Contact Centers and Coronavirus: How to Gain a Sense of Control

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Use the World Health Organization (WHO) website as your first source of information on best practices regarding coronavirus. 

First, the bad news. We don’t have any more information than you do about coronavirus.

At Helpshift, our domain of expertise is customer support technology. But what we do have to offer is some perspective on how contact centers can ensure both operational readiness and emotional calmness around the coronavirus epidemic right now.

Yes, we’re all navigating new terrain. Customer contact centers, like all business organizations, are looking for a sense of control. Here are the main things contact center managers should be thinking about in order to be proactive and sensibly prepared for coronavirus. 

Put policies in place to uphold hygiene standards

First things first: get clear on how to keep your contact center employees safe in the workplace. That means more than just hanging “please wash your hands” signs in your restrooms. Encourage employees to keep their desks and equipment sanitary with individual access to alcohol wipes, hand sanitizer, and other antiseptic products. 

Even more important: strongly discourage employees from coming in to work sick — even if they insist they just have the sniffles. 

Consider altering your sick-leave policy to ensure any employee who feels unwell is encouraged to stay home as long as they need to. Any short-term financial hit will certainly be better than potential long-term damage if an outbreak were to occur because an employee came in when they shouldn’t have.

Be prepared for an uptick in customer conversations

Depending on the type of customers you support, you very well may be experiencing a major spike in contacts as a result of coronavirus. If your contact center supports a travel company or the hospitality business, for instance, expect a lot — and we mean, A LOT — of calls. 

You’ll have to consider how you’ll manage more calls than usual without forcing anxious customers to wait on hold. If you’re using answer bots, create a process by which all coronavirus-related calls are first routed through a particular automated workflow. Update your knowledge base and FAQs to educate customers on coronavirus policies and issues pertaining to your company so they can self-inform, and so both your answer bots and human agents have instant access to the information customers are looking for.

Other types of companies might see an increase in contact-center usage as a sidebar of the coronavirus epidemic, too. For instance, as people in New York and other cities quarantine themselves or simply stay home more, contact centers supporting food delivery and video game apps may spike. Gaming and e-commerce companies need to be prepared for increased contact-center usage.

Align policy shifts with customer communication

For travel, hospitality, and event-related businesses, among others, call centers may need to offer specific cancellation policies for this moment in time. Your contact-center staff must know the drill and be able to deliver clear, consistent, and fair information.

You may also need to empower them with the ability to make exceptions based on their judgment or according to particular conversational cues. This will require adaptable policy-making as well as clear training and communication with your contact center employees.

Don’t forget the emotional component of response. Being factual and clear with information is critical, as is equipping your contact center employees with the content and soft skill training they need to address customer inquiries. This might require some just-in-time training. 

Consider whether you can go fully or partly virtual right now

Regardless of your normal contact center protocol, there may be ways you can send your staff home without compromising your business too much, if at all. Enabling your contact center workforce to go remote and digital will keep your contact center up and running without incurring the risks endemic to a physical contact center with employees sitting in close proximity and using shared equipment. 

If you use Helpshift, you already have the technology you need to enable remote work. If employees have a computer and internet access at home, they simply need access to your Helpshift account. 

Not all employees have computers at home, though, and some may be uncomfortable using their own personal computers for work. You may need to take measures to overnight laptops to employees and ensure they all have internet connections at their disposal. 

Some companies, especially bigger companies, have policies forbidding access to company software platforms from outside the network. As a remedial step, you can have your IT team put in place VPN access or single sign-on so employees can log into your network from their PCs at home.

Virtual connection with the workplace community will be important during this transition, so have mechanisms in place to stay in close touch with your team. Google just announced they’ve rolled out free access to Advanced Hangouts Meet video-conferencing capabilities to all G Suite customers for at least the next few months. So if you use G Suite to communicate with employees, that might be a good resource to take advantage of as you seek to educate contact center employees on what to do. 

Evaluate your long-term digital strategies

Realistically, this is probably not the last time we’ll be faced with a global epidemic. Aside from the panic coronavirus is causing, this might be a call-to-action to evaluate your long-term digital strategy and consider how you can make your contact center more conducive to remote work, at least as a contingency. In the year 2020, when 4.7M employees in the U.S. work at home at least half the time, and 40% more employers offer flexible workplace options, virtual work is not a trend to be ignored.

This might mean looking at your customer support technology to determine whether you need an add-on or upgrade to enable remote work for call center employees. It also might mean investing in a suite of company-owned laptops that can be assigned to employees for at-home use. 

Assess your current state and determine the hardware limitations, software limitations, and logistical limitations you have right now, and then put a plan in place to address each. If you need inspiration, read the story of Helpshift customer Chatbooks, a company that allows its entire staff of support agents to work at home.

Keep Calm and Be Prepared 

But that might mean carrying on in a different way than you’ve been accustomed to. Prepare your workers for remote work if it seems like a smart idea or necessary step, and for Helpshift customers, please don’t hesitate to reach out if you need help setting up a new protocol quickly. 

It may feel like you’re scrambling right now, but the silver lining is that you can potentially enable faster adoption of digital mechanisms down the line, a shift that will positively impact your customer support organization and its employees. 

Hopefully, this post has given you a little more information to prepare you not just for right now, but for the future of customer support. Control what you can, and breathe through what you can’t. 

Published March 12, 2020
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