For contact center businesses, unexpected changes such as unplanned downtime, massive call volume increases, facility closures or other issues can wreak havoc on a team’s ability to service the customer. This can, in turn, have consequences for the brand(s) that contact center supports: 32% of consumers say they will walk away from a brand they love after just one bad experience, according to PwC. In times of crisis, when consumers may be more heavily relying on brands to solve complex challenges, provide peace of mind, deliver on a promise and, ultimately, get goods and services to those who need them most, a quality customer service experience is more business critical than ever.
But during the pandemic, in such an uncertain and unprecedented situation, how can you, as a contact center leader, maintain operations, especially when faced with stay-at-home orders, closures and financial restrictions? You know that something needs to change but might not but sure what or how to change.
As an emergency service business, Agero, a roadside assistance company, employs thousands of contact center associates that protect 115 million vehicles for companies like Toyota, Ford, Progressive and USAA, handling approximately 12 million breakdown and accident service events annually. In less than a week, we went from most of our teams handling calls in one of our brick-and-mortar sites to 91% of our contact center base working remotely, and we have continued executing at blazing speed and with 24x7x365 service delivery.
To do this, we needed to have the IT, the operations and the workforce management oversight in place. Here, I share with you the best practices we employed in response to COVID-19, as well as my advice for those still struggling with pandemic-related challenges.
The global pandemic has forced upon us a new digital work reality, one that is changing very dramatically, very rapidly. When it comes to technology, now is not the time to rest on your laurels; to pull off uninterrupted service, the right IT infrastructure must be in place. Whether you previously had plans to go digital or not, you need to start or continue moving forward with a transformation. These projects will likely be more difficult in the current environment, but you place your business at risk by delaying, stalling or canceling these initiatives. Businesses that aren’t digital businesses will be left behind, and when this moment in time passes, we won’t simply bounce back to what once was but will have entered into an entirely new normal.
Migrating IT infrastructure can allow you to deliver more seamless care to customers while you face staffing challenges resulting from “stay safe, stay home” orders, including reduced call wait times, and greater phone line capacity and queuing, while automation can reduce live call needs overall. These changes can enable your system to have greater stability and resiliency and empower you to route calls as needed, aligning volume with the right support.
Whether you move all your infrastructure or just some of it to the cloud, your business will become infinitely more flexible, scalable and nimble. You will be able to enhance capacity and explore new technologies—such as automation—that will help your business become far more efficient. Cloud will also enable you to deploy failover regions and availability zones, making operations more reliable and resilient. With cloud, you will also be able to test new applications more easily, make changes on the fly and increase the speed of software updates and releases, allowing your teams to work on the most up-to-date technology possible.
Robust and secure cloud-based collaboration technologies, such as Office 365, can help you spin up virtual environments so that employees needn’t be hardwired into local access lines to sign into business software. Tools like Zoom and Slack can help project-manage and keep teams in touch with one other.
To implement this all, consider growing and skilling your internal IT team organically by bringing on vendors that can help teach them, but won’t replace them. With this approach, you can leverage deep historical and institutional knowledge for quicker turnaround time.
Automation can streamline operations and drive efficiencies for your team, especially if you are working with a reduced staff. Mobile API integrations and on-demand interactive web apps (whereby customers calling in via smartphone are provided a link they can use to open a self-service app-like web experience to complete their request) can help customers access support more quickly while enabling routing of more emergent situations directly to your contact center employees, allowing them to spend more of their time on critical-needs cases.
Duplicate service regions can enable greater stability of voice and data transfer to and from call centers for better availability, capacity, connection and call quality. Investments should be made in hard-line back-up systems and updates to diverse fiber phone lines, session board controllers and software-defined networking protocols. Additionally, with the cloud, you’ll be able to better monitor across your entire phone system, gaining visibility into real-time calls to ensure quality.
