Adapting contact centres to COVID’s ongoing crisis mode – Jeremy Payne, International VP at Enghouse Interactive
This year, like many years before it, started out with dire warnings about the weather but in 2021 the difference was they came in the midst of a much broader and more profound crisis. Contact centres are having to flex and adapt like never before to deal with a dramatic increase in inbound calls and the introduction of new systems, processes and ways of working while at the same time meeting customer expectations which have irreversibly changed.
In terms of digitalisation, COVID arguably compressed five years of evolution into just five months at the outset of the pandemic. Like the floods, snow and ice of recent years, it taught contact centres caught up in the storm that they needed an agile flexible architecture underneath their customer service operation to manage the disruptive change and flex and adapt quickly but unlike those disruptions from the weather it showed them clearly, there was much work to do.
With the winds and snow and ice of past years, disruption to the contact centre was significant but often short-lived. Typically, contact centres caught back up over the rest of the week once the storm and often the associated spikes in demand for services had abated. With COVID, that has not been possible.
Resourcing has become more of a long-term problem. Rather than having the occasional day where reaching the office was not possible, staff have been off sick for long periods, or trying to home school. When the contact centre is hit by high volumes of calls (i.e. if there is a power outage due to adverse weather conditions, or a product recall), putting the right resources in place quickly has been challenging.
The pandemic has also brought other deep-rooted contact centre challenges into the spotlight. Organisations that had weaknesses or in their infrastructure or business process, staff training or management, found that COVID just relentlessly exploited them. In other words, if they had problems before, those problems have been put into even sharper focus.
At the same time, customer sentiment has changed. The pressure and stress people are under has stretched their patience and tolerance for systems, process and people that don’t work. And that external pressure has also cascaded into the contact centre. Customer expectations have shifted too. So when organisations move to digital systems, people expect these businesses to know who they are and what their history of interactions is. In short, they increasingly expect them to know their digital DNA and understand what the next step they were going to take would be.
Putting a plan in place
So how can businesses make their customer service operations both resilient and agile in these difficult times? They need first of all to focus on their USP – what makes them different and would make customers want to buy from them? Then it is about mapping out and optimising the customer journeys that deliver on that so that they have a slick process underpinned by software and infrastructure.
The latter capability is around being able to spin up more virtual machines in the cloud and burst and scale rapidly when the business needs to and pay for what it consumes. That’s certainly helped when it has come drawing on resources elsewhere in the organisation or in bringing in new people quickly for defined periods. But to do this properly cloud software needs to be intuitive and easy to use but it also needs to be aligned to the customer journey. Over the past 12 months, a lot of organisations rushed to the cloud but often they did so in a tactical rather than strategic way.
They hadn’t thought through the customer journey, aligned their new cloud infrastructure to it, and ensured that the process has got easier for the agent and quicker and smoother for the customer. If they have done things this way, they may have replicated some of the problems they had in the physical world in the virtual cloud world. Some companies have had the realisation that while the cloud got them through the crisis it might not get them through the next three years.
The efficiency, or lack of it, in their new process will soon highlight issues in their approach. Advanced technologies like AI, bots, self-service and social customer service have all grown and accelerated over the last year, so lots of the routine interactions are being managed through these channels.
By the time a customer makes a call to the contact centre they have typically already tried one or more of those approaches but the fact that they are now calling in probably highlights a problem. Either the bots themselves are not very good or the problem the customer is looking to solve is more complex than the bots were designed to cope with. There is likely to be the need for a rethink and even a redesign of infrastructure and process – those key elements of a strong and flexible contact centre approach.
In long-term crisis mode
In the past, the concept of weatherproofing the contact centre was seen as being about the ability to flex and adapt when crises hit, whether those were about snowstorms or floods, icy roads or hurricanes. Today, as the pandemic continues, there is growing understanding, that contact centres need to strengthen their approach so that they are able to deal with an ongoing crisis mode and adapt to rapid changes all the time. Digitalisation is a must in these times but it must also be backed by the processes and a robust, resilient and infrastructure that can adapt and change to meet whatever challenges the future might bring.
Jeremy Payne is International VP at Enghouse Interactive
Enghouse Interactive is a subsidiary of Enghouse, a Canadian publicly traded company (TSX:ENGH), which provides enterprise software solutions focusing on remote work, visual computing and communications for next-generation software-defined networks. The Company’s two-pronged growth strategy focuses on internal growth and acquisitions, which, to date, have been funded through operating cash flows. The Company is well capitalized, has nominal long-term debt and is organized around two business segments: the Interactive Management Group and the Asset Management Group.
For additional information about Enghouse Interactive view their Company Profile