Delivering customer service during COVID-19
During these unprecedented times, businesses and consumers are having to adapt to new ways of working and this is already having a significant impact on customer service teams. Many industries, such as grocers and travel companies, are seeing unmanageable spikes in call volumes. Others are seeing volumes drop off, for example, in the motor insurance industry as fewer people are driving. On top of this, more and more businesses are either choosing to or are being mandated to move their entire workforce to work from home.
As this ‘new normal’ establishes itself, the way we deliver customer service will need to quickly move to a new operating model. However, as we come out of the crisis and the restrictions on our everyday life begin to ease, how well set up will you be to deal with the medium term impacts of pent up demand and how enduring will the changes you’ve made be in the long term?
Managing the ‘new normal’
As people’s everyday lives are impacted by the restrictive measures being put in place it has led to increasing call surges to contact centres, as individuals seek information. Contact centres are seeing three fundamental impacts:
Managing customer expectations: Early indications are that, at least amongst a proportion of customers, there is a level of acceptance that things aren’t as they normally are. Many people’s attitude is that, we’re ‘in this together’, with the expectation that getting through to someone may be more difficult than usual. However the organisations that manage this crisis by supporting their customers who are in need will be the ones that come out of it with an enhanced, or at least protected reputation with their customers.
Managing demand: Unpredictable spikes in demand, combined with increased staff absence through sickness make it difficult to meet inbound demand, and customers are already experiencing long wait times.
Managing the virtual contact centre: Whilst most organisations have a business continuity plan in place, not all of them planned for the total closure of their facilities and the imperative for their people to work from home. This is both a technology and an operational challenge for many due to inadequate remote access and limited planning in place to manage the dispersed workforce.
So, how best to manage this ‘new normal’? We’re seeing organisations take a prioritised approach to the challenge, based around getting the ‘basics’ in place first and then making more strategic, longer term choices. The key steps for success we see are:
- Listening and communicating: Open and honest communication is key. Many organisations have already made customers aware of their reduced capacity and have pointed them to existing self-serve channels, including email, social and automated telephone messaging. Beyond this, demonstrating that you are listening and reacting appropriately by utilising social listening capability and contact analytics could help build customer intimacy in difficult times.
- Using third party support effectively: Outsourced service centres, while experiencing their own challenges, usually have a better level of resource flexibility to help you manage peaks in demand. Using these organisations effectively means routing the right enquiries to the right people with the right skills and training to handle them. If you’re establishing an outsourced relationship in a hurry, it’s better to walk before you run with the complexity of enquiries. Outsourcers and ‘crowdsourcers’ are also often able to access pools of homeworkers to support your operations.
- Getting the home ‘working’: Cloud telephony and agent applications are a critical enabler to this. Getting calls to your agents is the fundamental first step you need to take, and this can be done quickly (sometimes within a week) with many of the SaaS cloud telephony providers. Access to systems can be harder for organisations who aren’t used to homeworking, but there are solutions out there which can help.
- Helping your people adapt: For those who have never done it before, home working is a step change. Providing advice on how to look after yourself, manage your space and manage your time will help make this transition easier. Thinking about how you adapt critical roles in the contact centre, such as the workforce management team and team leaders, is also key.
- Multi-skilling: Traditional operational siloes within the contact centre are appropriate where real specialism is needed, but with good knowledge management and simple processes, it’s possible to break some of these siloes down and optimise your workforce to deal with multiple enquiry types.
- Shifting channels to free up capacity: Channels, such as messaging, allow you to provide a less immediate response over time where appropriate and can help your people manage multiple contacts at the same time.
- Managing demand through existing intelligent automation and self-service: Making sure that your capacity-constrained expert workforce aren’t the ones picking up the simpler enquiries or the enquiries that don’t need an emotionally intelligent human response is more critical than ever in the current situation. AI technology, voicebots and chatbots have all made great leaps forward over the last few years and, used appropriately, can make a massive difference to your ability to handle demand.
Beyond the crisis – delivering the recovery
None of the trends we’re seeing are new. Most organisations we work with have at least ‘dipped their toe in the water’ when it comes to channel shift, automation and homeworking. Indeed outsourcing is a well-established and mature strategy. What the current situation is doing is accelerating the adoption of these things and driving operating model change in the short-term. Beyond the crises, expect to see a level of pent-up demand driving further pressure on customer service. A flexibly resourced service operation, which uses intelligent automation and digital channels will be critical to managing this demand, as will the reputation and relationship the organisation builds now.