (Over 155,000 employees are working from home today, 90% of clients served by home-working employees around the world), but it hasn’t stopped there. A couple of weeks ago, for instance, we have launched in EMEA a fast and result-proven solution to help our clients manage unplanned peak volumes, ensuring customer’s accessibility and reducing costs by diverting Voice to Messaging.

Beyond technical aspects (such as the distribution of equipment, employees’ internet broadband, security protocols, etc) the biggest challenge of the virtual model are undoubtedly the profile of employees (the model requires discipline, self-motivation, etc.), and building the sense of community. Remember, most of us were not originally hired or trained to work from home. Our people were equivalently moved to the virtual environment as part of a business continuity planning response, and at an overwhelming pace.

But based on the size of our workforce, we also worked to mitigate risks like misunderstanding from poor communication, lack of clarity and direction, second-guessing, deficient sense of ownership and commitment, diminished productivity and lack of empathy and personal connection. In this context, I’ve been also learning from our front line. We see our leaders across the region developing new and creative ways to engage and make the most from this new dynamic setting.  Some ideas are: “Weekly Q&A with CEOs”, “Virtual Celebrations”, “Icebreaker Quizzes & Trivias”, “Weekly Photo Challenges and Contests”, “Costume Contest” or simply “Virtual Happy Hour”, which looks like one of the easiest ways to engage a virtual team and build team morale remotely by ditching the usual agenda.

A local ‘WAHA Center of Excellence’ is also helping us expedite the Team Managers learning curve, guaranteeing best practices are shared and processes are followed.

What are the first results after running a contact center in a remote way for a month now?

Combining key learnings from decades of delivering work-at-home capabilities around the world and adapting recent best practices from our colleagues of Teleperformance in China, we have outlined robust business continuity plans, solutions and recommendations to our clients. This enables us to stay close, despite the physical distance, track our progress and act quickly on the problems that require our attention. This regular contact has been also helping us to learn more from each other, enabling us to function better as a team.

I think it is also fair to say that there were highly contrasting situations from one country, or one industry, to another. In the countries with the strictest lockdown policies, such as Italy and Tunisia, business contracted sharply during the month. In other countries, we saw steady increase. This was the case of multilingual hubs in Greece and operations in Scandinavia (Sweden and Denmark) as well as in Turkey, Egypt, and Russia, where we have recently launched new offices. This is important, because adoption and deployment of the virtual model also differed according to the factors listed above, local authorities’ sensibilities and client’s priorities.

However, over 155,000 employees are today working from home, 90% of clients served by home-working employees around the world, and the performance delivered by the work-at-home model are today pretty much aligned to Brick & Mortar, if not superior.

Actually, in many campaigns across the globe we see an astounding productivity boost among the work-at-home employees compared to brick and mortar equivalent. Turns out work-from-home employees work are finally more focused, faced less distractions, and work a true full-shift. Additionally, employee attrition decreased sensibly, they take more efficient breaks, and are more committed and happy as well. (according to internal employees’ survey).

Actually, due to the expected general state of anxiety and social sensibilities to the issue we saw Brick & Mortar operations hit by higher levels of absenteeism, which naturally made WAHA a more efficient solution to our clients during this crisis.

Our teams moved quite fast, protecting employees and customers, to help clients stabilize crises and deliver an integrated response while maintaining customer touch points performance. Work-at-home played a KEY role in this process.

How do you see the future?

Although the second quarter is expected to be more challenging in light of the current situation, I see the company facing the second half of the year with confidence. Beyond health and safety, we are focused on enhancing client’s Business Continuity capacity and Digital presence with humans and technology (like AI and bots) collaborating in a single cloud workspace that is easy to route, monitor, measure and manage.

In terms of industry impact, we have noticed an overall decrease in volumes, but we don’t see anything very significant when analyzing vertical curves in isolation.

Obviously, retail and e-commerce volumes are up, especially due to more customers ordering online. We also see travel companies forced to deal with increased volumes due to cancellations and changes. The tobacco industry also found increased volumes, but overall, it is too soon to define those as trend lines for the months to come. Everything we see is ‘temporary’ (part of a BCP environment) and my feeling is that no one really knows when this is going to end.

We have different parts of our group (such as Operations, Global CX Lab, Marketing, Business Intelligence, etc) working together, monitoring, identifying and planning already against some signs of industry trends so we can keep up with and be part of the changes ahead of us.

Having said that, what we do know is that innovation will still be needed in both dimensions. With that in mind we are working towards diversification of activities within high value-added and digital services, sustained organic growth, supporting our clients to rebound solidly as well as the pursuit of targeted acquisitions (to increase our innovation & transformative capabilities) .

Our High-Tech digital roadmap has 3 pillars. First, the Omnichannel Contact Center to seamlessly integrate and operate technologies to manage channels, monitor contact center and develop agents. Analytics and AI second: we apply analytics to interactions and processes, designing action plans based on insights. And the third pillar is Intelligent Automation to transform and automate processes to improve customer satisfaction and productivity.

Over the coming years, automation is set to accelerate and become a tool that businesses regularly employ to optimize processes and achieve efficiency in CX. Incorporating greater intelligence in automation through AI (such as natural language processing) will take automation to a new level.

Cognitive technologies therefore hold the promise to not only automate but also augment a wide range of work activities today performed by the agents. We see this evolution on progressing over two dimensions: the complexity of the tasks and the complexity of the data that is handled in those tasks.

At the basic level, we plan to achieve efficiency through the automation of simple tasks that handle structured data. The ability to handle unstructured data or applying analytics and AI to take decisions brings us to the next level, ultimately converging to an augmented agent concept that focuses on higher value tasks.

We are also helping clients who are already asking “What Comes Next?”. What we can’t see today, our Consulting and Transformation teams are helping them respond to short-term emergency needs, while designing transformation programs that build resilience and aim to minimize future risks.

The silver lining of this very unfortunate crisis is that we see companies from around the world rethinking the way they do business and looking at us for answers to their problems.

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