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3 Stories of COVID’s Impact on the Contact Center

Workers are largely remaining at home. What does all of this mean to the contact center business, and how can we morph this into something more workable than what we have today?

It’s been six months since we’ve:

  • Moved our college students home
  • Started homeschooling our children
  • Relocated our work to a remote/home work setup
  • Migrated our business life to a blend of personal and professional
  • Endured hours of video calls while juggling all of the above (and more)

And for most, there is no end in sight.

Sure, some states are “green.” Many are opening, and children are going back to school—but through all of this, workers are largely remaining at home.

What does all of this mean to the contact center business, and how can we morph this into something more workable than what we have today? Here are some of the factors affecting the way we do business.

  • If you work in a public service industry, residents or customers are more reliant than ever on your services.
  • You’re using channels to try to educate, but really funneling them back into the contact center. For example, you may be using a Virtual Assistant (VA or BOT) to handle volume, but putting a phone number at the end for customers to call for more information.
  • You may be waiting for customers to call you instead of proactively reaching out to them. Should you be reaching out? Let’s face it: not everyone needs to know every policy change, so how do you proactively reach out to customers in a focused or targeted fashion?
  • Customers are now in a situation where they need to ask for leniency—such as mortgage, insurance, or credit card relief.

Let’s start by exploring some of the stories I’ve heard along the way.

Story #1: Volumes keep increasing, organizations are desperate to figure out how to keep service levels in check and meet corporate and customer goals.

For “volumes,” I mean everywhere: calls, IVR hits and bailouts, emails, chats, SMS… literally everywhere.

Our first step in mitigating this is to understand where these volumes are coming from. Here are some likely causes:

 You’ve changed your policies and procedures and customers need to understand these changes.

  • The message regarding the actions customers need to take is unclear.
  • You haven’t informed your customers yet.
  • The approaches aren’t consistent between the channels.
  • Customers are hopeful that you’ll make an exception for them.

While it is relatively easy to change the first few suggestions, others will take more thought.

The message regarding the actions customers need to take is unclear.

While some customers are interested in why you made changes, many are not. Those who are uninterested don’t have the patience to wade through all the rhetoric to get to their answer. Remember: they want to get in and out as quickly as possible, so just tell them in plain speak what the new policy is. You can then put your disclaimers in place if needed.

You haven’t informed your customers yet.

Well, maybe you can’t—although I’m remiss in thinking of a situation where this is true today. Does it need to be verbal, with proof? If so, there are ways to automate this without using your human resources.

The approaches aren’t consistent between the channels.

Does your website policy match your app policy and your IVR statement? Are your agents able to modify the policy (which causes people to contact you)? Any inconsistencies between modalities drive customers into your contact center to ask for clarity. Many times, different departments are in control of different modalities. Contact centers are often responsible for the IVR and inbound traffic. Marketing may be responsible for the website and app. Depending on how you use outbound channels, it could be either department. Of course, legal, security, and other departments need to weigh in. I suggest having a multi-disciplinary group at this time to ensure consistency throughout and that all needs are being met.

Customers are hopeful that you’ll make an exception for them.

Situations like this drive volume into a contact center if customers can’t get leniency in any other way. Should a customer call you, and the exception is granted, customers will continue to call – this makes logical sense. If you do this all the time for certain situations (e.g., when a customer is always good for payment but now needs an extra month or a lower payment), what is the harm in granting it without requiring your valuable resources to get involved? Automation can allow you to write the rules and, after acknowledging who the customer is and why they are contacting you (e.g., are they looking for help on a payment schedule?), systems can provide this alternative to them. If it is acceptable, then the customer won’t need to speak to an agent.

Story #2: There are much longer talk times than ever before.

This may go hand-in-hand with story #1, but I believe we need to look a bit deeper.

What is the root cause of this?

  • Customers can’t find the answer.
  • Customers need to re-explain themselves.
  • Agents and customers are commiserating on the current pandemic situation.
  • Agents are reiterating policy that you could have educated customers on elsewhere.

Customers can’t find the answer.

Believe it or not, there are customers who’ve searched everywhere possible and still can’t find the answer to their question. They will tell you that they’ve searched all over the place, and if that’s truly the case, then please ask yourself if you’ve designed your website and app to fit your needs rather than theirs. Is it really easy to use? Is it cluttered with way too much information? Have you thought about putting in a virtual assistant? You probably have a search feature. Do you wonder what the differences are? When you search for an item, you’re presented with many possibilities. If your customer doesn’t ask or answer the way you think they do, then search isn’t working for them. A virtual assistant—trained over time—can help tremendously with this.

And by the way, the same process is true with the IVR.

Customers need to re-explain themselves.

