27 April 2020
27 April 2020
The current global coronavirus pandemic is unleashing massive changes on the contact center workforce. As contact centers managers transition to remote work for themselves and their employees, they are often also faced with changes in normal call volumes. How can companies manage resources and communication needs through this pandemic? What cloud-based technologies can managers implement quickly to manage changing workplace dynamics and customer demands?
With global coronavirus cases now well into the hundreds of thousands and with many western countries at the start of the growth curve, contact centers are adjusting to a new normal. Social distancing, which often means working from home, will have to become part of ‘business as usual’ for the foreseeable future.
Contact centers are faced with huge transitions, both in moving to work-from-home employees and in managing staffing resources and fluctuating call volumes. A Customer Contact Week Digital(1) article noted that “approximately 90 percent of global organizations currently use an on-premises solution for their contact centers (as a primary means of consumer engagement), leaving them ill-equipped to manage the robust scaling of digitization and remote work that has now been behooved by the apocalyptic COVID-19 virus.” A survey conducted by ContactBabel(2) reported that the number of homeworkers jumped from 14% at the end of 2019 to 71% in mid-April!
In addition to transitioning to work from home, many contact centers are adjusting staffing resources. ContactBabel(2) reported that “while 7% had made staff redundant and 12% put some staff on temporary furlough, 28% of respondents were actively recruiting new staff.” The same report found that initial indications are that “absence does not appear to be a great problem for most contact centers surveyed,” with only ten percent of respondents experiencing absence rates over 25%. However, absence rates will vary widely depending on the COVID infection rate in the area. Some hard hit locations may face reduced employee availability since some people may be sick, lack the technology to work from home, or find themselves redirected to care for children or other family members. To further add to the challenge, many contact centers face changes in their normal call volumes. “While 34% of survey respondents report increased call volumes, but 44% show a drop in the number of calls: whereas businesses such as banks, supermarkets, some travel companies and telecoms may well be experiencing increased call volumes, other sectors – for example, the claims department of car insurers, luxury goods retailers and public transportation providers – are likely to have far lower than normal contact volumes”.2
Stories abound about North American contact centers trying to balance COVID safety protocols with meeting customer needs. According to WCPO in Cincinnati(3) , local Ohio companies are finding new ways to work. LaRosa’s, has a contact center with 150 workstations but is operating at only 50% capacity. With 65 restaurants still open for takeout and delivery, the company is striving to meet customer demand while ensuring employee safety with policies like social distancing and regular sanitization. Nearby, Citigroup is expecting “virtually all colleagues to transition to work from home” and “the number of Fifth Third employees working remotely has increased from 2,000 to 11,000, but ‘data privacy regulations’ require call center and other employees to remain on site." Customer Contact Week Digital(1) writes that “travellers looking to modify their itineraries with Canadian airline WestJet experienced waits in excess of 10 hours. Banks and credit card companies, including Capital One, are seeing longer-than-average hold times, with some customers reporting disconnections. And Google warned Google Store customers to expect ‘longer than usual’ wait times as a result of precautionary health measures that have the company operating with a limited team.” A Wall Street Journal(4) article highlighted that call volumes at United Airlines initially doubled; “the company enlisted employees from across its business, including senior executives, to take customer calls.”
So…what can you do about these rapidly evolving conditions in your own call center? How do you keep things running smoothly and SLAs on track? It is helpful to first identify the critical functions and any vulnerabilities of your call center. Identify which functions are most important for sustaining your business in the short and long term. Are there steps you can take to have immediate short-term positive impact on business, while working to implement more sustainable long term plans? How can your regular business model shift for loss of business? What weaknesses or challenges does your business face in this pandemic, and how can you mitigate negative outcomes?
Once you understand where you need to focus your efforts, there are three key areas of consideration as you plan workplace solutions for the current COVID-19 pandemic: resources, communication, and technology.
