Where Contact Centers Go from Here

WRITTEN BY TIM MONTGOMERY

Coronavirus COVID-19 Contact Center Lessons
Challenges and Priorities Survey

Everyone is talking about the way we’re functioning now as our “new normal.” But is this current routine just a short-term patch while we work through the COVID-19 crisis, or will it change the way we operate in the future?

While many policies and processes will eventually move closer to what they were before the pandemic, this crisis has given us time to reflect on the things that contact centers will have to do differently from this point. All businesses, from restaurants and small local companies to large corporations, were forced to suddenly create new strategies for communicating with and supporting their customers.

In most cases, companies were able to quickly adjust by deploying processes and systems that enabled them to get by for now. But as we move forward, organizations will have to modify these Band-Aid solutions and draw upon their customer and contact center data to reshape their near- and long-term customer support roadmaps. Customers are going to expect contact centers to quickly allow them to drive conversations using the channels and devices they prefer.

As we begin to emerge from this crisis, what are the critical lessons that we can apply to the post-pandemic contact center to ensure that we are nimble and resilient in the future?

1. Adopt a “Fail Fast and Learn” Model

The COVID-19 crisis forced our teams to adopt an agile mindset. We are now getting tremendous insight in a notably short amount of time. Before this, we would hold long debates over topics like which communication channels to offer. Then we would create project teams to research and evaluate the options and consider how to adapt the organization to support the change. We’d then get it on the IT “to-do” list, and everyone would admire the project from a distance. A year later, we’d roll it out to a small portion of our customers just to make sure that we were ready to support it.

What We Learned

Your customers are ready to communicate in all channels—chat, SMS, email, video, social and intelligent voice. We must avoid falling back into the traditional prolonged approach to implementing new technical solutions and processes, and instead move to a “fail fast and learn” model. In the “next normal” environment, the question is how quickly can we achieve a fully integrated, cloud-based “omnichannel” strategy? The answer should be measured in weeks, not years.

2. Leaders Need a Shared Understanding of Disciplines and Functions

We have long realized that not every leader in the contact center knows how things really happen within its four walls. When a crisis hits, everyone has to wear many hats, and in most cases, leaders are so focused on their responsibilities, they don’t have time to learn how all of the pieces come together. While in most organizations, this was a known and ignored shortfall prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, it needs to be addressed quickly post-crisis.

In January of this year, we asked leaders from several organizations to complete a 28-question survey on how they approached all of the major disciplines in their organization (e.g., WFM, quality, metrics, coaching, turnover, etc.). The results were all over the map. In every organization surveyed, operational call center leaders were not well-versed in the other departments’ roles, objectives or strengths—and no one viewed gaps and needs the same way. Contact centers cannot move forward with planning for the future until all leaders have a shared understanding of the disciplines and functions that touch the customer journey.

What We Learned

The coronavirus pandemic revealed the gaps in our processes and extended many leaders outside of their comfort and knowledge zones. In my 30 years in contact centers, my first recommendation to clients has always been to make sure that everyone both understands and is in agreement about how metrics are defined, processes are performed, and how the various functions work together.

This isn’t a program to “walk in their shoes” for a few hours; it’s “work in their shoes” for several weeks.

We’ve worked with and have been a part of many world-class operations. One thing they all have in common is having formal call center dynamics leadership programs in place to ensure that everyone is on the same page.

3. Create an Inside-out Digital Strategy for Seamless Handoffs and Agent Support

Most organizations have a digital strategy in place for providing customer support and sales, and many of these investments proved helpful during the crisis. However, one of the biggest challenges has been ensuring a smooth handoff from self-service to a customer service agent.

Many companies were caught without the proper staffing to make a seamless channel transfer. As a result, customers would start a transaction on a company’s website only to find that there weren’t any live agents to help them once they got beyond the four-question chatbot. A digital site can move customers into any channel, but most are viewed as independent “start-to-finish” interactions vs. customer-driven asynchronous interactions.

What We Learned

The post-pandemic contact center environment will require organizations to create digital strategies from the inside-out with a focus on giving our support agents easy-to-use tools, just like the ones we provide to our customers.

We often see transactions handled in contact centers that can be easily completed by customers online. Customers can quickly teach themselves how to process routine transactions and get answers to their questions within seconds. But when they come into the call center, that same transaction can take several minutes to process, which takes valuable time away from the customer. Also, consider the training time for the agent—several weeks for agents vs. several minutes for the customer.

