We currently live in a time where nearly every email starts with “I hope you and your family are safe,” and ends with “stay healthy.”
The COVID-19 pandemic has changed the way we interact with each other as a community, and it is going to forever change the way businesses interact with each other.
The speed at which COVID-19 spread, and the urgency shown in various countries with lockdowns, definitely caught many people by surprise. While every company has a business continuity plan, few had considered a scenario in which all regions went into lockdown at the same time. In my 20 years as CEO, I’ve never seen anything like this. We’ve had to invent along the way and, even though we are not yet through this crisis, we are beginning to see the framework for how we must all operate in the new world.
During a crisis, the need for customer service doesn’t slow down – in fact, it increases. Communications between businesses and customers have never been more important. As soon as travel restrictions started, consumers called airlines, hotels and rental car companies to change or cancel reservations. Similarly, in the banking industry we saw inquiries on contactless payments (e.g. Apple Pay) increased 53%, while requests to stop or defer mortgage payments rose 500%. Even as call volumes are dropping, digital interactions are significantly increasing.
Since this crisis began, three key business problems have emerged from my conversations with executives:
- How can companies increase the use of automation and messaging to reduce strain on calls to customer service?
- For companies whose operations are concentrated in one geography, how can they balance their operations between geographies?
- How can companies ensure their agents can work from home safely and securely?
And even though we are not yet through this crisis, some recommendations for improving customer support have become clear:
- Digital Channels and Automation Have Never Been More Important
- Geo-balancing of Capacity is Critical
- Contact Centers Must Evolve for the Future
Allow me to elaborate…
Digital Channels and Automation Have Never Been More Important
One thing became clear early in this crisis -- how ill-prepared most companies are for automation. Call volumes shot up as a direct result of COVID-19. If you don’t have messaging, you pay the price. Consumers will clog your phone channels as they desperately seek information. In many cases, they are waiting two hours to speak to someone, and when you do that to a customer, you make them feel helpless. For companies who have not already deployed a digital customer service solution, either automated or staffed by agents, now is the time to quickly stand one up. Here are my key recommendations:
- Automate FAQs – Frequently asked questions (FAQs) are a great place to start, since many companies already have these on their websites. Companies have an opportunity to make them easily accessible. There are solutions available to get your company up and running quickly. A large health care chain recently stood up an automated FAQ solution specific to COVID-19. This enables consumers to quickly get answers to questions via automated messaging.
- Move to Messaging Immediately – Companies are experiencing record call volumes and wait times. If you haven’t already done so, now is the time to introduce messaging as a primary way for consumers to interact with your company. Technologies like Apple Business Chat, Facebook Messenger, or Google Business Messaging can greatly reduce the load on voice calls and reduce wait times because consumers don’t have to wait for a live agent. Messaging also has the benefit of being asynchronous, meaning that the consumer can come back to the conversation any time and pick up where they started.
- Enable IVR-to-Messaging – When consumers call, more often than not their calls are answered by interactive voice response. During a crisis, the wait time for a live agents can be up to two hours. Companies can offer the consumer the choice between waiting two hours for a phone agent, or diverting them immediately to a messaging agent. Our experience is that consumers overwhelmingly will choose the latter.
- Proactively Promote Your Digital Solutions – Diverting consumers to self-service significantly decreases calls to contact centers. Consider sending out a proactive email to customers encouraging them to use those channels. There are several use cases for digital interactions including FAQs for brick-and-mortar stores where employees can’t get close to customers, employee assistance programs to help laid-off or furloughed employees, and staying engaged with educational programs.
Geo-balancing of Capacity is Critical
While AI and automation technology is important, it is still critically dependent on humans. Most B2C businesses rely heavily on human agents, so what happens when a worldwide pandemic shuts down offices worldwide? It is important to ensure that agent capacity is spread across different geographies, with specific process level balancing as a key building block. In my business, we have deliberately based our agents in several geographies to ensure proximity to companies and suppliers, as well as for business continuity. Because we operate contact centers in the Americas, India and the Philippines, we have been able to adjust capacity in each region as new government orders were issued.
