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This article will highlight the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic on the client service sector, and the winds of digital transformation change experienced by management as contact centers slowly return back to their ordinary courses of business.
It is evident that COVID-19 has changed the landscape of our lives as we know it, including the workplace. However, this unprecedented time has proven to be instrumental in laying the groundwork for the future as well as tested businesses to adapt to the new status quo at a considerably accelerated pace. It is nearly once in a lifetime that virtually every industry, marketplace, and business throughout the world can be simultaneously upended by devastating circumstances. The COVID-19 crisis has been one of these rare, shared experiences. Discussed even more commonly than the weather, the pandemic has become one of those topics management teams have contemplated on a continuous basis, as the ripple effects have been felt by both internal personnel and clients no matter where they work or live.
The pandemic forced contact centers to confront numerous unforeseen challenges. While call centers initially experienced a dramatic increase in inbound customer call volumes, they also had to contend with decreased agency capacity and diminished service capacity. As a result, the average hold times for inbound calls skyrocketed exponentially. All this occurred at a time when delivering an optimized client experience was paramount. Furthermore, call center activity was disrupted with the transition to work from home, as the remote contact center became the new normal. Coronavirus has forced many organizations to reimagine their operating models and technology requirements needed to fulfill their core strategies. It has presented the opportunity for call centers to leverage essential technologies including cloud services, machine learning tools and artificial intelligence, to revamp and enhance their operations. Furthermore, it has cemented the imperative for management teams to tackle the changing paradigm in experience preferences demanded by their clients head-on.
The insights highlighted within this paper are a synopsis of conversations with clients and Sia’s insight gained through discussions with other leaders in our industry. We outline a variety of technology solutions that can assist contact center teams in combating challenges such as increased call volumes, achieving omnichannel communication strategies and devising new ways to provide support at times that are critical to their clients’ success.
Sir Winston Churchill advised us to never waste a crisis. Below are the lessons gleaned over the past year’s experiences and how unforeseen circumstances have forever changed the contact center environment. This past crisis gives us all the opportunity to learn and adapt so we can perhaps, be better prepared for whatever the next unpredictable event is to ravage the business world.
The most challenging years in contemporary times for almost every industry were 2020 and 2021, as these tumultuous times forced contact centers to reexamine the ways they manage their staff and much of this was due to the plethora of novel market forces putting immense pressure on the customer experience (CX) industry at the same time. Sia Partners note some of the driving forces which influenced management teams throughout the pandemic below and have observed many organizations still searching for ways to adapt and champion these issues:
The sheer number of customers contacting brands during the crisis was overwhelming for many of our clients and the marketplace in general. Contact and call volumes rose exponentially for many brands. In some cases, the increase quite literally happened overnight.
The issues customers brought were also more complex than average issues. They were asking questions brands did not yet have answers for. They had expectations that just couldn’t be fulfilled within normal resolution models.
Issues were not only more complex; they were compounded. Once customers were able to get through to an agent, they felt they must attempt to resolve as many issues at once, fearing they wouldn’t easily get another chance.
In the midst of this rise in outreach from customers, brands found themselves with empty offices. Agents attempted to work from home while being hampered by contact center systems that simply were not designed for remote capabilities.
Resolutions for customers were often just not possible. Interruptions in supply chains, overwhelmed departments, and general uncertainty often made serving customers a confounding challenge.
Hold time estimations increased exponentially in mere days for many of our clients. Services that routinely experienced average peak hold times of 15 minutes expanded to 60 minutes or more. Organizations even witnessed fringe cases of four, 10, and even more than 24 hours of hold time in the travel industry. In many cases telephony systems themselves were not able to address volumes.
Volumes also increased due to anxious customers contacting brands multiple times through several channels in an attempt to solve a single issue. The already painfully high volumes were exacerbated by the onslaught of attempts.
