Pandemic Shows Need to Revamp Contact Centers

For years, businesses have operated on multi-year plans, contemplating evolving changes to their workforce, technology, and customer satisfaction goals. However, with COVID-19 rearing its head in March 2020, it seems like the entire world has been thrown for a loop. It’s probably safe to say that moving forward, the multi-year plan will be replaced by more nimble, flexible planning, as technology, work-from-home strategies, and fluctuation in customer demands have catapulted us forward.

The contact center is no different. The pandemic has radically changed how companies operate and respond to customer inquiries or concerns.

According to a recent survey, 64% of companies reported downsizing their contact center operations in response to the pandemic, creating new challenges with increased customer service demands and fewer on-site agents. Hold times have increased, as well as frustration and anxiety for customers, human agents, and businesses alike. Hearing “we’re experiencing unexpectedly high call volumes” is not comforting for those needing immediate assistance.

There’s an old saying that if you want to fix something, you need to drag it out into the sunlight. Well, COVID-19 has done just that.  It’s exposed where we need to revamp our businesses to keep up with the “next normal.” Here are some ways that the pandemic has highlighted the need to revamp contact centers around the globe. 

What changes should contact centers make for their employees?

Contact centers have well-perfected spikes in customer demand, such as those occurring during natural disasters or around seasonal events, like summer vacations or the holidays. However, traditional spikes in demand and service are typically short-lived and often predictable, unlike the new (and continuing) changes in demands created by the COVID-19 pandemic. 

Keeping this in mind, contact centers must realize that COVID-19 will have a lasting impact on contact centers, such as banks, airlines, and telco providers. With increased volumes in calls and fewer human reps to handle them because of furloughing or downsizing, companies should begin implementing changes for their employees now.

Work-from-Home

One consideration is moving your contact center staff to remote work locations, such as their homes, ultimately reducing the necessary staffing on-site. This is no easy task for sure. However, companies like T-Mobile have moved large numbers of contact center employees off-campus to remote, home-based locations. Within 20 days, T-Mobile moved 12,000 customer care employees out of 17 call centers to work-from-home platforms. To make sure these skilled employees didn’t miss a beat, T-Mobile rolled out VPN access to these employees along with a larger capacity server and remote collaboration tools, like Slack and Skype, allowing their employees to continue connecting with each other while tapping into the knowledge and skills of their teammates. 

Lifelong Learning and Support

Additionally, companies that move some or all of their contact center employees to remote work must make sure that they don’t just have access to company infrastructure and technology platforms, but they also need to provide these employees with continual knowledge and tools to perform their jobs remotely, ultimately delivering continued customer satisfaction. The need for new skills is not a new topic in the workplace, but it may become a top priority in a world that has seemingly changed overnight.  According to the Harvard Business Journal, opportunities for continued development is the second most important factor for employees’ happiness, just behind the nature of the work itself.

For example, according to a recent study, 56.7% of companies reported that they “needed to find ways to provide remote call center staff with knowledge they need to remotely answer questions.” Additionally, companies need to consider updating pre-COVID scripts and procedures in light of new challenges, allowing employees to step out from behind policies and offer effective resolutions in this new day. With customer service calls becoming more complex in light of the pandemic, companies need to prioritize their employees, reducing these pandemic-related challenges experienced in the customer service industry.

How to Navigate the Road to Virtual Agents, AI, and Automation

Not only do contact center agents need access to internal infrastructures, collaboration tools, and  updated procedures and scripts, but they also need an effective way to increase productivity by removing repetitive tasks. Implementing or upgrading your contact center with artificial intelligence and automation via virtual agents is one way to not only elevate agent productivity but also shorten hold time and resolve issues faster to increase customer satisfaction.

However, the implementation of virtual agents, AI, and automation doesn’t occur in a silo. To be truly effective and flexible, the collaboration between human agents and technology is critical, as it elevates your productivity and scale. For example, virtual agents are an efficient way to handle repetitive calls, such as placing orders, entering payment information, or changing an address for an order. Further, a virtual agent is “on” all day, every day, allowing you to handle higher call levels quickly and efficiently, while scaling up or down to meet demand.

By removing these mundane, repetitive, tier-1 customer service cases from the call sheet of your human agents, you allow them to focus on more complex issues, needing human interaction or creative problem solving. Additionally, with fewer human agents currently working because of the pandemic, virtual agents, AI, and automation can beneficially step into that gap, filling it with fast, efficient responses while reducing inefficiencies around repetitive work.

Companies can tackle the personal and business challenges of their customers by focusing on meaningful investments in customer service call centers, such as moving the center to a cloud-based platform, allowing their agents to work from home. Additionally, with AI-tools, contact centers can triage calls, giving customers immediate relief, while sending the calls requiring complex, creative analysis to live agents. By elevating your employees to a more satisfying, challenging job, you’ll not only increase your employees’ satisfaction, but you’ll see your retention numbers rise. 

In a matter of days, COVID forced us to reexamine how we do business, and the time to make changes is now. By focusing on the right skills, the right support, and the right technology, contact centers can navigate these unknown waters successfully, creating a new and better customer service model.

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