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How COVID-19 Is Reshaping the Contact Center Industry

According to the Contact Center Satisfaction Index 2019 from CFI Group, a market research firm, customer satisfaction with contact centers has been on the decline in the past few years. With the COVID-19 outbreak, this trend took a sharper slide.

Let’s face it: Many contact centers, including those with well-prepared disaster recovery plans, were caught unprepared in the face of this global humanitarian and economic crisis. Many of them are still scrambling to tackle an unprecedented spike in overall call volume (particularly in health care, government, and financial services), as well as managing staffing resources and the huge transition to the work-from-home environment.

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Weaknesses Revealed

When the coronavirus outbreak hit us, chaos loomed everywhere. Movement patterns of customers had flipped, and workforces got atomized. As they should, safety and reliability became the top priorities for businesses and customers alike.

As customer behavior moved from physical interactions to digital transactions, businesses came under enormous pressure to continue delivering customer services, with quality and compassion. As the customer demands soared in the contactless business environment, businesses found themselves short of capacity and unable to address the emerging needs and consumption patterns. Many businesses pivoted and retooled to adapt to this society-wide shift. But as the outbreak has intensified, and with online buying at an all-time high, logistical delays and related issues have again led to exceedingly high call volumes.

While customers were initially patient and understanding, they’re now realizing this is the new normal, and many believe, understandably, that customer service organizations should have this figured out by now. Faced with long wait times, being routed from one channel/agent to another, having to repeat themselves, and, worst of all, not getting their problems resolved, customers are no longer finding the situation acceptable. They have started hitting their breaking points and increasingly bidding a not-so-fond farewell to companies.

The contact center industry has been facing one of the greatest challenges in its history—a sharp need to augment its ability to serve COVID-19-related customer queries and emerge stronger in the aftermath. As businesses formulated and implemented short-term crisis management plans, some smart companies had their call centers respond by adopting forward-looking reallocation measures.

While some companies have succeeded in re-evaluating their contact center strategies, capabilities, and channel mix (live chat, voice channels, etc.) to support the heavier volumes, deliver quality customer experiences, and gain a competitive edge by earning customer trust, others still seem to be struggling to adapt.

Since customers understand that normality is not likely to be restored anytime soon, they are pinning their hopes on companies adapting to the crisis now, and may not be in a forgiving mood. For instance, Amazon shoppers have quickly lost tolerance for delays and damaged or lost items, and are posting negative reviews to a degree never seen before. We’re all too familiar with what a spate of bad reviews can do to organizations, with or without a pandemic.

It’s a no-brainer that a good customer experience during the crisis will create a positive brand perception and customer loyalty post-crisis. Conversely, ill-prepared, ineffective, or uncaring responses are likely to trigger an equally pronounced negative reaction, which may lead to permanent loss of customers sooner than most companies realize.

The New Normal Unleashed

Though it can be tricky to separate the temporary crisis-caused trends from the trends that are here to stay, let’s look at some of the factors that are reshaping the contact center world.

  1. Work From Anywhere—the New Norm

An industry where thousands of reps work collaboratively in a close-knit environment had a knee-jerk reaction when the coronavirus outbreak first hit. It became an existential requirement to manage the logistics and implications of working from home to avoid workplace transmission.

Some smart companies have replicated the contact center technology environment at home by providing systems with secure environments to agents. Employee engagement steps like gamification of teams, encouraging social cohesion through regular team connects, virtual rewards and recognition programs, and sessions on physical and mental well-being were and are being conducted.

Many of these brands have started allowing most of their workforce to permanently work from home—in fact from anywhere, for that matter—as it yields many advantages:

  • Reduced need of permanent infrastructure
  • Improved work-life balance for reps
  • Higher productivity and flexible staffing models
  • No dip in ability to hire, train, and engage with employees

There are still a few for whom managing remote workforces would seem to represent a much bigger challenge, as it calls for the need to tackle mandates such as GDPR, HIPAA, PCI, and CCPA.

  1. Diversification of Contact Center Locations

Until now, contact centers were physically bound within a secure environment, where agents equipped with computers, headsets, and calling devices, handling customer queries during their shift hours, worked under the watchful eyes of their supervisors.

With the virus spreading fast as a market contagion across the globe with acute cascading impacts, operational heads will now need to learn to ensure business continuity by managing operations in ways to allow some teams to log in from physical premises and the rest from dispersed locations. Not only that, many BPOs have adopted the Bring-Your-Own-Device (BYOD) model and are employing remote agents residing in smaller towns.

  1. Increased Investments in Digital Technology

The quick transition to virtual workplaces has exposed critical shortcomings in legacy contact center technology. Addressing the demand of virtual functionality, most organizations are now rethinking fundamental strategic decisions like adopting cloud telephony, automation, and other digital (email, live chat, bots, or even direct messaging) and interactive mobile technology on an accelerated schedule.

Matt Wujciak, a customer management practice expert, writing for Customer Contact Week, said, “If you’re a contact center or customer service department that doesn’t have AI-driven infrastructures, effective digital channels, and cloud-based communication, COVID-19 is your wake-up call. It’s the industry divergence in customer service that will force many to adapt, while competitors watch their termination unfold.”

Contact centers with omnichannel capabilities enable brands to service more customers without expanding the agent pool. Digital channels offer cost-effective collaboration and communications tools that help reps in supporting many concurrent interactions, reducing customer wait time in the process.

Contact centers that provide customers a choice of channels need to embrace advanced routing capabilities to ensure that every contact, irrespective of channel, is paired with the right agent for a better experience and issue resolution. These digital platforms can help agents conveniently flex between brick-and-mortar and WFH technologies.

Road to a More Resilient Future

The COVID-19 crisis has exposed chinks in the armor of the contact center industry, but it has also offered a huge scope to try out previously untested solutions like work-from-home model and digital solutions to handle the growing business-as-usual volume.

Being a key “shop window” for most businesses, the contact center industry will be redefined by the measures it takes now for more meaningful customer engagements.

The pandemic has presented an opportunity for businesses to rethink everything from technology and business operations to flexible work arrangements and customer service. Incremental improvements won’t suffice. Companies that balance the need for protecting business today with retooling for tomorrow will outsmart the other players and thrive beyond the pandemic.

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Siddharth Victor Amarendran

Senior Vice President - Sales & Solutions

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