The pandemic caused a seismic shift in organizational structures at businesses ranging from brick-and-mortar restaurants all the way to widespread corporate layoffs. Business owners and organizations were suddenly faced with making difficult decisions that they had little to no prior exposure to. For example, finding ways to collaborate online and ensuring employee participation became a necessity for operational efficiency. Firms such as Zoom and Cisco pioneered what collaboration and meetings looked like for the entirety of 2020. In contrast, the service industry initially suffered due to uncertainty around the virus but also quickly adapted as customer’s needs and expectations switched to a more touchless model. E-commerce started to soar as it ensured contactless exchange of goods. These industry success stories paved the way for conversation topics that we encounter frequently today, whether it be a hybrid working model or AI driven shopping experiences. Adapting to remote work was also a significant part of the post-pandemic work environment. The acceleration factor for remote work is particularly high as the nature of the adjustment and its impact was truly global. Exploration and investment into AI and Machine Learning also saw an uptick as businesses saw value in automation like never before.
In March of 2020 we saw contact volumes hockey stick upward to truly never-before-seen levels as customers attempted to cancel travel plans and request refunds. These surges then dropped almost as quickly as they rose once demand for travel became drastically de-prioritized.
This left the travel industry with the challenge of attempting to adapt from one extreme to the other, throwing standard operating procedures in disarray.
Now, U.S. airlines are scrambling to add staff and upgrade technology as they face anger over prolonged call center wait times while tackling a surge in air travel following COVID-19 vaccinations. (Reuters.)
The finance and banking industry saw some gradual surges with peaks caused by the PPP loans and other financial assistance offered by the CARES Act, as clients were losing their jobs and looking for relief from their lenders. For many, contact volume plateaued and remained higher than average. But virtually all business previously conducted in person was now shifted to voice or video calls.
As retail outlets shifted their activities to online sales and services, contact volumes increased due to two main factors: 1) previously in-store business now had to be conducted online or through voice channels, and 2) all service agents effectively became sales support agents (while still needing to fulfill their original service roles).
Departmental boundaries have also blurred. Especially in the retail sector, queues usually focused on service or help desk activities found themselves assisting with sales activities. And the customers needing sales help often blended into needing shipping, returns, and even item section assistance.
Customers became even more unconcerned with the intended role of the service agent helping them.
Whether contacting through voice, chat, email, or even text, customers were wary of wasting their opportunity to solve their purchase problems.
This has pushed some brands to think less in a “not my job” mentality and adopt a more, entrepreneurial, “it’s all our job” approach. Even if an agent is not equipped to help a customer’s issue, the customer expects their conversation to continue as seamlessly as possible.
Each of the above industries noted above was forced to navigate surges in contact volume while attempting to transition their workforce to remote environments. This became especially hard for those with activities that relied on face-to-face contact.
Delivering an Optimized Client Experience is a Prevailing Trend
Amid the pandemic, customer service was more important than ever. COVID-19 underscored the importance of the customer experience and has accelerated the focus on building meaningful and personalized user experiences at every touchpoint with the company. According to HubSpot, 93% of consumers are more likely to purchase again from brands with exceptional customer service. On the other hand, 61% have parted with a business because of poor service. This renewed emphasis on unique and positive customer experiences has made it essential for call center managers to improve customer satisfaction in order to appropriately satisfy these customer expectations.
Smartphone use has only gone up during the recent quarantine period. Because of this, customers may be even more likely to use a voice line in some cases due to click-to-call capabilities inherent with most smartphone operating systems. If they need service, and a smartphone is in hand, then calling is a no-brainer for many.
Customers have been ready to adopt texting with brands for several years now and are merely waiting for brands to catch-up with this CX expectation. The WFH environment increases the expectation from customers that brands will meet them where they are, on their channel of choice. Many may have resisted contacting brands during business hours in an office setting. But a WFH environment opens these same clients up to much more asynchronous communication over text with family, friends—and yes, even brands.
One CX feature gaining rapid adoption is the utilization of callback at the front of the IVR (interactive voice response.) For several of our clients, call volume increased exponentially in just a few weeks. Reporting hours-long hold times only encouraged callers to hang up and call again later, sometimes dozens of (or even more) times a day.