Your resources likely fall into two categories: personnel and materials. You will need to manage details about agent availability as well as plan for how you will allocate physical resources such as computers, headsets, and hotspots.
Remember, your people are your number one priority! COVID-19 is likely to personally impact your employees. You need to be sensitive to the needs of your employees; not only will they have concerns about job security and workplace safety, but this pandemic is also taking an emotional toll on many of us. When considering staffing needs, think about how you will manage an increased need for sick or personal leave. Employees may need to care for children out of school or without childcare, care for sick family members, or even be ill themselves. While you are considering how allocate your staffing resources to meet customer needs, you should also keep in mind what resources you can offer your employees to support their well-being: is there a new company policy or government support for liberal, family, unpaid, or personal leave?
In addition to managing personnel, this pandemic is requiring companies to carefully assess their material resources. Few businesses were equipped to fully pivot to a fully at-home workforce. Do you have hardware, such as computers and headsets, for everyone? Also consider other remote tools that you may need to support remote work: VPN logins, hotspots for employees with limited internet availability, and phone lines. If you find yourself short on materials, how will you prioritize distribution? While most companies are pivoting to work-from-home, there may still be some essential functions that must happen in the workplace, so you should evaluate your facility preparedness as well. Can you move to alternating shifts or rearrange workspaces to allow for social distancing? Do you have adequate cleaning supplies on hand? If you find yourself short on materials, now is the time to outline a plan for increasing your supply over the upcoming weeks.
Your communications needs are twofold: internal among management and with employees as well as external with your customers. Take some time to ensure that BOTH lines of communication are clear.
Internally, you need to have tools in place to communicate among senior management and downstream with employees. What methods of communication are approved and preferred? Identify at least one primary and one or two backup methods. To share information with agents and other employees, consider appointing a response team that includes of a leader from each sub-team, who can then disseminate critical information quickly. The members of this team should be well-trusted employees who can share information as needed without leaking details or fostering rumors. Create contact lists that show which employees each team member will communicate with and share it with everyone; this also provides employees with one point of contact for questions and concerns.
Make a plan to be proactive in communication with your customers. If you know that they need assurance or additional information, identify ways to step up and provide details before they even have a chance to call. You can share how your company can help through multiple channels: a banner on your home page with a link to a pandemic-specific page, personalized emails, social media, or SMS text messages. The combination of a detailed message of support with a call-to-action (something as simple “Reply yes to this message and we’ll call you back”) can be very powerful – providing both relevant information and a direct route to personalized assistance.
ContactBabel(2) survey respondents indicated significant changes to contact center metrics in the current pandemic; these likely correspond to experiences in your own workplace:
Older and potentially outdated contact center technology that relies on on-premise infrastructure will be your biggest barrier to business continuity when social distancing is enforced by governments. However, there are many technologies available that can be readily implemented to support your call center. Often, these are cloud-based solutions that can be rapidly deployed as short-term fixes that will continue to offer long term benefits even after this current pandemic has passed. These technologies can help you both manage increased customer demand as well as reduced organizational capacity.
Bot technology is starting to have a significant impact on customer service. Bots are seldom seen as a short-term initiative; however, they are an effective first line of defense for fielding simple queries. The key here is to ensure that as many simple queries can be handled (taking an FAQ approach) with an escalation route to agent interaction via a call or one-to-one chat when required. A consumer survey2 indicated that customers actually prefer self-service for high-urgency inquiries across age range (42-50% of respondents) and income (41-58% of respondents). Geomant supports FAQ, conversational, transactional, and predictive bots via Buzzeasy bots, and we can help you integrate Bots with your existing channels to provide a logical escalation path to a live agent for complex inquiries. Bots can have a significant impact in helping contact centers focus limited human resources on more complex queries that actually require manual intervention.
We all know that waiting in long contact center queues can lead to significant customer dissatisfaction. Unplanned events, such as this coronavirus outbreak, can lead to unexpected spikes in call volumes, which can cause significant queue times. With a tool like Buzzeasy callback, using either virtual queue technology or scheduled callbacks, organizations can flatten call volumes whilst retaining customer trust.
