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Contact Center: Game Plan for COVID-19, the New Normal

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People working at home in an apartment building
Image: Wizatnicko -
Contact centers are experiencing an exceptional time. A few months ago, many contact center professionals were struggling to get the attention of their executives to help improve the customer experience (CX). Some industry pundits even predicted the demise of the call center with the rise of automated workflows, but today, contact centers are considered an essential service, which wasn’t the case before. Where consumers might have been more upset about a poor call in the past, consumers now just want that human interaction. While wait times can be very long, we mostly recall a positive interaction with a caring agent that shows compassion and empathy.
The pandemic is acting as a catalyst for new ways of doing business remotely, and the changes taking place will last beyond COVID-19. Contact centers also need to adapt not only to the current conditions but  need to support this new normal moving forward.
Handling Traffic Surges
At a time when staffing has been derailed with the shift to work from home, traffic continues to surge. It’s also important to differentiate spikes from sustained volume increases. Traffic spikes need an instant reaction; the best strategy is allowing immediate callbacks for important calls and deferring callbacks for less important ones. Callbacks are not just about time-shifting calls. Outbound calls can also be grouped into batches for greater efficiency — they are more predictable and easier to delegate to non-contact center agents.
However, systemic traffic increases require a proactive approach to identify how they can be prevented or redirected. Current, COVID-19-related traffic surges have surfaced a deeper call center issue: We don’t fully understand why people are calling. For many contact centers, this has sparked interest in speech analytics, which (thanks to AI) can transcribe and analyze calls and uncover their intent. This provides the foundation for proactive notifications to either prevent inquiries or redirect them to self-service or digital channels.
Good old text SMS channel is finding a second life too. It’s a great notification channel. Most people are using mobile phones, so it’s easy to respond to a call with an SMS message. Once an interaction is in the SMS channel, triage can take place using bots, or conversations can be pivoted to another digital channel. It has become a key enabler for cross channel conversations — one the industry has been touting for years.
Enabling New Business Models
The pandemic has blossomed new business models. Telehealth is probably the most vibrant example, and social distancing is pushing the envelope of virtual care. Healthcare providers are switching to videoconferencing by effectively applying the Japanese lean manufacturing principles of waste elimination (Muda). Instead of cutting waste, they reduce the need for people to move and places to be cleaned. Another hard-hit industry retail is turning to curbside or in-store pickups to deliver goods more safely. These new models hinge on a call center style of communications for notification, making sure appointments take place, and coordinating last-mile deliveries.
These aren’t new inventions; they were available before COVID-19. What is new is the speed and scale at which they are getting implemented and adopted. Fast deployment leverage three ingredients: contextual notification of new options, guided workflows, and easy access to an associate. This is not fundamentally different from digital transformation, but with two main differences. First, the scope of what is automated is narrower. I often hear the term pragmatic automation. Second, many exceptions are handled through reminders and easy communication with associates who are better empowered to resolve them. We have spoken for decades of expanding the contact center principles of managed communications to other use cases and employees. It is finally happening!
Remote Working
One contrast between the current crisis and the previous one is striking to me. In 2008, the financial crisis provoked a significant halt to remote working. Employees who were working from home were asked to come to the office more. Many benefits of home working were questioned. This time, we don’t have the choice but to make it work. The first phase of flipping agents from corporate centers to home entailed equipping them with laptops and securing connections with VPNs. While voice quality can sometimes be a challenge, this phase is mostly behind us. Networks have proved their extreme resiliency and are holding up impressively to our new set-up.
Organizations are shifting their focus on how teams operate. Scheduling has become a challenge, as many agents live with their families and young kids, often in small places. They need more flexibility to arrange their working hours. Supervisors are no longer nearby on the floor to monitor, coach, and help their teams. Visibility has become a major challenge. While exploring how technology can help, customer support organizations are also forced to revisit how they operate, managing less the activities and more the results. A similar movement was already happening in digital customer service organizations. I believe these changes and greater empowerment of agents to deal with unforeseen situations are here to stay. They will have a lasting impact on the organization of work in contact centers, and empowered departments will play a more strategic role like at Zappos or T-Mobile.
Accelerating the Transition to the Cloud
Working from home can be implemented with on-premises communication systems. Avaya, for example, announced it had enabled over two million remote workers using mostly on-site solutions. However, the speed at which departments using cloud contact centers were able to pivot their operations to working remotely is likely to be the final nail in the coffin of on-premises software. During the first weeks of the crisis, most companies rightfully tried to minimize changes, and many froze any substantial modifications to their IT infrastructure. They have started to review that.
The resilience of cloud solutions under exceptional conditions is laying to rest many of the remaining concerns that people had about its maturity. Talkdesk made headlines recently by announcing a project to move a 10,000-seat contact center to the cloud. In most of my interactions, I hear a desire to accelerate the migration to the cloud. Cloud contact center solutions are also getting adopted by non-traditional contact center departments to handle their communication needs. Examples include unemployment agencies and banks needing to re-engage with their customers in a branch-less world.
Behind the short-term changes made to adjust to working from home and having to handle an exceptional traffic volume, I see five trends accelerating:
  1. Omnichannel interactions using proactive communications and messaging to pivot between voice, video, and digital
  2. Digital transformation with simpler automation and better leverage of humans
  3. Greater empowerment of employees to better serve customers
  4. Focus on the agent experience and agent enablement
  5. Transition to the cloud of customer interaction solutions
COVID-19 is changing the scope and the role of contact centers and defining a new normal. Your game plan should address both the current COVID-19 climate and the new normal that this is creating.

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This post is written on behalf of BCStrategies, an industry resource for enterprises, vendors, system integrators, and anyone interested in the growing business communications arena. A supplier of objective information on business communications, BCStrategies is supported by an alliance of leading communication industry advisors, analysts, and consultants who have worked in the various segments of the dynamic business communications market.