Opinions

How innovation can help contact centre operations manage the impact of coronavirus

A guest blog from Paul Weald – the Contact Centre Innovator – previously published on LinkedIn.

Business continuity planning for contact centre operations has become the number one hit topic in our industry. Whilst no one knows the likely impact and timing of the coronavirus on the UK population, there are two assumptions that operational managers are now taking as ‘future truths’:

  1. Staff absence rates will increase – either through employees catching the virus and being off-work or from staff taking dependents leave as a result of school closures or family members needing care.
  2. Customer demand patterns will change – with an increasing proportion of customers seeking reassurance about their current and future plans, creating unexpected surges in demand that your Resource Planning team will struggle to predict.

Put simply, we should all be planning for a scenario of increased customer contact with reduced resources. And when that situation occurs, then what steps can you take to overcome the imbalance of supply and demand?

Whilst there are good operational practices that can be applied in terms of day-to-day contact centre management, having the LinkedIn title of the “Contact Centre Innovator” then I believe there are three more radical ideas that we should all be considering. One positive to take forward into your crisis management planning is that the risk appetite of internal stakeholders should be more conducive to try these new things.

1. Agents working from home

The first idea is an obvious statement to make which is rather than expect agents to commute to your centre each day then you allow your employees to do their job as call handlers from home. This is easy to say, but for many operations much more difficult to implement. Most agents use desk based PCs, and if they are to work remotely then they either require company laptops or virtual agent desktop technology to allow them to access company systems from their own personal computers or tablets from home. Either of these options has significant technology and information security implications – one of my colleagues has carried out this assessment for a major European service operation to conclude that at best 15% of agents could work securely from home in this way. That leaves 85% of agents needing to work from the office, which is not the right answer to the problem.

A new way of working is therefore required whereby agents can undertake some – but not all – of their daily tasks working from home using their mobile phone or personal tablet. Our newly introduced business continuity service offering provides this option. Customer service tasks received digitally are distributed across large pools of workers – either agent employees or specially trained crowd sourced Customer Ambassadors – which they resolve directly from their phone or tablet using the Limitless app.

2. Protect the voice channel by deflecting enquiries to digital self-serve and messaging options

If we are to expect a higher proportion of contact from customers seeking reassurance, then is it appropriate for these new enquiries to block the incoming lines from those customers who have a more immediate need for customer service? My wife is a nurse and she has a mantra that access to healthcare should be for sick people, not the ‘worried well’. It maybe harsh to think about your contact strategy in such terms, but as incoming voice calls start to queue, then you will need a proactive avoidance strategy so that you can speak to the customers only with the most immediate need.

This should start with changing the messages in your IVRs. For example, expect airlines to have a first level menu that allows them to prioritise customers who are traveling in the next 24 hours over general enquiries from customers with travel plans weeks or months out in the future.

And remember that most customers will be calling from their mobile phone, which allows you to proactively direct the caller to any digital transaction capability that you have via mobile app or mobile desktop system. You can easily send these customers a message with a link that takes them straight to the right content. For those first time users, you may also need to provide digital support content which could be self-help videos or specific ‘how to’ instructional guidance. That way you drive up the conversion rate for digital self-serve, reducing phone channel demand as a result.

A more radical approach is to limit the way in which customers can reach a live agent. I recently experienced this myself as a customer, and whilst in my personal experience I would not recommend the service that I am about to describe from a NPS rating perspective, it did work as a functional customer service solution.

The scenario was that in the aftermath of Storm Ciara my garden fence blew down. I initially decided to make the repair myself so ordered a special tool. Later that day my neighbour offered to arrange the repair himself via a contractor he knew and we cordially agreed to split the cost between us. So I no longer needed the tool, and rang up the retailer to cancel it. Or so I had thought, until I got a text message from a courier saying they would be delivering my order later that day. They had an excellent online tracking system and I could see exactly when the delivery was due and whilst there was a host of alternative delivery options, there wasn’t a button that said “cancel my order”. I rang the courier Customer Services number to be greeted by a very well designed natural language speech application that found my order based on my voice prompts, told me it would be delivered in the next two hours, and promptly hung up!

So I went back to the courier website and found a webchat function where I was finally able to connect with a real person who understood my situation, setup a “Return to Sender” status on my order so that the delivery was aborted. Phew!

So should you consider a contact avoidance strategy at such an extreme end of the spectrum? Unless you already have all that smart contact management capability in place then I would suggest not, but you could more easily put in place a digital messaging channel. This provides an option to queuing customers in the IVR to open up a messaging session on their mobile phone, where they could interact with an agent or Customer Ambassador, which is exactly how our IVR service works.

3. Exploit social media as a broadcast medium

The third idea in overcoming an imbalance of demand and supply is to be honest with your customers about the challenges you are facing. And communicate that situation again and again. Don’t force customers to wait for long periods in queue – set their expectations so that they can make an informed choice about how to get the information they need.

Social media channels are an excellent way to keep customers informed, particularly as a one-to-many broadcasting medium. I had first hand experience of this in the summer of 2017. I was working with a London based stadium event company undertaking a review of their customer service operations. During the assignment the tragedy of the Manchester Arena bombing occurred, creating considerable uncertainty and concern for customers due to be attending the subsequent London based open air concerts. Given the core Customer Service team was only 5 people, there was no way that a phone service would be able to cope with 50,000 customers all wanting to know how to stay safe at the event.

And this is where a service strategy that relied almost entirely on social media came up trumps. There were regular updates and whilst users could Direct Message these were largely handled by the service team using standard informational responses. The customer service messages took priority in social media postings in the days leading up to each event, and then on the day there was a more mixed set of postings that generated a really positive vibe so that event goers could have a great experience and feel safe at the same time.

The most revealing insight from this social media based approach is that there were a limited set of messages that were consistently applied across all channels – online, through the telephone IVR as well as being used across Facebook, Twitter and Instagram. The combined communications effect was greater than the sum of the parts, and in the Limitless business continuity example, such messages would be ideal material for Customer Ambassadors to provide in one-to-one messaging interactions with customers – satisfying the needs of the worried well as my wife would say.

So whilst none of us has a crystal ball to predict the impact the virus will have on our day to day lives, as contact centre professionals there is plenty within our gift to help mitigate its impact for our customers and for our staff.

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