Rather than placing clients on-hold, by deploying solutions like VHT's Mindful platform, callback options can eliminate repeat calls and ensure predictability in both employees’ and customers’ schedules. The volume of clients requiring assistance may not decrease, but overall call volume will be smoothed significantly (particularly during “spike” periods), once callers have a predictable times where they will be assisted and are finding their needs addressed with greater detail and care. This means using a full callback experience—complete with voice callback offerings, automated text notifications, and web-based scheduling—making workforce management more efficient and CX more fluid and of higher quality.
As remote working becomes more of a prevalent and long-term trend, businesses are beginning to consider what resources they need to consult in order to support widespread transition. While most in- house roles can be re-engineered to better suit the work-from-home model, the same isn't necessarily true for contact center personnel. However, client service agents are essential, as they serve as the direct liaison between any organization and its customers. Although we think of contact center personnel having a substantial impact in the private sector, agents also play a key role in delivering services such as government advisory and assistance for public services - especially during tumultuous times such as the pandemic, which the world has been experiencing.
This transition to a work-from-home environment has been pronounced with challenges—but its necessity can’t be ignored. The highlighted transition-positioned brands ready for a move to cloud in stark contrast to those that weren’t. Even just the lack of a proper VPN connection crippled many contact centers during a period when contact volumes were at all-time highs.
While many brands implemented systems to fill the gap—sometimes literally overnight—they now realize the need to crystalize the infrastructure which facilitated this rapid transition and make it both permanent and scalable. More importantly than just adopting new technology, brands must dedicate attention to updating their training, security procedures and workforce management tactics. While having systems that promote flexibility used to be a nice-to-have, they have quickly become essential to surviving in the new client service environment. Furthermore, companies still resisting the WFH and cloud-based transition are now putting themselves at risk to be overtaken by competitors in-terms of CX ratings and business growth.
Many organizations felt as though they needed to transform from the Stone Age to the Space Age in a matter of days through integrating new technologies and shifting toward data-driven management.
One of the main transitions the pandemic accelerated was the movement toward cloud-based platforms.
Companies already in the process of a migration or juggling the infrastructure of a hybrid environment found they had to move to a nearly unrestricted adoption of cloud-based SaaS platforms to enable work-from-home activities. Brands without a plan to transition to cloud-based environments found themselves at a loss for direction and unable to pivot their human capital and technology strategies when the time called for reformation.
Organizations which are “in the cloud” now will not be going back. Any accelerations in business model updates or completed transitions are here to stay. The risk of premise-based telephony and other support systems has been laid bare.
Artificial intelligence has seen heightened take-up within the contact center domain, as organizations have searched for opportunities to shift their call volumes away from high-volume timeframes, in order to balance their agents’ schedules and reduce burnout. In many financial institutions, where clients have experienced an uptick in anxiety over the economic impacts of the Covid-19 pandemic, artificial intelligence applications are being deployed to tackle high volumes of low-value calls (typically non- revenue-generating in nature). These organizations have found that AI can assist service and operational functions within their businesses by driving streamlined automation and improved client experience. Conversational AI: a more recent and rapidly-advancing technology, is being seen leveraged across enterprises within all functions, including the front office, middle office and back- office support, in order to facilitate “quick wins” on an automated basis, for client inquiries which otherwise previously would have required human interaction, typically diverting valuable human capital resources away from client service obligations that are tougher to tackle.
Continual learning capabilities of more advanced AI technologies can help organizations harness the power of client inquiries and learn from their mistakes and successes as they occur. As more organizations strive toward a data-driven approach to management, mistakes can be costly and management is realizing that painting their organizational strategy is better achieved by numbers, rather than less-quantitative measures. AI not only can resolve client inquiries rapidly and understand the exact information to query from internal databases but can learn from its users’ unique experiences with the contact center, in order to continuously improve and cultivate more positive client interactions and experiences.
