If, at some point over the past three months, you finally reached a customer service agent after spending hours on hold—to cancel a flight, get a vacation refund or apply for government emergency benefits—spare a thought for the people and technology that even made that call possible.
As COVID-19 sent customer queries skyrocketing this spring, it also forced companies around the world to shut down the very contact centres that normally handle all those calls, emails and online help requests. To keep their operations going, enterprises sprang into action by enabling customer service agents to work from home (WFH).
“Just 30 days ago we couldn’t even imagine having our contact centre agents working from home,” TD Bank’s Greg Smith told Bloomberg News. “And 30 days from now we’ll have over 9,000 agents working from home.”
That’s a herculean task for an organization like TD, North America’s sixth largest bank. With astonishing speed, it moved thousands of agents from 15 contact centres in the U.S. and Canada to WFH mode.
This monumental shift wouldn’t have been possible without technology, of course. Vendors like Cisco, for example, stepped up to the plate, offering rapid response packages to enable WFH for contact agents as quickly as five days after deployment.
“This situation was a first of its kind. There’s no precedent whatsoever. Despite that, I think the contact centres did a pretty good job—not perfect, but a good job—of getting their agents working from home,” Donna Fluss, president of DMG Consulting LLC, told me from her own home office in West Orange, N.J.
Since 2001 Fluss has provided research and consulting to the customer contact sector, with a focus on unified communications (UC), back office operations and analytics. Now that the initial panic phase of adopting WFH is over, Fluss said, contact centres face a massive new challenge.
“Now what everyone’s thinking about is what do we do next,” she said. “What’s the next step—and how do we do it?”
Contact centres: The tech part
As the pandemic continues, technology will continue to play a huge role in allowing contact centres to operate while adjusting to the new realities of COVID-19. The following IT tools will help organizations walk the line between moving some agents back to the office while keeping some agents in WFH mode:
UC: If necessary, Fluss said a UC provider can route calls to contact agents’ cellphones so they can WFH.
Cloud: UCaaS and CCaaS (contact-centre-as-a-service) will continue to grow because of the flexibility and scalability they offer as agent staffing levels and customer demands fluctuate.
“As of July 2019, based on DMG’s numbers there were more than 16 per cent of contact centre seats that were in the cloud. We expect by end of this calendar year that will easily be in the 30 per cent range,” Fluss said.
WFM: Workforce management software systems “project future interaction volumes based on historical activity and input from WFM administrators,” Fluss explained in a blog post on her website. “They take into account real-time changes in volumes and staffing levels due to agents calling in sick, coming in late or not being able to get in at all due to cancelled public transportation.”
IVR: Interactive voice response can be touchtone (i.e., callers navigate customer service options using their phone keypad) or speech-based (i.e., customers choose automated service options by saying them into the phone).
IVA: Intelligent virtual agents harness AI for true voice-based self-service in a more conversational way. Fluss said IVA is better than IVR because it’s “channel independent,” so it can be used via websites, chat applications, messaging applications, email and existing voice-activated self-service systems.
Speech analytics: “If you’ve got real-time speech analytics, you can figure out what the (most popular customer) questions are and update the answers and IVAs. So speech analytics will be one of the heroes,” Fluss predicted.
Automation: “Anything that you can automate is a good thing. Part of the problem with IVRs is you need a certain skill set and it takes some time (for IT teams) to recode an IVR. Part of the appeal with IVAs is you can make the changes yourself,” Fluss said.
“The winners,” she concluded, “are going to be companies that enable their customers to interact conversationally with them without having to actually speak to a live agent.”
Contact centres: The people part
This brings us to the biggest question of all facing customer contact centres: In the age of COVID-19, is there still a place for human agents?
Rob LoCascio doesn’t think so. The CEO of conversational AI company LivePerson (whose clients include Delta Airlines and Home Depot) said conversation volumes handled by his firm’s virtual agents jumped tenfold in March. “What we ushered in is, really, the death of the call centre,” he told CNBC.
As the pandemic wears on, companies are grappling with whether to send WFH contact agents back to their offices, and if so, how in the world to do that safely.
“People sit in four-by-three-foot cubes,” said Fluss. “If it’s a multi-shift environment, they’re sharing chairs and computers and keyboards and sometimes even headsets, though that’s not a really good practice. It’s not even that. How do you get people through the door or in and out of the bathroom, building or elevator?”
After one agent at a Seoul contact centre tested positive for COVID-19 in March, 97 of its 811 employees later tested positive. In mid-May, six agents at a Virginia contact centre tested positive, including one who tragically died.
Some contact centres are putting measures in place such as physical distancing, Plexiglas dividers, hygiene protocols, and staggered shifts and break times. But why not just mandate that all agents work from home?
Security and privacy can be issues with WFH customer service agents, particularly in regulated industries like finance or healthcare. If schools remain closed, how do some WFH agents juggle customer queries with caring for their young kids at home? Ultimately, Fluss said regardless of whether contact agents work from home or in an office, “their safety should come first.”
These difficult issues may persuade more companies to decommission human agents and deploy AI. There’s one thing no chatbot can provide as well as a human agent, however, and that’s a sympathetic ear.
“In times of strife, the contact centres really do serve the purpose of a national free counselling service,” said Fluss, who noted in her blog that she has managed U.S. contact centres during “a couple of wars and many natural disasters.”
As if to underscore her point, Fluss and I ended our phone interview by asking about each other’s families, exchanging brief stories about how we’re coping in this unbelievable time we’re all living in.
Sometimes, maybe especially so in these extraordinary times, making contact with someone calls for empathy as much as expediency.