To balance limited agent availability, now is the time to offer digital channels (such as WhatsApp, social media, and SMS) as an alternative to voice. For example, Buzzeasy Chat and Channel Hop allow your agents to handle customer interactions from various channels and to follow customers as they switch between channels. These digital channels can allow agents to engage with more than one customer at a time, thereby increasing agent utilization. Digital channels are often less dependent on bandwidth, facilitating a more streamlined tool for work from home agents, and they can eliminate distractions such as dogs and children that can be challenging in voice calls. As you integrate digital channels, you may consider removing voice as a communication channel altogether; creating new teams of digital agents, potentially reassigned from other parts of the business; or a blended approach.
Contact Center for Microsoft Teams is now available to connect the contact center employees with the rest of the business, allowing front line agents to connect directly with back office support. On average, 36% of respondents to a recent survey indicated that non-contact center staff handle substantial numbers of calls with public sector and insurance companies reporting 75% and 60%.(2) This cross-collaboration can “break down boundaries between the contact center and the wider business, allowing every employee to act in the capacity of a contact center agent if in the best interests of the business” as well as offering “superior customer service (and the attendant improvements in customer spend and retention), immediate interaction with the right person, reduced call abandonment rates, shorter resolution times and fewer call-backs, as well as more intangible benefits like the ability of executives to listen to the customer first-hand and learn from the experience.” Buzzeasy for Microsoft Teams extends your UC platform to the contact center, enabling voice and digital customer interaction. Using the established Teams infrastructure, you can now have a whole range of inbound and outbound interaction channels to extend the power of collaboration.
An internal company chat or knowledge base can be an efficient tool for allowing agents to quickly access expertise from other employees. Particularly if you are reassigning employees from outside your call center, agents will need to have resources to allow for quick resolution of customer contacts. Adding Microsoft Teams or similar functionality to your existing technology will provide an additional, easily accessible resource for your agents.
Interaction filtering and call routing allows you to differentiate between different types of contacts. Prioritizing call queues and appropriate routing will connect high priority calls with the most qualified agents, improving first call resolution. While many call centers already use call routing, now is the time to reevaluate priority calls and the customer path to resolution. When paired with self-service bots, filtering and routing can further reduce the load on your agents.
With agents working from home it’s more important than ever that they are kept up to date with real time metrics. Wallboards are not just for walls anymore! Inova’s Desktop Presenter allows you to display real-time metrics on remote agents’ screens. The Desktop Presenter dashboards are customizable to include group or individual metrics. In addition, you can configure threshold-based changes such as text color or actionable messages.
When developing your plan to continue operations through the COVID-19 pandemic, be sure to engage key stakeholders in your organization, such as human resources and the legal team. Cover yourself by ensuring your plan aligns with other company policies or clearly outlines acceptable exceptions. As you are working to develop or modify a workplan COVID-19 epidemic right now, consider these ten steps:
Every organization is different, and each will face unique challenges any time they must quickly deploy changes to standard procedures. Keep in mind though that, based on currently available data regarding work-from-home agents, you may find that some of the contingencies and workarounds that you employed as a short-term fix actually improved performance! For example ContactBabel2 found the “main home working benefits are reported to be around improved staffing flexibility and to some extent, an improved ability to handle overflow or unexpected volumes of traffic….home working is also credited with reducing agent attrition.” According to a Stanford Business report , “home working led to a 13% performance increase, of which about 9% was from working more minutes per shift (fewer breaks and sick-days) and 4% from more calls per minute (attributed to a quieter working environment).” As you and your agents get comfortable with your ‘new normal’ work from home practices, you can begin to find ways to ensure your remote agents are fully engaged.
Hopefully, we will emerge from this pandemic with greater appreciation for our successes and a clear path forward to manage any weaknesses.
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