In polite and apologetic tones, Australian businesses are pleading with their customers to be patient. 

Optus is calmly letting web site visitors know it’s committed to keeping you connected, even though its Customer Care Team’s ability to respond is currently impacted. Covid-19 restrictions mean Telstra’s contact centres are operating with reduced staff, so expect “longer than usual wait times”. Qantas is currently working through the most urgent travel dates and “strongly encourages those customers travelling within the next 48 hours to contact us if needed.”

In the back office, out of customer view, the tone is more frantic as organisations develop contingency plans to protect their workers and continue to do business in a climate of extreme uncertainty. Those pressures are acutely felt in the contact centre — the frontline between panicked customers and strained businesses. 

The society-wide disruption caused by the Coronavirus pandemic has forced companies to adjust to new ways of working and technology deployments to enable contact centres to handle increased volumes, prioritise tickets and allow agents to work remotely. 

Sharon Melamed is the founder and Managing Director of Matchboard, a business matching platform, and one of the most popular requests on its platform is for contact centre outsourcing services. 

Melamed, an expert on global customer service and outsourcing trends, said that two opposite challenges are occurring across the sector, depending on which industry the business operates in. On one hand, companies in sectors hit hard by Coronavirus are letting go of contact centre employees. At the other end of the spectrum, companies are struggling to meet a surge in demand and need more capacity. 

“The type of contact centre outsourcing requests we are seeing on Matchboard has completely changed in the last two weeks,” Melamed said.

“We’ve got requests from debt collection companies needing extra capacity as consumers and businesses alike will struggle to meet their payment terms. We’ve got requests from large national employers wanting to set up a Coronavirus Employee Information hotline. And we have some businesses reaching out for urgent assistance as they do not yet have cloud platforms to manage customer contact with remote workforces.” 

The trend is also reflected in the data. Zendesk has been analysing the support interaction data of more than 20,000 global companies weekly since the outbreak. Ticket volumes have fluctuated anywhere from -17 per cent to +24 per cent week-to-week during the global Covid-19 outbreak. 

Global impact 

Across Zendesk’s platform there was a 20 per cent increase in global tickets during the week of 15 to 22 March, compared to the same period last year. The three biggest industries that have seen spikes in support requests over the past three weeks are remote work and learning companies (216 per cent), airlines (199 per cent), and grocery brands (39 per cent). Wait times have also increased across those sectors as they struggle with the increased volume and changing conditions. 

On the other hand, the number of tickets lodged with ride-sharing companies is declining as more people stay home and reduce their travel.

Source: Zendesk’s Benchmark Snapshot: The Impact of Covid-19 on CX

Conversation volumes on the LivePerson platform are up by 18 per cent since mid-February (96 per cent for airlines, 130 per cent for hospitality) as a result of Covid-19.

Customer interactions have mirrored the intensity of the crisis. According to Zendesk, markets across the Asia Pacific region are starting to see tickets stabilise as the number of cases declines in major markets like Singapore and Japan. 

The global impact of the pandemic was felt by Australian companies with offshore contact centres at the beginning of March. In the Philippines, for example, where Australian companies are the second-largest user of outsource providers, President Rodrigo Duterte locked down the outsource hubs in Luzon and Cebu earlier this month. 

“Australian companies outsourcing to South East Asia have definitely been impacted, with some large outsourcers not set up for home working at scale,” Melamed said. 

“The customer impact is that call wait times have ballooned out, and in some cases phone support has been temporarily terminated in favour of web chat, email and self-service/chatbots. This is causing huge frustration, just when people are the most anxious and stressed. There are a number of Australian-owned and -operated small and medium-size contact centre businesses in the Philippines which have done a great job acting early and successfully moving their workforce to the home.

“One of the contact centre trends that I think will come out of this pandemic is that we’ll see more of a multi-shore approach to contact centre operations to mitigate risk. This may mean having some contact centre capability onshore, including home workers, as well as sites in more than one country — for example, Fiji or South Africa, in addition to the Philippines.” 

Working from home

Fiona Keough, CEO of the Auscontact Association, said the current demand on people and systems is unparalleled and contact centres are either enacting their business continuity plans or revising their business continuity plans to include remote working or work-from-home.

That’s something Steve Perissinotto, co-founder of Vetshop Group, Australia’s largest online retailer of pet health products has already experienced. With 350,000 customers worldwide, business continuity is a critical issue.

Steven Perissinotto, cofounder, Vetshop Group

“We have 19 people in our Sunshine Coast facility and additional tech, marketing and customer service support from a 7 person team in Manila of which 3 are customer service staff.”

The speed at which government responses to coronavirus are rolling out around the world, add an extra layer of complexity.

“We moved our Manila office to work from home overnight after the govt there gave just a few hours notice of lockdown last week. We are currently transitioning our Sunshine Coast Office – or at least 14 of 19th of us – to work from home right now.”

