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Cloud & AI: Helping Contact Centers Deal with COVID-19

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contact center bots
Image: Peggy Marco -
As we discussed in previous No Jitter posts, COVID-19 has sent healthcare, local government, and other customer service operations into a tailspin, with physical contact centers shutting down just as they need to deal with a barrage of questions around the disease. In response, contact center providers are scrambling to help these customers spin up home-based operations and deal with unanticipated call volumes.
In a recent interview with No Jitter, Omar Tawakol, VP and GM of Cisco Contact Center, shared how Cisco is helping businesses get up and running quickly with its cloud platform, Webex Contact Center; support remote agents; and deflect calls onto AI capabilities to ease the load on live agents. Over the last couple of weeks, Cisco has helped one customer shift 10,000 agents into a work-from-home scenario, and another bring on 1,000 agents to answer COVID-19 questions coming in from around the country, he cited as just two of many examples.
All told, Cisco provides contact center technology to over 36,000 customers (on-prem plus cloud) and hosts 3.6 million agents globally, many of are overwhelmed by the global pandemic, Tawakol said. While healthcare organizations and local governments are theoretically prepared to deal with a crisis of this nature, the ability to react quickly has tested them, he added.
In short order, a significant number of organizations have contacted Cisco and said, “I need to build something new,” and they need it fast, Tawakol said. As examples, he cited a county health organization that needed to bring on new agents to handle rising call volumes and to set up overflow to cloud agents. Another health organization needed to bring on and manage several thousand new agents — nurses capable of answering specific questions, he said.
To the Cloud, and Quick
As Sheila McGee-Smith, an independent contact center analyst, mentioned earlier this week during her “Market Report: The Cloud Contact Center Challenge — Transition, not Technology,” session as part of Enterprise Connect Virtual event, Cisco is among numerous contact center providers rising to the challenge of COVID-19 (tune in to her session on demand, and read related No Jitter post here.) She gave kudos to Cisco for jumping in early, offering qualifying healthcare organizations help in setting up Webex Contact Center, its contact center as a service (CCaaS) that it is making available to them free of charge for 90 days. This offering is extended to other businesses, as well, with the aim of getting companies migrated to the cloud quickly and cost effectively, said Tawakol, also noting that there is no minimum volume requirement.
As part of its COVID-19 response offering, Cisco has bundled its agent software, PSTN for calling, and set of omnichannel, routing, and reporting capabilities for up to 1,000 concurrent agents, Tawakol said. Not only does Cisco hope to benefit customers by deploying cloud contact center services in a matter of minutes vs. weeks or months, but to do without a need for separate servers, storage, and networking components, he added.
All a work-from-home agent needs is a hard-wired home phone or a smartphone that can be dialed directly – preferably with a headset — and a computer with a browser and Internet connection. No VPN connection is required, Tawakol said.
Help from AI
Besides its COVID-19 rapid response solution, Cisco recommends the use of artificial intelligence (AI) to deflect voice calls to chat, Tawakol said. Trained properly, an intelligent virtual agent should be able to understand what COVID-19 concerns a caller has, respond accordingly, or route to a human agent. In this way, organizations can respond to incoming inquiries in a timely manner, with pre-populated responses, and decrease the burden on live agents, he added.
In addition, AI can assist agents by providing recommended answers and surfacing knowledge base articles — a functionality we’re only beginning to scratch the surface of, Tawakol said. This is particularly important for COVID-19 questions, when agents may not be well-versed on a company’s approved responses.
Most healthcare organizations and local governments — as well as other businesses — realize that this won’t be the last time a crisis occurs, Tawakol said. Today’s COVID-19 reality reinforces the importance of business continuity planning, as well as the necessity of enabling more flexible contact center workforces and tapping into AI’s power to streamline call handing.