Life after COVID: How to Prepare Your Agents For The Months Ahead

Today’s agents face unprecedented challenges. Even before recent events, they were already dealing with rising customer expectations, demands for support via new channels, and rising expectations for immediate responses. These changes are made all the more complex in our post-COVID world, which has added still more challenges for agents (and their leaders) to adapt to. Overnight, agents suddenly had to support huge upswings in demand, while simultaneously being thrust into a new work-from-home reality. Likewise, managers found themselves with newly distributed teams working under immense pressure.

As we head into the latter stages of the coronavirus response, workplaces begin to re-open, and retail shops are opening the doors to their physical locations. The question now becomes “what next?”. What did we learn from this experience and what improvements must we make to prevent disruption during future business shocks? And where does this leave contact center agents, who must navigate their new normal while preparing for emerging technology on the horizon? 

The new contact center reality

First, let’s address the customer support function post-COVID. Many brands hastily adopted a remote-enabling tech stack within days of the shutdown beginning. For leaders, it’s time to assess that technology, separating what works from what should be divested. With the benefit of hindsight, contact center leaders should more deliberately determine the right tech stack for their future rather than merely what they selected while in crisis.

It’s also prime time to reassess processes. Like technology, much of this was built on the fly.  Some were, no doubt, more successful than others. Businesses should keep the ones that led to improvements for a customer support function and remove any that hinders productivity and output. During the crisis, there was a rapid shift to work-from-home set-ups, with remote enabling tech stacks. There are lessons to be learned from this, in understanding how to build greater resilience, agility, and efficiency into a customer support function. 

Technology to build future resilience

Take, for example, the lessons learned when brands had to rapidly recreate the customer support function at home. They likely needed a centralized way of tracking and assigning requests, to maintain open communication and collaboration between agents when those agents couldn’t simply walk to their colleague’s desk to ask a question. With technology that centralizes all customer communications, from all channels, the team could remain up-to-date on all open and urgent tickets. This will continue to provide value long after the current crisis passes. Empowering customers to communicate with a team via their preferred channel and ensuring smooth handover if a case has to be escalated or directed to another agent. 

Meeting changing customer demands

During the crisis, when many retail, e-commerce, travel, and hospitality brands were adversely impacted, the demand on customer support teams rose exponentially. Customers wanted to understand what was happening, what stores were open, their delivery times, or whether their orders (and holidays) would be honored or refunded. Increasingly they reached out on different digital channels, and this shift will likely be permanent. 

Customer support teams must now adapt by making themselves accessible on social media, live chat, email, and phone, to name but a few. The onus is on teams to reduce the friction felt by customers as they move from one channel to another and to ensure a consistent experience. 

One way to reduce friction and offer a better customer experience is using asynchronous messaging, which is similar to how people message through WhatsApp, Messenger, text and email. It provides customers with a way to contact an agent at a time that suits them, then for an agent to reply either in real-time, or later on when a customer decides to return to the conversation. 96 percent of customers feel that the ability to pick-up support discussions is important to their overall experience. Plus, with asynchronous messaging, customers don’t have to repeat themselves every time they speak to a new agent. Further reducing friction in the support process and lowering the time-to-resolve, as all chat history and past interactions can be seen instantly by an agent. 

Handling surges

During the pandemic, customer support centers experienced drastic surges in demand. The volume of inquiries didn’t just increase, but also became more complex. On average, the number of inquiries that were scored as ‘difficult’ doubled from 10% to 20% over the 2-week period immediately after lockdown began. In particular, agents found themselves dealing with the ramifications of unexpected travel cancellations, financial hardship (and the need to delay payments), and disputes over insurance coverage. 

With COVID as a cautionary tale, many brands are now investing in ways to prevent their contact centers from becoming overwhelmed again. Agents’ time must be optimized, to reduce wait times and time-to-resolve. Automation is key to this. Before COVID,  85% of customer support interactions were set to be automated by the end of 2020. Now that brands have experienced the challenges of scaling to unexpected demand, this percentage will have undoubtedly increased. 

Simply put, automation can vastly scale to demand when needed, like with surges or agent unavailability.

One form of customer support automation can be seen with chatbots. This technology can support agents by answering inquiries and directing customers to the right resource or agent to help. They can be there when a support team can’t since, unlike humans, bots don’t need to sleep. Likewise, during high-demand periods, such as the pandemic, bots and automation can help scale operations rapidly.

Meanwhile, customers with relevant inquiries can be guided to self-serve by a bot.

The changing role of the agent

The largest benefits of automation (and bots) come when it augments a human team, allowing agents to focus on higher-value, complex inquiries, while picking up simple questions and directing customers to self-serve where possible. In an unexpected event like COVID, having a combined system with bots and agents working in tandem will make the support function more robust and scalable. 

Training agents for the world ahead

Post-COVID, brands are realizing the need for technology such as automation to protect their customer support from future shocks. However, agents aren’t yet aligned with this thinking, with many still responding to the crisis at hand. Leaders must now train their agents to work effectively in the new tech-driven environment.

Digital skills are a must, alongside an understanding of how the various tools can help them. It’s worth upskilling your team with a basic understanding of automation and bots, for example, and equipping them with enough knowledge to stay on top of future advances. 

Soft skills in relationship-building, empathy, emotional intelligence, critical thinking, and flexibility will be integral to each agent’s augmented role. With automation and bots picking up mundane and routine inquiries, their role will require more soft skills. Indeed, you may find your success metrics and KPIs will change because of this, to measure how happy a customer was with an agent’s engagement or the strength of their relationship. 

This approach requires a personalized training plan for each agent. Some agents may require more time developing their digital skills, while others may need activities to build empathy and adaptability. Handily, advances in sentiment analysis will enable leaders to quickly assess each agent’s strengths and weaknesses and offer learning opportunities informed by this. 

Enabling exceptional customer service

Change has come to customer support. In customer expectations and needs, as well as supporting technology. To fulfill the former, your agents must be equipped with the right tools, processes, and training. As a result, your customer support team will become more agile, with fewer points of friction in their day-to-day, and more time to provide exceptional customer service. 

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