The COVID-19 pandemic that hit over three years ago disrupted most every facet of life: including how - and where - customers and employees engage with each other.
For many businesses, including contact centers and their agents, having to adapt quickly to the new reality came as a shock, with steep learning curves on new practices, technologies, and environments.
Two of the biggest changes were work-from-home (WFH) and with it, relying on collaboration technologies, notably video, in the absence of face-to-face interactions with organizations and colleagues, as well as clients, customers, and suppliers.
We now appear to be settling (if it could be called that) into a New Normal. What with the pandemic apparently mutating into an endemic: with people more comfortable about interacting with others face-to-face, and with many companies insisting employees return to offices.
But you cannot turn back time, physicists (and Cher) tell us. Not even to 2019, before COVID struck. Customers have become accustomed to ordering and engaging with others online and employees WFH. Companies have had to accept and adapt to these twin realities of the New Normal, like with integrated multichannel retail commerce and hybrid working.
Contact centers are the proverbial “pit canaries” of many critical employment and customer engagement trends, what with their direct technology-enabled interactions with customers and their reliance on a large, diverse labor supply.
To gain insights into this New Normal in the contact center space we had a virtual conversation recently with Lorrissa Horton, Senior Vice President/General Manager and Chief Product Officer, Collaboration, Webex by Cisco.
Q. Has the pandemic permanently changed how and where they work? Is WFH now the mainstream, the New Normal, equal to or supplanting bricks-and-mortar contact centers?
WFH has definitely become the new mainstream for those who used to be in office environments.
Specifically, to contact center agents, I’ve seen some of our customers successfully transition their workforce over to a hybrid work style and culture in all types of industries. Whereas some have struggled largely due to their culture and legacy tech stack.
“We see the opportunity for AI to provide insights to supervisors about potential issues for the agents without being there in-person.” —Lorrissa Horton
For those that have cultivated a successful remote or hybrid work culture for their agents, and find a great customer experience (CX) program through modern contact center technologies, I saw a pattern in the adoption of these three areas.
- SaaS Applications. Being able to use the same applications in the office is important for agents WFH. Businesses must get modern by moving over to software-as-a-service (SaaS) applications so information can easily be accessible, and agents can stay productive wherever they are.
- Fleet Management of Tools. It is incredibly imperative agents have the right devices and tools at home to provide quality service to customers. This includes accessories like headsets and the ability to use mobile phones, and other ways to connect to customers and internal teams, like digital channels.
- AI for Agent Wellness. To help supervisors and agents better operate in this new world of hybrid work, artificial intelligence (AI) can play an important role. We see the opportunity for AI to provide insights to supervisors about potential issues for the agents without being there in-person. Ultimately, this can help support agent wellbeing while also improving employee engagement for the contact center.
One observation is that younger talent or those early in their career, need more in-person interaction, guidance, and support as they start new roles. For now, I do think that a hybrid approach works best for this group since they can go into the office a few times a week.
Q. Contact centers, like other departments, scrambled to support and connect remote employees. What were some of the key issues that arose then and what are the key lessons learned?
We learned a few lessons about the challenges of remote work, and how we could help create and normalize efficiency out of the office - not just in it - through new innovations.
For our customers, we found that in order to maintain or improve their CXs during this time [the answer] was to minimize major changes for their agents so there’s less ramp-up time. This inspired us to improve our user experiences as well as build seamless integrations with other vendors in order to enable interoperability of these systems.
Another lesson we learned was the more-often-than-not situations of network and even mic failures when working remote for agents. Poor call qualities impact the bottom line and there’s a need to support our distributed workforce with better resources.
This ties into shifting how contact center supervisors need to support their agents by building a distributed network of support to solve for newer challenges, such as tools for remote work or learning the types of help agents need in remote settings.
“For our customers, we found that in order to maintain or improve their CXs...[the answer] was to minimize major changes for their agents so there’s less ramp-up time.”
To help improve internal communications between agents and to escalate to experts - who may also be remote - when needed to solve customer issues together, we integrated the Webex App into our Contact Center solution.
We also tightened existing integrations across our unified communications-as-a-service (UCaaS) and contact center-as-a-service (CCaaS) offerings.
