As the COVID shutdown hit business earlier this year, it forced the rapid mass migration of contact centre agents into work-from-home arrangements. The scale of the challenge was amplified by the speed at which the shutdown happened — and the fact that at that the very same time, call volumes to contact centres exploded.

The impact of this moment, and its long-term implications, are the subject of a new ebook published by Deloitte, entitled The Contact Centre Of 2030 Can’t Wait, It’s Now… (LINK) which examines how companies responded, how they recovered, and how smart organisations not only future-proofed their approach but planned to thrive.

According to Deloitte Partner Steve Rayment, “This was all happening at the very moment that the customers who were ringing into call centres were themselves under huge stress about their personal safety and their financial safety.”

Virtually all contact centres were getting hammered during this period, he says, while noting that some industries were hit much harder than others.

The sheer volume of calls created enough pressure as it was. But for many companies, the COVID stress test was compounded by the fact that the technology they were relying on was not up to the job.

There were other problems as well, he says. “In some cases, agents simply couldn’t enter their regular facilities, and they were left with no way of doing their work.”

Normally, during a disaster, the problems are localised — even if over a large area. But this was a national and international event, and often there were no other offices or facilities that could take up the slack. For those whose technology didn’t support secure remote working, options were limited.

Adding a further complication, in countries like the Philippines and India — which supply large contact centre agent populations as outsourced service providers — the scale of the COVID infection in the community was huge, according to Rayment.

“As a company leader, you are now faced with the prospect that your offshore centre is basically no longer there.”

Another unforeseen consequence — demand for notebook computers to enable staff to work remotely — was so extreme that manufacturers were selling out across the whole of APAC.  With national borders closed and airlines grounded or greatly restricted, even this approach quickly reached its limit as it became impossible to obtain sufficient stock.

“So, you can’t get in the building, your technology doesn’t have the capacity to match the volumes, or it doesn’t support working from home. And even if you can get staff set up at home, the VPNs are getting stressed out because they can’t scale enough to handle the volumes.”

Worst affected

“Contact centres are very expensive facilities, particularly in terms of the technology that’s required, and as a result those contact centres don’t get upgraded very often,” says Rayment.

That reflects an attitude that customer service is the cost of doing business — not a strategic asset.

But companies who made this bet paid the price. According to Rayment, “The companies that struggled the most were the ones that relied on older technology that hadn’t been upgraded for a while, or was at the late stage of a refresh cycle.”

On the flip side, organisations that invested in contemporary Cloud-based solutions were far less affected.

As an example, Rayment describes the experience of one of his retail clients.

“We were working with a company that had literally just migrated off its old technology, which was well past its end of life, and onto the Cloud. They were able to send everyone home immediately. All the staff needed was a machine with a web browser.”

Not only were they able to maintain customer service levels, but they actually captured new revenue opportunities as call volumes grew 500 per cent from online sales.

“They could easily adjust their capacity to match the growth and the spike in volume. It made no difference to their operation.”

Longer-term planning

It is not surprising in the circumstances that many companies made short-term tactical choices to manage a once-a-century black swan event.

“Those tactical decisions were completely understandable, and often very effective in the short term. The only problem is that at some point those tactical decisions have to be unwound, and a solution created which addresses the customer problem more holistically,” he says.

“So while it’s great to fire up an isolated chatbot to tackle specific types of queries in the short term, what you really need are chatbots that are able to be easily integrated with other channels and customer data to be part of a connected, consistent contextual experience over any channel a client or a customer comes to you through.”

Companies also need to build systems and processes that reflect the long-term changes which the COVID disruption will usher in.

Take for example the telco sector, where contact centre channel usage actually declined once the acute moment of the crisis had passed.

Instead of battling long wait times, consumers began engaging more with self-service digital channels.

But while pushing clients off to self-service might sound like an easy money saver, this actually creates new issues.

“Having driven the shift to digital channels, there is now a heightened expectation by consumers that when they start a service inquiry online it will be able to be picked up by an agent if need be, and that any transition will be seamless across channels.”

Learn more about how organisations responded, recovered and thrived read the full e-Book: The Contact Centre Of 2030 Can’t Wait, It’s Now…

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