Continuity and disaster recovery plans need to be in place and must outline the appropriate protocols, policies and procedures to enact in the case a situation puts the business at risk. These plans should provide not only steps management should take for minor issues, but in-depth guidance on how to handle major crises. The plans also should be developed hand-in-hand with company leadership. Steps to take around staffing, facilities management, IT, stakeholder communication, emergency services and more should all be included. If you don’t have a disaster recovery plan in place, create one. If you did, but it didn’t include scenarios such as a global pandemic (whose did?), update your current documentation.
Serious situations call for action committees—groups of individuals from across your company and contact center organization responsible for decision-making. Each participant should be assigned a role (tracking local news and government regulation and communicating with the team, leading internal employee communications, acting as the voice of the customer, etc.). This group should have the designated power to act nimbly on behalf of the company at large without being mired by red tape and internal politics.
Then practice, practice, practice. Simulated event testing can enable your teams to understand how and when to use certain tools and protocols and ensure they are working as needed—these sessions will also put your IT to the test.
Very few organizations, if any, could have been fully prepared for the current global situation. We are dealing with an event unprecedented in our time. Is important that your team is prepared to make hard decisions fast, and be flexible and adaptable. In any type of crisis, speed is of the essence, innovation must happen on the fly and you’ll need to scale your thinking.
Worker safety should be of the utmost importance. Any disaster recovery and crisis plan should include how site leadership will keep employees safe during any situation. In the case of the global pandemic, in addition to enacting work-from-home policies where possible, this includes robust cleaning of facilities and social distancing for any workers that must remain on site. You should also consider realigning worker shifts to minimize the number of people physically on location at any given time.
As with any employee working remotely, there are likely to be distractions, background noises and other minor telephony issues (we’ve all seen and now have likely lived through our own version of “Children interrupt BBC News interview”). Increasing the number of QA sessions to listen for environmental noise or track for other challenges such as headphone feedback or connection static created by the new remote work process will help you better understand what your employees need to service customers the right way.
One of the biggest lessons we learned during our process to transition our teams off-site was the need to clearly tell our workforce what steps we were taking and why. Remember that, in any crisis situation, significant change to your employees’ typical routine will be confusing and disruptive. While actions are taken to ensure the safety and ongoing productivity of your teams, employees want to—and deserve to—know what the company is planning.
Be sure to set aside time for management to speak directly with staff and begin a regular cadence of internal communications, whether through email or virtual meeting. It will also be helpful to set up information and resource centers on intranets, where employees can go to read FAQs, download materials they might need and more. Open and honest communication will be key to ensuring any transition goes as smoothly as possible.
When your customer reaches out to your contact center organization, they need help and they want to know someone is listening. It is therefore important to recognize that human empathy is just as vital as technological enablement. Customer satisfaction surveys typically find that in a stressful event, consumers appreciate the human connection. That personal touch must be a conscious goal, not an aspirational hope. Investments in continuous training as well as growth and development opportunities for your employees is vital. Unless it is not feasible, continue your employee training activities virtually and provide them with the guidance and tools they need to handle customers that may be more confused, frustrated or angrier than normal.
It has been made abundantly clear that when employees work remotely, they can face difficulties separating their work life from their home life. This is especially true under current pandemic conditions with schools closed and parents now acting as both employee and teacher. To help your workforce maintain engagement and productivity, make it clear that you are listening to their concerns, acknowledge their challenges and provide resources to associates looking for guidance.
It will also be important to foster your company culture virtually. Try to move some of the same fun, morale-building activities you had in your sites to this new remote environment. This can be done through online activities like silly hat day, bring your family to work, trivia nights, children’s story times, games and contests.
In health-related cases such as these, you may also consider working with HR to ensure affordable access to telehealth options and evaluate adjustments to time-off and sick-leave policies to ensure employees can take the time they need should they become ill or are required to take care of a loved one.
Prepare for and Embrace Change
When we come out on the other side of this global crisis, our businesses will have changed fundamentally. It is unlikely you will reestablish a fully local workforce with no virtual employees. You will need to prepare for, embrace this change, and realize it can make you a better contact center operation and enterprise for what will be the new future.