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Managing to Adapt

Managing to Adapt

Managing to Adapt

Where are contact centers going post-COVID-19 pandemic?

Four years ago, the COVID-19 pandemic struck with a deadly ferocity and impact that had not been experienceed since the 1918 influenza outbreak at the tail end of World War I.

And contact centers - along with countless lives - were upended with it.

One of the biggest impacts from this pandemic has arguably been with where and how we work.

  • The shift from corporate offices to home offices, either full-time or hybrid, appears to be permanent for many workers who enjoy their freedom from costly, dangerous, and stressful commutes, even in the face of strenuous return-to-office (RTO) efforts by many employers.
  • The online “Zoom calls” have displaced many in-person meetings, which has reduced expensive, time-consuming, and delay-prone travel.

But what have been the lasting effects in the contact center from the pandemic? How are they being managed in this so-called New Normal?

To find out, we interviewed our newest Advisory Board member, Laura Sikorski.

Q. Are contact centers different today and going forward compared with before the pandemic and if so, how?

I really do not care for the catchphrase “New Normal” when it relates to contact center management.

Our contact center industry is the most adaptive to change as their responsibility is to satisfy their customers no matter what the situation is.

Change is difficult during normal circumstances and the COVID-19 pandemic forced management to make changes to all premise-based operations. These include technology, policies and procedures, training, coaching, quality assurance, performance evaluations, selecting and interviewing candidates, on-boarding, location of employees, and how customers communicate.

Contact centers were resilient here. The line staff and management worked together, and overall customers were satisfied.

“...today [customers] are back to wanting to do business with you on their terms...” —Laura Sikorski

For those whose technology was already in the cloud, they were able to switch gears very quickly. The IT department made the connectivity/collaboration changes with all appropriate vendors to ensure home workers had telephones, headsets, and PCs/laptops. Along with access to their time clocks, email, CRM, product knowledge, intranet, file support, voice/video conferencing, security, and PCI compliance.

This was NOT an easy task!

If technology was premise-based, vendors quickly made the decision to offer cloud solutions, and many did so at no cost for a predetermined period.

The challenge, then, was to get staff to work-from-home (WFH) and feel comfortable and assured that all would be okay.

THEN…the hybrid work model evolved. Staff came back to the office for 1-3 days and worked from home 1-3 days.

Management now had to re-use/update premise-based workflows and integrate home workflows into their operations. A workforce management (WFM) nightmare ensued. Technology helped here for daily scheduling, ad hoc staffing changes, forecasting, and budgets.

It did become a bit confusing especially if agent direct reports were working in a hybrid model and they could only meet via technology. Again, staff have adapted!

Some contact centers have even opened additional locations in the U.S. or outsourced to nearshore or offshore companies. Please keep in mind that U.S. site selection should be where the contact center labor pool is available (less than 3% of the workforce is employed by contact centers) and in favorable time zones.

Due to the pandemic, our entire world, both business and personal, was turned upside down. However, we got through it with much success and very few scars.

Q. Have you seen changes in customer expectations, employee expectations pre-and post-pandemic? If so, what are they and their drivers?

During the pandemic, customers were very understanding. However, today they are back to wanting to do business with you on their terms, when they want, on the method or channel of their choice, and they expect the same service regardless of the method or channel.

In response:

  • Your “external” customers should get accurate and courteous service from the first person they interact with without needing to be transferred to anyone else during their interactions.
  • Your “internal” customers should have quick access to information and the authority to make decisions so that they can address your customers’ needs and concerns.
  • Town halls, video chats, and instant messaging should be policy.
  • Communication channels for staff to collaborate, recognize one another, and provide candid feedback without fear of repercussion are a must.

Keep in mind, customer service is what you do for your customers at a specific time to help with an issue. Customer experience is how your customers feel about you and your brand. A positive experience will create loyalty.

Now, more than ever, customer journey mapping should be part of your company’s standards for every situation that a customer reaches out. It is also an excellent training tool!

Q. Please discuss WFH in the contact center. Is WFH advancing, retreating, or staying the same since the pandemic? Does it have a role to play and if so what is it?

Whether you decide to bring all staff back to the office full-time, or have some type of hybrid WFH model, you should survey your current remote workers on how they feel about it.

Here are a few questions to ask them:

  • What was/is the most frustrating about WFH?
  • What did/do you like/dislike?
  • Do you want to continue working away from the office full-time or would you prefer part-time?
  • If part-time, how many days/hours in the office per week?
  • If you continue to WFH, do we need to restrict the hours of the day you are reachable?
  • Did we reach out to you too often/too little during the day?
  • Where did we miss the mark on helping you transition to WFH?
  • What could we have done better?

Obviously “cloud” connectivity for remote workers, as stated earlier, was the fastest way to get your staff up and running when the pandemic first arrived.

Here are a few questions to ask yourself:

  • What have you learned if you want to continue a WFH hybrid model?
  • Was your security and compliance weak in the beginning and have you implemented the appropriate changes?
  • Do you have the right backup/business continuity plans when your network is down?
  • Did you rely too much on your employees to make sure they had the correct internet connectivity/bandwidth in their home offices?
  • Should you be supplying laptops, printers, headsets?
  • How did you handle remote worker IT problems and/or policy questions?
  • What could you have done better?

For new-hire remote workers, the job description must have the same categories/headings as for office workers. However, it must clearly indicate REMOTE in the title of the position you are looking to fill, the geographic location for the main contact center site, and that travel to a facility for training may be required.

“...you should survey your current remote workers on how they feel about it.”

The first candidate interview should be done by video. Remember, all remote workers require collaboration and communication methodologies, a clear understanding of their routine deliverables and performance, and [must] receive guidance on how to separate work-from-home activities.

Q. Similarly, has the on-premise contact center changed since pre-pandemic, and if so why, and how?

I do not feel the on-premise contact center since-pre-pandemic has operationally changed. However, they have fine-tuned how they operate from a policy and procedures perspective. The pandemic forced a deep dive into the adage “we have always done it that way” to let’s keep it simple and to the point.

Q. Have there been any effective new methods or tools to help manage centers in today’s New Normal?

I think collaboration software is the best thing since “sliced bread.” I was reluctant in the beginning to use it as a tool in my consulting business and now I cannot live without it!

Q. What is your advice to contact center managers to help them succeed in this environment?

Now that we are moving quickly to get back to whatever we think of as normalcy, I would like to share what I think are the lessons learned for the contact center industry regardless of all-office, all-home, or hybrid work models.

If you are like me, we have read scores of articles telling us the right way to handle the critical components of people, process, and technology and what your company’s priorities should be.

“...the job description...must clearly indicate remote in the title of the position you are looking to fill...”

I would like to suggest we all take a deep breath and focus on the following: your customers, your employees, and the technology that will enable an interaction to be a pleasant and profitable experience.

Why do customers contact your company? My theory is simple. You have what they need at the right price, the contact method of their choice and deliver what they want in the timeframe they expect.

What this means for your employees is also simple. That they have the resources they need at their fingertips, are empowered to make it happen, and understand that their primary responsibility is to make your customers happy.

Remember to “Think Like a Customer” and that happy employees mean happy customers!

If you would like to contact Laura, you can reach her at [email protected].

Brendan Read

Brendan Read

Brendan Read is Editor-in-Chief of Contact Center Pipeline. He has been covering and working in customer service and sales and for contact center companies for most of his career. Brendan has edited and written for leading industry publications and has been an industry analyst. He also has authored and co-authored books on contact center design, customer support, and working from home.

Brendan can be reached at [email protected].

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