Contact Center and COVID-19: Lessons Learned

10 COVID-19 Tips for the Contact Center

To say the Coronavirus pandemic caught many contact center executives unprepared would be an understatement. As the seriousness of the virus became increasingly apparent and the recommendations of the Center for Disease Control (CDC) continued to be refined and narrowed in terms of social distancing and number of people allowed in a single gathering, the gravity of this threat to the contact center industry became crystal clear. Immediate action was, and is, required.

The contact center industry is known for its typically cramped working quarters with small workspaces and shared equipment. Many contact centers operate on a hot-seating and desk-sharing strategy in which agents simply pick any unoccupied workstation to be their workspace for their shift. Even assigned workspaces pose a threat in terms of the spreading of the COVID-19 virus. The obvious solution to this immediate and possible life-threatening situation is to send agents home to work, thereby complying with CDC recommendations for social distancing and self-isolation in the face of this highly serious threat to the health and well-being of contact center workers.

Working from home is not a new phenomenon to the contact center and allowing agents to work from home is a strong and growing trend in the contact center industry. It is a trend that Saddletree Research has been following for many years in its annual survey of contact center professionals, conducted each year since 2009 in conjunction with the not-for-profit National Association of Call Centers. Our current research, concluded in January of 2020, revealed that 52% of the industry has some portion of their workforce—typically 25% or less—working from a home office.

For many contact centers, supporting at-home agents has been part of a strategy to broaden their reach into the pool of prospective employees, and to stem the tide of agent turnover by providing a desirable work-life balance for their workers. It is also a strategy that seems to be successful. In this year’s survey we also asked those contact center professionals with an at-home workforce what the 2020 plans for their workforce were. The results are illustrated in the figure below.

Source: Saddletree Research

Not only is the at-home workforce strategy a success, it has also enabled contact centers that have mastered the management of an at-home workforce to act quickly and decisively when it became obvious that the Coronavirus required an immediate response. Case in point: U-Haul International.

U-Haul, in operation since 1945, is a household name in moving equipment and storage rental. Its contact centers handle 25 million calls each year in over 12 lines of business. Over the last 10 years, U-Haul’s contact center workforce has grown from 400 to 2,500 agents.

In 2010, U-Haul began to work with Verint on a program that would enable a percentage of their contact center agent workforce to work from home. With the double benefit of providing U-Haul employees with work flexibility and work/life balance along with providing the company with operational efficiencies and cost savings, U-Haul’s at-home agent began to grow in earnest. Today, 80% of U-Haul’s agent workforce works from home.

While this is a success story in and of itself, U-Haul contact center managers found themselves more than ready to act when faced with the Coronavirus pandemic and the Center for Disease Control’s (CDC) recommendations to keep their employees safe while maintaining the high level of customer service U-Haul customers had come to expect.

Armed with knowledge and experience, U-Haul managers were able to quickly execute on a work-at-home strategy for the 20 percent of their agents working in the brick-and-mortar contact center. Those with computers at home were quickly added to the roster of at-home agents and those without the necessary equipment were loaned company laptops so that they too were able to effectively move their jobs to a home office.

According to U-Haul’s Joel White, “When the COVID-19 pandemic hit, we were poised to handle call volume spikes with the kind of agent forecast and scheduling flexibility necessary to take care of our customers in a rapidly changing environment. Our level of customer service was maintained even under the most challenging of circumstances.”

For contact centers that have been delaying or denying a work-at-home strategy for their workforce, the time has come for action. The success of at-home agent programs is undeniable and the value of being able to react the way that U-Haul did in this time of crisis is priceless for any business. At-home workforce scheduling is not only available, it has also been refined and perfected over a period of years. All necessary workforce management tools are identical for both on-premises workforces and at-home workforces.

The COVID-19 has illustrated in an undeniable way that it is time to modernize and automate both customer and employee engagement.

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!