Contact centre managers across Australia have been working around the clock to enable agents to work from their homes as social distancing and lockdown measures are enforced. While technology and systems have long existed to enable these arrangements, many companies have resisted the work-from-home model for ‘cultural’ reasons. 

Fiona Keough, CEO, Auscontact Association

Keough referenced figures Australian Bureau of Statistics has published indicating that Australian contact centre jobs have grown 35 per cent between 2016 to 2019. Most of these are on-premises roles rather than work-from-home.

“Working from home has been part of the Australian contact centre landscape for over a decade, but the takeup has been somewhat piecemeal and not well supported within organisations,” Keough said. 

“When work-from-home was first ventured as an option for working, the key challenge was technology. However, with access to the internet and cloud-based contact centre technology readily available, technology is no longer the barrier.” 

A perception from company leadership that work-from-home policies would be exploited has stopped many from pursuing the strategy. 

“The key issue surrounding work-from-home has been identified as trust. Organisations appear to trust staff when on site, but the same cannot be said when those same team members are at home,” Keough said. 

Now companies are rapidly moving workforces to home. And this period of disruption is expected to have long-lasting impacts on the industry. 

“There is no doubt that the customer contact community will not look the same in the future. However, the future for contact centres is strong, with the C-suite recognising their value,” Keough said. 

In a survey Matchboard conducted with contact centre outsourcers in mid-March, 100 per cent had moved all or part of their workforce to a work-from-home environment.

“If there’s one positive to the Coronavirus pandemic, it’s that companies all over the world have realised that work-from-home models are not only possible but beneficial to business. Contact centres are the heartbeat of companies’ communication with customers, and a home agent capability is proving essential in times of crisis,” Melamed said. 

Pete Weaklend, Senior Vice President of Solutions at Sitel Group, a global leader in customer experience management and outsourcing, indicated the group is rapidly increasing its work-from-home presence.

“We have already deployed over 10,000 associates into our Sitel at Home model during the month of March and we expect further growth to double that number in the near term,” Weaklend said. 

“We continue to grow to support the well-being and safety of our people as well as the continuity of support for our clients and their customers. We are moving quickly to protect our associates and clients — our top priority during this unprecedented time — and our Zendesk deployments were some of the fastest to move because of the platform’s tremendous flexibility.” 

Sharon Melamed, founder and Managing Director of Matchboard, working from home

Technology solutions 

“IT departments are working around the clock to identify new partners and to deploy solutions to enable their workforces to operate remotely in a safe and professional manner,” Keough said. 

In particular, cloud contact centres (CCaaS), on-hold messaging, call back, chatbots, knowledge management systems and enhanced self-service are being evaluated and implemented. 

In response, contact centre software vendors have responded by offering free software and supporting documentation and resources to help businesses navigate the challenges presented by Covid-19. 

In a blog post, Gartner analyst Olive Huang wrote that free licenses are a great gesture, but what’s more important is the speed of the transition.

“How long does it take to get it up and running, and are there guidance on implementations? Who is supporting them to transit to cloud solutions? Are partners prepared? Answer these questions before choosing a CCaaS solution so you are prepared for the knock-down effect on efforts and the changes.”

Huang also recommended offloading the non-essential and non-urgent request volume to digital channels such as email which can be enabled relatively quickly and also suited for work-from-home agents. Automation technologies will also help reduce call waiting times.

Andrew Cannington, LivePerson’s General Manager, APAC, said conversation volumes are skyrocketing for his clients. The company is looking at AI and automation to triage, resolve and escalate queries.

“More of our customers are embracing our AI capabilities to dynamically prioritise and route conversations, whether to a bot or human agent. They’re also using our dashboards to analyse the intents coming in from customers and respond accordingly,”  Cannington told Which-50. 

LivePerson’s customers are also scaling messaging services to take some of the pressure off those answering calls.

“With many call centres adopting a work-from-home approach, many of our clients are moving from voice channels to messaging, overcoming challenges with background noise, privacy concerns and landline phone access,” Cannington said. 

“Messaging is more efficient, can be done remotely, uses less bandwidth, and doesn’t have the background noise of kids and pets like voice calls do.”

Malcolm Koh, Customer Experience Strategist, Zendesk, said self-service, automation and optimising channels can help reduce the burden on support teams. 

“As a result of Covid-19, things are changing fast and in ways that are difficult to predict. Customers need brands to be there for them now more than ever, and being efficient in channel management and engagement is crucial to making this happen,” Koh said.

Technology has an integral role to play in alleviating some of the pain points and pressure on your support team during this time. But it needs to be complemented with the right processes and communication. Investing the time to get these on track combined with the right tools can help in supporting distributed teams to stay connected and help optimise volume management to provide as many of their customers as possible with the help that they need.”

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