Q. Prior to COVID-19, few employees used video to collaborate from their computers. And rarely from computers in their home offices. If they contacted or collaborated it was through audio, chat, or web text. Today, video is commonplace. What changed and why?
In the pandemic when everyone was forced into their homes unable to see loved ones, friends, and family, it created the need for human connection. This became the adoption curve and what pushed everyone to start using videos in call.
“Now we think about the home as an extension of the office. The same level of security really needs to be applied because you are discussing the same critical details, whether it's HR information, customer information, financials, etc.”
Though this trend started in the consumer space, it became much easier for businesses to adopt it as the barrier was much lower already both from a technology standpoint and from users’ willingness to communicate in that fashion. In fact, the consumer wave created the business wave for video.
From a quality of experience to bandwidth support, tech changed during the pandemic to support much lower bandwidth conditions and higher quality calls even at low bandwidth. Reliability was an absolute must, and your company’s future was dependent on video calls as it was critical - if not the most important way - to run the business.
One key area when it comes to the uptick of video that often is overlooked is security. In the past, we used a badge to enter a building or a specific floor. There was a lot of security built into the physical premise in an office: including the needs of the network.
Now we think about the home as an extension of the office. The same level of security really needs to be applied because you are discussing the same critical details, whether it’s HR information, customer information, financials, etc. IT needs to rethink their security today because people can work from anywhere and it needs to be equally secure the same way as if one is working from an office.
Q. The home environment is very different from the traditional office environment, and particularly the typical high-density contact center. What are those differences and how do they impact collaboration for remote employees?
I think the biggest difference in a home environment, especially during the pandemic, was that there were a lot of things you could not control.
For example, when you were in an in-person contact center, people were coming in and out of the place, but most were sitting at a desk and working. At home, you were homeschooling your kids, pets were roaming, your spouse across the room was taking calls, and much more. You now had to share your work environment with different people and their different purposes.
The home environment posed a lot of difficulties when it came to redefining professionalism as your environment had new, disruptive noises, visuals, backgrounds, and much more.
However, the upside is that it fueled the emergence of new remote and hybrid work innovations that allowed us not only to come across the way we wanted to in meetings, but collaborate anywhere whether in office, at-home/remote, or on-the-go.
At Webex, we released over 1,800 innovations to empower workers in hybrid work settings, including 4K Desk Cams with built in background noise cancellations, integrations with car manufacturers to take meetings on the go, and having automatic translations in meetings to over 100-plus languages.
And what we learned in these past few years is that we were just as productive and engaged, if not more, through flexible workstyles.
Q. The other part of the hybrid equation is the brick-and-mortar contact center. Has this changed from the perspective of collaboration? And when organizations refer to hybrid what does that specifically mean?
At Webex, going hybrid refers to being able to work in-office, at-home, or anywhere in between.
However, in order for contact centers to have that flexibility, there are some factors to consider such as how your company operates, managerial styles, what type of employees you have, the demographics of those employees, the tools and resources available, and more.
The brick-and-mortar contact center will still be relevant and available for certain industries and types of companies, and for certain geographies.
There are cases where even in the pandemic, some weren’t able to go fully remote simply due to preference. This speaks to the large part of contact centers needing to transform culturally and technologically.
Q. What are your recommendations for contact center organizations in optimizing the collaboration and communication experience for their remote agents and supervisors?
While both agents and supervisors are equally important in helping customers, I believe if one had to be prioritized, it’s the agents.
“...it is essential to give contact center agents the ability to quickly identify and reach experts beyond the contact center in real time.”
Agents are consistently assisting customers and when they need help or support, it should be in a fast manner as it impacts the CX. In our view, this also means making their tech experiences as easy as possible without added complexity wherever they’re located.
With the nature of the contact center changing to focus on handling more complex issues that automation cannot handle, it is essential to give contact center agents the ability to quickly identify and reach experts beyond the contact center in real time. Collaboration tools are key to enabling this necessary requirement, especially when remote.
Bottom line: agents being able to talk to peers, their supervisors, partners, and customers, they need the right tools so they can solve customer issues better, faster, and more intelligently.
And ideally, they should be enabled at home to be as productive as much as walking into a building sitting at their desks.