Ensuring data centers are distributed globally and enabling each to operate in a standalone capacity, delivers the redundancy required to maintain services. Use of dynamic DNS controllers to monitor client links and ensure that any failover is directed to other sites is imperative. Critical hardware components must have next day on-site support. And the habits of providing routine on-site maintenance through onsite data center operators, with the backup of local contractors on standby delivers resources when travel is restricted.
Ultimately, Contact Centers Must Evolve
Contact centers are designed around agents being in an office. Work stations are specially configured, and the workspace is designed around supervisor availability. Effective contact centers, must overcome numerous operational challenges including channel hopping (going from phone to digital channels and vice versa), availability of context from previous interactions, process complexity, training and development, frontline leadership and understanding of industry-specific challenges. These are big challenges under ordinary circumstances, but are especially critical when offices are closed and agents are working remotely.
This is a scenario that our business has been anticipating and planning for in advance of government ordered shutdowns around the world, and there are several specific steps we have taken as part of our business continuity plan. It is essential that we keep our services up and running for our clients, and there are several steps we have taken to keep contact center operations going while shutdowns are in place, while we also evaluate changes for the long term.
- Enabling work-from-home agents – Long term, I recommend that companies anticipate roughly 25 percent of their agent capacity is set to work from home, with a plan to allow for 100 percent shift to working from home within 24 hours. This involves rigorous planning that protects data from both privacy as well as breach concerns. This also requires having a platform that automatically conceals items like credit card info from the agent while processing payments during a messaging or voice call is paramount.
- Issuing company standard equipment – Chat agents are receiving company-issued desktops and laptops to enable them to handle chat conversations from home. These computers have been equipped with the highest level of security software, and have been transported to agents’ homes, where they have been set up with VPN over broadband and adhering to strict Information Security controls. All Internet URLs are routed via proxy servers, and authentication has been enabled for VPN access.
- Webcams and remote monitoring – Businesses need technology to ensure that agents are productive and using the machines the way they are intended. This could involve the use of webcams to take a picture at random times, and keystroke monitoring to see their conversations with consumers in real time.
- Ensuring constant communication – For agents who are used to working in a contact center, it is essential that supervisors monitor activity and checking in with agents regularly throughout the day. This ensures that agents are meeting the highest levels of service, and adhering to all best practices and company protocols.
- Rethinking management processes – In the new normal, companies will need to re-think how they recruit, train, onboard, coach and manage a workforce when some agents are working from home and others may be in the office. We have a framework to address this comprehensively.
- Security for Agent Laptops/Desktops - Enable multi-factor authentication, encrypted data communication, and lockdown device software to prevent data transfer. Disable local storage of data and only allow whitelisted internet access.
- Enable visual sharing for voice agents and IVR – Allow voice agents to detect when a caller is online and send an SMS or Email invitation via a secure web session. Using Active Share, agents can push an invite to callers and share Active Cards securely to the caller’s mobile device. In the example below, the agent is able to visually share program disclosures with a customer instead of reading them. This speeds the interaction and allows the agent to serve more customers.
Ultimately, contact centers will need to become much more automated and flexible in terms of how they deliver services. Even as digital channels become more important and digital chat and messaging agents are able to work remotely, there is still work to do to ensure that voice agent solutions can work remotely.
On a personal note, I hope that everyone reading this is staying healthy and safe. At times like these, we must reflect on what really matters in this world. Take care of your family, and ensure that they have the emotional support they need right now. Reach out to your co-workers to say hello and make sure they are doing okay. Even though we can’t be with our work colleagues or business partners right now, we must work together to support each other as one big extended family.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
P.V. Kannan is the co- founder and chief executive officer of 7.ai, a leader in AI-driven customer experience software and services. He holds more than 30 patents (issued and pending), and has been featured in several books as CX thought leader. His new book “The Age of Intent: Using Artificial Intelligence to Deliver Superior Customer Experience,” is now available on Amazon and iBooks.