The COVID-19 pandemic will always be etched in our minds as a time of great precariousness and transformation. As bleak as the virus might be by nature, there is a silver lining attached to it as it plunged the business world into a period of quick and constant evolution. This kind of innovation and progress is rarely seen across so many industries simultaneously. This leads us to highlight some insights that worked positively from an organizational standpoint in 2020-2021:
Employees are subject to a lot more surveys and pulse checks than before. This is crucial as it not only fosters a feeling of community amongst the organization and its employees, but it also has proven to be a great tool to check on their mental well-being. The ‘humanizing’ of the workplace and continuously changing employee programs and policies also create a sense of genuine concern, which is a welcome addition to the work environment. Some businesses also reported seeing new levels of social activism and involvement from workers than in previous years.
The market has witnessed fundamental changes in its operation. Along with firms showing heightened concern for their workers, businesses must now also prove themselves to be magnetic work environments. For example, an employee can now focus on comparing themselves to industry benchmarks and ensure their work aligns with them. Additionally, we are seeing an uptick in external marketing of worker incentives, which is reason enough to believe that attractive benefits and individual-focused perks are here to stay.
With the operational landscape of contact centers changing and clients demanding more options in receiving customer service, there are a variety of solutions available for organizations seeking to minimize the effects of the COVID-19 impact on their unique business models.
As denoted in this publication, advances in artificial intelligence products have spurred a digital revolution within the customer service industry and has enabled drive-down of call volume across the organizational-board, as observed throughout Sia Partners’ engagements. Gone are the days of cumbersome virtual agents, as novel software suites can now assist organizations with developing more-customer-centric and omnichannel-oriented communication, to enable client interaction over a variety of platforms, to include voice, text and digital. Alongside providing a highly optimized and more- fluid customer experience across platforms, artificial intelligence technology can aid operational efficiency through shifting low-value call volumes from physical agents to automated channels; serving to both improve management metrics and reduce agent burnout, ultimately providing for a more tailored customer experience, with higher satisfaction rates.
In tandem with the advances observed in artificial intelligence, stands the revolution in cross-channel automated client callback technology, allowing organizations to smooth incoming call volumes and facilitate a high degree of first-call resolution interactions. Through providing clients with the opportunity to schedule call backs from agents during more low-volume timeframes, contact center management can effectively spread incoming and outbound calls evenly throughout the standard workweek in order to reduce stress on agents, decrease abandonment rates and improve client satisfaction through providing more dedicated, tailored and data-driven customer service.
In conclusion, while it’s clear that client uncertainty has driven high volumes throughout the pandemic, a data-driven contact center organization now is synonymous with a well-run contact center organization. Harnessing the power of enhanced scheduling capabilities and understanding key metrics to value, appraise and promote contact center staff is a key trend which Sia Partners has seen play out as COVID-19 has brought immense changes in the quality of service demanded from organizations. The single greatest capabilities of any contact center management’s toolkit in the wake of the pandemic will be seizing opportunities to analyze, forecast, learn, adapt and improve - and technology will continue to largely be a component in achieving operational efficiency.
Sia Partners is a next-generation management consulting firm. We offer a unique blend of AI and design capabilities, augmenting traditional consulting to deliver superior value to our clients. Through our consultants’ and partners’ depth of expertise in contact center transformation, Sia Partners has assisted numerous organizations’ contact centers with digital transformation efforts as they have sought to navigate significant changes throughout unprecedented times. We’re standing by to assist your organization with unlocking value at all-levels of your operating model.
 Hubspot: The Hard Truth About Acquisition Costs (and How Your Customers Can Save You (https://blog.hubspot.com/service/customer-acquisition-study?hubs_signup-url=blog.hubspot.com%2Fservice%2Fcustomer-service-stats&hubs_signup-cta=null)
 Forbes: Mobile Phone Use Surges During COVID-19 Lockdown
 eWeek: Consumers Like Using Text Messages to Solve Customer Service Issues