Automation Key to COVID-19 Contact Center Crisis

Call Center Automation for COVID-19 Coronavirus Crisis
Illustration by Stella Cohen

The COVID-19 pandemic has put the contact center industry in a manner of disarrayed motion the likes of which have never been seen before. As I write this blog, I’ve had to go back and edit before I could even submit it to the blog site as the U.S. government’s Center for Disease Control (CDC) changed its social isolation recommendation from groups of 50, issued three days ago, to groups of 10 people issued on Monday. This presents a real dilemma for most contact centers. As readers of this blog know, contact centers typically have notoriously tight quarters for workers. Beyond that, equipment is often shared among workers, especially in contact centers that operate multiple shifts in a 24-hour period.

As a result of CDC guidelines, most contact centers are now scrambling to arrange at-home or home-office work for their agents and employees as calls continue to come in and, in many cases, calls are coming in at extraordinary volumes. Case in point—Sun Country Airlines. According to the Minneapolis Star Tribune, on Thursday, March 12, the Twin Cities-based airlines received more than 25,000 calls, which is about 10 times its normal daily call volume. Even using a backup contact center in Las Vegas and authorizing unlimited overtime for its agents, Sun Country customer service was only able to answer about 5,000 of those calls. Other callers simply received a busy signal.

As the industry scrambles for solutions in these highly uncertain times, I believe an immediately accessible solution is contact automation. While the industry has been looking cautiously at automation for some time, it now presents itself as a potential solution to an unexpected problem. The industry, however, needs to take immediate action.

According to the results of Saddletree Research’s 2020 survey of contact center professionals, conducted in cooperation with the not-for-profit National Association of Call Centers (NACC), only about 16% of the industry has deployed automation for call handling. An additional 24% of the industry will be evaluating automation in 2020 but the remaining 60% of the industry has indicated no interest in automating customer contacts. I submit to you that this percentage will change drastically as a result of the COVID-19 impact on the contact center industry.

For the 48% of the industry that has a presence in the cloud, they are in an advantageous position in terms of quickly adding automation to their mix of cloud-based applications. Those contact centers that have resisted or refused cloud migration have more a challenge ahead, but it is not an impossible situation.

According to Chris Crosby, CEO of Xaqt in Chicago, “With a Conversational IVR or omnichannel bot, companies can immediately begin to automate customer interactions across digital channels and the voice channel that traditionally requires a live agent. By leveraging cloud telephony and AI capabilities, these solutions can often be implemented within a matter of days, regardless of a company’s existing phone system and infrastructure. Even companies with on-premises ACDs and no SIP trunking can deploy a Conversational IVR without disrupting their current environment or requiring expensive upgrades.”

The initial strategy of customer contact automation service should be to deflect routine calls to the conversational chatbot, which frees agents to tackle the more complex calls. While it has not been documented to my knowledge, I believe the majority of calls to various contact centers are still relatively routine and should be eligible for automation.

“I think a tool to success that organizations have not had available to them in the past, is the ability to start small and iterate. Deploying a Conversational IVR or contact automation strategy does not have to be an all-or-nothing proposition. You can start with simple and routine calls, such as Frequently Asked Questions, or appointment setting, for example, and see immediate results,” Xaqt’s Crosby continued. “With machine learning, the system actually gets smarter with each customer interaction and can address more and more call types. The benefits compound quickly.”

An additional benefit of contact automation, which will be appreciated by contact centers facing financial challenges, is its impact on cost per call. “When we partnered with the City of Kansas City, MO, their cost per call for live agents was $5, whereas the cost-per-call in our Conversational IVR is around $.50. So, they realized a 90% savings on a per-call basis. The pay-for-usage model allows our customers to scale based on call volume and not have to worry about adding more infrastructure or agents,” Crosby explained. “Additionally, by automating routine and high-volume calls, overall serviceability for callers has improved.”

While the industry has been essentially dragging its heels when it comes to implementing automation, it can no longer be delayed. The soft benefits of automation that are often discussed by the industry are taking a back seat to the hard realities of the COVID crisis and its impact on the customer experience.

The National Association of Call Centers

Did you know columnist Paul Stockford is also the editor of In-Queue, the monthly newsletter of the National Association of Call Centers? Get your free subscription and read more of his provocative commentary every month!