Let’s all start by agreeing that the customer has been trying to find the answer before reaching out to you. If you agree, then delve into the ways you’re helping them. First, are you helping them? Probably so, but apparently not quite enough. Why don’t you inform the agent where the customer became frustrated and had to escalate to them? There are technologies available today that can take whatever automation (BOTs or VAs, web portal, chat sessions, mobile apps, IVRs, and proactive notifications) and not only alert the agent, but let them know what the customer has been trying to do. It is reported that you can save anywhere from 30 seconds to 2 minutes by letting the agent receive this information. That adds up: for 500,000 calls at 2 minutes per call, that equates to 16,666 hours or 8 full-time employees. Numbers aside: customer AND agent satisfaction are increased here—and during this time, who can afford to lose a trained agent?

Agents and customers are commiserating during this pandemic.

Yes, they are. There is common ground here. Everyone is home. Babies are crying in the background, dogs are barking, interruptions are happening. Stress about staying home or going back to the office is at an all-time high. By the way, fraudsters know this, too, and are using it to steal identities—more on that later.

Agents are reiterating policy that you could have educated customers on elsewhere.

One hospital system I’ve been working with has a big change in policy. Due to social distancing guidelines, they have to set appointments for tests. This means all tests, not just COVID-related ones. Prior to COVID, if a patient needed a test (such as a simple blood test) for a scheduled outpatient procedure, they could just walk into the testing center. Now, this needs to be scheduled. To make matters even more difficult, they can’t just go for a COVID test: they need to see their primary care physician (again a scheduled activity), then obtain a prescription for the test, then schedule the test. It takes quite some time to explain this to a patient, especially one that may be distressed over an upcoming procedure, or the virus. This situation isn’t exclusive to the healthcare vertical. It is happening in businesses everywhere that have made changes to existing processes.

There’s a way to help! Through automation, you can inform patients or customers on the process, and it can be done wherever customers view information. You can also proactively reach out to them. Both of these things can be done without human intervention, saving time for agents to work on more complex matters that a particular customer needs to have addressed.

Story #3: The employee is tired, has another commitment, or needs to deal with a home situation… and asks another family member or roommate to take some calls for them.

This is perhaps the most concerning story of them all. Prior to COVID, companies had a relatively secure environment where employees could be monitored more heavily, with supervisors roaming the floor with first-hand observations. Now, however, we cannot do this easily, unless we start to demand cameras (I hear whisperings of invasion of privacy here).

For years, we’ve been touting that the contact center is the face of companies for their customers. This mantra hasn’t changed, but now the face has changed, and how will you know? Customer data is now in people’s homes. Agents are now doing more “self-monitoring” than ever, and customers may be at risk.

Biometric authentication technologies have advanced quite nicely over the last 4-5 years. Most widely used is speaker authentication. I’ve been talking about how this can be used to identify a customer and all of the voices authorized to speak on an account for fraud prevention. In this context, it can be used to identify that the calls are being answered by the agent instead of someone else in the home. Although there are no numbers to report at this writing, it is a problem, and one that needs to be addressed before it gets out of hand.

Along these same lines, I’m hearing stories about agents who are using their camera to take screenshots of customer data. Is your data encrypted to the point of only knowing the bare minimum about the customer, or are you exposing names, addresses, and sensitive information? Please then consider applications that only allow for the minimum information to be exposed to the agent. As an example, do you really need to know my full name and address to let me know if my order was shipped? Will my first name suffice?

Summing It Up

There isn’t any shortage of stories out there with regard to what we’ve all been living through. Remember the term “the new normal”? I think we’re living it, at least for now. What it means is that we will be experiencing change and need to remain flexible for some time. While at first we thought this would be temporary, it may now be permanent… and that isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but if we’re continuing to work with old technology that isn’t supporting our new environment, it can’t be good.

Customers’ expectations haven’t changed. Sure, they can commiserate with our agents on the work-at-home situation, but they are still expecting a certain level of service, with their information handled quickly and securely in that new environment. They empathize that they are asking for the same information that hundreds—if not thousands—of others are asking for, but that empathy only goes so far. If your business prides itself on brand loyalty, that may be a little shaky these days.

How about if we approach the problem by using technology to help, rather than throwing people at it? How about if we create situations where we can educate customers in a fast and easy manner? Proactively reach out to them? Offer them a choice?

Customer experience technology is now rich with systems that can validate a customer and agent, show their intent, and provide context to an agent. The key is using these holistically in order to gain the maximum benefit on the bigger picture.

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About the author:
As the Senior Director of Customer Experience Strategy for ConvergeOne, Kathy Sobus leads a team with extensive experience in the contact center business and drives strategic alliances and partnerships with various vendors and providers. She is an expert in the area of customer experience and helps clients enhance their contact centers to more effectively respond to their customers’ ever-changing needs.