How to adapt when revenue shrinks but the calls keep coming

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Contact centers are facing unprecedented times, with demand on resources rising while, for many, revenue has decreased significantly. Contact centers provide vital support across all industries, to all consumers, and in this time of crisis, their work is needed more than ever. However, at the same time, brands have a responsibility towards their contact center employees’ safety and wellbeing. So, how can they respond and balance the need for upscaled operations with social distancing measures?

The scale of the challenge

Growing numbers of agents are being asked to work from home. Simultaneously, consumers are also working from home in their millions. Before the coronavirus, only 29 percent of Americans worked from home regularly. This figure is fast-rising, as several states (such as California, Washington, Missouri, and New York) order people to work from home where possible. 

This places contact centers under immense pressure. Not only do they have to manage a newly-remote workforce, but they must also help consumers with setting-up unfamiliar platforms and processes as they adjust to life at home. In some industries, such as food and retail, there is an added challenge in reducing concerns about supplies and meeting tight delivery deadlines. 

Making this more complex is the closing of outsourced contact centers abroad, in the Philippines, for example. This reduces the available workforce further, unless employers invest significantly in providing laptops and wifi for these outsourced workers to work from home.

A key issue will be in providing the same seamless support experience that customers have become used to. Especially when agents aren’t in the same physical location. If they’re suddenly not based in the same office, communication and established processes can quickly break-down. This can cause stress to increase, in an environment where emotion already runs high. 25 percent of contact center employees say that they feel stressed multiple times a week. 52 percent feel that their employers aren’t doing enough to prevent burn out.

This can make a challenging situation worse. If workers burn-out they won’t perform at their best. They may have to take time off, which increases the pressure on their colleagues. Plus, some agents may become ill with coronavirus symptoms, requiring them to self-isolate or leaving them unable to work. 

Technology that makes a difference

Clearly, brands must prepare their contact centers for a dramatic increase in demand, coupled with a potential decrease in revenue and a shortage of agents. That’s where technology can really make a difference, by providing greater scale and supporting a remote workforce.

There are several examples of contact centers turning to technology to help with the coronavirus response. In insurance, there are calls for greater IT flexibility and video conferencing to allow agents to work from home and to close call centers as a form of infection control. In Madrid, one of the hardest-hit regions, the Spanish Government is launching a mobile app to help citizens report their symptoms and re-route them from calling emergency helplines. Without it, the regional Government claims that Madrid’s telephone helplines will collapse.

Asynchronous messaging to improve communication

Adding an asynchronous messaging channel for customer service offers a solution for brands that are looking to reduce pressure on helplines. It gives customer support teams the ability to have fluid and ongoing conversations with consumers in the same way they talk to friends and family on popular messaging platforms like iMessage and Whatsapp. They can come and go from the conversation without losing context and don’t have to remain online waiting for an agent to respond. 96 percent of consumers find it important to return to a support conversation at a time that suits, more so in times of crisis where open and clear communication is vital. 

Messaging also allows different agents to pick up a discussion and track what’s already been said and what has happened. Customer information can be stored and summarized to the next agent, which stops a customer from having to repeat themselves. 

Answer bots for greater scale

For some brands, there is a need to rapidly scale without increasing agent headcount. Answer bots can help with customer inquiries during sudden spikes in demand, allowing agents to focus on more complex questions. This can also help if agent headcount is reduced through sick leave. 

Answer bots enable brands to consistently meet customer expectations. 45 percent of consumers don’t mind if they interact with a bot, as long as the solution is quick and effective. An answer bot can direct people to resources like FAQs and knowledge bases. Giving an immediate response and empowering individuals to find solutions to their issues without interacting with a human agent. For urgent issues, an agent can step-in and quickly see the customer’s information and inquiry. This reduces agent backlog and can improve time to resolution (TTR). 

Custom bots to direct and resolve

For more complex and personalized interactions, brands can also create custom bots that automate different workflows depending on requirements. These customizable, decision-tree-based bots can resolve issues in certain categories without the need for agent intervention. For example, a returns process could be handled entirely by a custom bot. Again, this creates greater scalability and faster response times. Custom bots can also help collect information to streamline interactions between customers and agents for greater agent efficiency. 

Supporting agents with the right tools

One of the most important aspects of running a successful contact center is management. Ensuring that every agent feels supported with the right information and tools, that they understand what’s happening and have regular contact with line and senior management. This is still possible in a remote environment. For example, modern platforms provide features to easily monitor contact center operations from one dashboard. Careful investment in the right digital tools will help keep lines of communication open — between management, agents and customers — during business-as-usual and in challenging times.

Unprecedented changes

The industry is facing numerous challenges, both on a customer-facing side and with agents. Success hinges on being able to keep up communication and management of remote agents and empowering them with the right information and tools to help customers. Simultaneously, contact center leaders should consider technology that can quickly scale-up support when demand spikes and that can plug the gaps if agent headcount is limited due to self-isolation or center closure. 

By taking a combined human and technology approach, your contact center will get through this, and come out the other side stronger, more efficient and responsive.

Published March 31, 2020
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