The current crisis has been a catalyst for change in the contact center but it hasn’t sent the industry on a radically new course. Rather, it has significantly accelerated some key shifts that were already starting to emerge. The first is the shift towards higher levels of automation. The second, the ongoing transition to the cloud and virtualizing the contact center.
The move to higher levels of automation within the contact center was a transition that was already underway to different degrees within different organizations before COVID-19 but the crisis has served to accelerate it. For years now, we have seen a gradual transition to a greater focus on self-service. When it has been set up and managed and maintained in the right way, it has been a hugely productive and cost-effective way of deflecting calls coming into the organization.
It has become a necessity too in a world where demand on contact centers is often significantly up thanks in no small part to the virus. One outsourced call center and telephone answering company, CallCare - with four centers in the North - has reportedly seen the average number of calls increase from 300,000 a month to one million, since lockdown began. It has also reported a 37 percent increase in demand during the coronavirus as compared to the same time last year.
Moreover, a survey conducted by customer engagement and channel specialists, Channel Doctors, as the COVID-19 outbreak was accelerating at the end of March, found that 15 percent of contact centers in the UK were seeing demand up by 50 percent and more, while 18 percent said they were recruiting and just 4 percent said they had had to let people go.
It is likely too that demand will continue to grow coming out the other side of this pandemic. Many consumers who perhaps didn’t use online before have now found a new way of shopping. Businesses, and given the hit to the traditional High Street, retailers in particular, will need to adapt to accommodate the growing surge of online customers.
Many organizations will therefore have a combination of higher volume of inbound interactions coming into the call center but because they are also likely to have higher levels of AI, automation, self and social service, the actual number of interactions that need a human intervention may go down. However at the same time the complexity and the skillset needed to deal with those interactions will have changed – so organizations will require different and in many cases higher level skillsets to deal with interactions.
A new kind of agent in a new kind of contact center
All of the above begs the question how can contact centers and the agents who work in them evolve to meet this new dynamic? One such way will be the ongoing transition to the cloud. The classic image of contact center agents massed together in an open plan office, each within their own booth, churning through a list of calls was already melting away before the onset of COViD-19. The pandemic has merely served to significantly accelerate that transition.
The cloud is, after all, key to supporting the new focus on homeworking that we are seeing across contact centers today. With so many agents now working remotely and so many positive about homeworking, it seems likely that this a trend that will continue post-pandemic.
Businesses today are increasingly looking at how they can best support this new virtual world and more virtual way of working which is starting to emerge. Many are coming to the conclusion that they need a cloud contact center and cloud contact center-based technologies to support it.
New kinds of engagement come to the fore
The ways in which contact interactions are carried out are likely to shift significantly also.
Agents will increasingly be dealing with more complex customer queries. Customers will often have already tried to solve their problems online before they call in. By the time they reach the agent, they are likely to be more frustrated than they were having already invested time and effort in trying to solve their problem, the complexity of the problem is likely to be higher too.
To resolve the interaction positively is likely to require either someone in the middle or back office of an organization with knowledge in a particular area or an agent with a specialized skillset.
That will increasingly lead to a different kind of agent working for contact centers. It may be someone who has another job within the organization who just gets called in to solve one specific part of a customer’s problem. It may be an agent with specialized capabilities such as finance or legal aptitudes, or IT or negotiation skills, for example. Consider the challenge of dealing with people who have booked foreign holidays this year costing thousands of pounds, only to subsequently have to cancel. From the perspective of the business they have booked through, that is likely to be a complex and emotionally difficult enquiry. Skilled negotiators will be required to remediate the situation and find a solution that maintains customer loyalty but also protects the company from significant losses at the same time. Added to this, the business might well want to draw on the services of a specialist freelancer who could sift through crowdsourced comments on social media and edit to remove comments that don’t add value or are unhelpful complaints.
Large businesses may find they have these kinds of skills in-house and be able to draw on them. Smaller companies may want to draw on the expertise of a networked individual who can work freelance for them while also working for four or five other businesses. But this can equally be applied to larger enterprises who could opt to pull in freelance agents with the right skill sets to help manage peak demands. Whether that is a food delivery business or an airline experiencing a sudden spike, they could potentially develop an app or a web portal where they could post a one-off request for people with relevant experience to take a one-off shift and relieve the immediate pressure on call queues.
With contact centers likely to employ more video technology in the future in line with the surge in video communications that we have seen during the pandemic, freelance employees with slightly different skillsets may be needed, especially around presentation capabilities and screen sharing, for example.
In summary though, the trend to more homeworking is likely to encourage workers to pursue the greater freedom and flexibility that working freelance can bring. By honing their skills around compliance or other legal issues or by sharpening their understanding in one key area of technology, they could fund the skills they need to work for multiple different businesses at the same time.
In the immediate future, most businesses are still focused on using digital as a means of reacting to the pandemic itself and navigating the challenges it brings in the most positive way possible. As we move into 2021, we will see many more businesses starting to execute on more of a medium-term strategy, encompassing the next three to five years.
In many cases, this will be focused on virtualizing the business, moving to the cloud, and finding the right structure for that and also the best way to use systems and utilize people in this new normal in order to support the agility and scalability of the business. It will be challenging but with a greater volume of interactions likely to be coming into contact centers and with more flexible structures, systems and roles increasingly coming to the fore, the future for the industry looks positive indeed.
Jeremy Payne, International VP, Enghouse Interactive