Our future digital strategies will be even more focused on internal solutions vs. external solutions.

4. Streamline Hiring and Training with Cloud-Based Solutions

Hiring and training are not activities that typically happen quickly in most organizations. There is usually a long lag time between the budget authorization and pulling the hiring trigger. This can create several weeks or months of understaffing in the call center.

Next comes a “one-size-fits-all” training program, which creates another gap of understaffing. While all of this is happening, we are overworking our best agents, ultimately inviting them to look for new opportunities. Eventually, when the new agents finally hit the floor, we don’t have the knowledge to support their needs, turnover increases, and the vicious cycle starts all over again.

What We Learned

We can successfully hire within days or hours by moving to a virtual hiring system, which allows HR screening, operations interviews and testing to take place within a day. New systems can provide background checks within minutes and cloud-based HR systems allow job applicants to submit all of the required information via on-line systems. This puts the burden of entering each candidate’s HR data solely on them.

Similarly, most of today’s workforce has been exposed to online learning and a “do it at your own pace” approach to training. With modular training and at-your-own-pace programs, agents will be on the phones faster, and training budgets can be more aligned to meet business needs.

This creative, new-world approach allows for near-real-time budgeting to help contact centers retain the agents we cannot afford to lose and to move quickly to make investment decisions that will have an immediate impact on the business.

5. Work-from-Home and Remote Agents Are Here to Stay

Most of us in contact center operations have long admired the work-from-home model, but we can’t seem to get out of our own way to make it happen. We set up teams to explore the possibility and end up fighting to get security, IT, HR and operations to quit focusing on potentially negative outcomes and risks.

Why does this happen? Traditional wisdom has taught us that contact center agents require over-the-shoulder observation and that supervisors need the ability to monitor everything they do. Most companies have work-at-home authorized for other departments, but in many cases, the contact center is viewed differently because of the real-time nature of the work. In fact, the biggest hurdle to work-from-home is the fear of shifting our approach to contact center management and the worry that managing remote staff will require more effort from our leaders.

What We Learned

Work-at-home can be easy for the contact center—all the same measures, reports, oversight, queues, training, systems can be accessed as successfully at home as on-site. Companies no longer need to make frontline staff come into the contact center—they can take the center to the agents.

Even if companies are hesitant to allow agents to work from home, we can now be more resourceful when setting up remote sites—for instance, putting small call centers in strip malls, using space in remote field offices to house small groups, and sharing spaces with other organizations that also provide a larger agent pool to draw from.

For many companies, all that is needed is a laptop, an internet connection and a USB headset. Innovative companies have already started the journey to cube-free and mobile—after all, if most things in our daily lives are done by walking around with a tablet and earbuds, why not a contact center? Today’s technology allows us to cut the cord and focus on getting creative vs. always trying to catch up.

6. The Way Forward: Leverage the Cloud

About 10 years ago, I had the opportunity to open my own outsourced call center. My business partner and I saw where the industry was heading, and because we had a blank sheet of paper, we put in place many of the lessons learned from today. We were the first 100% cloud-based outsourced contact center, relying on flexible technology for all support and processing functions. We built our entire operation to be work-from-home but in a brick-and-mortar building.

Most of our Fortune 500 clients didn’t trust work-at-home, but we knew it was coming, so we did everything in the cloud. We could turn on a dime—new IVRs set up within minutes, new channels programmed and operational within hours, and the ability to integrate with our client’s legacy phone systems could be completed over a weekend. Our flexibility allowed us to become a testbed for our nine Fortune 500 clients, and many of them were better prepared for recent events because they had been exposed to what we called “The Art of the Possible.”

After growing to nearly 1,000 employees, I sold my BPO to a large international outsourcer and retired. After failing at retirement, I decided that I would help companies think differently about their operations and the cloud. We’ve successfully moved thousands of call center agents to the cloud and introduced them to channels and processes to help them meet their customers where they are. Most importantly, we’re using that approach to help leaders meet their internal agents where they are and where they expect their company to be.

Tim Montgomery is known as a pioneer in the call center space, having built his last BPO call center (CSG) exclusively in the cloud. CSG grew from 10 employees to nearly 1,000 in just 5 years. For two years, CSG was on the Inc. 500 list of America’s fastest-growing companies, and in 2015, it was named the fastest-growing large company in San Antonio. Tim’s proven expertise in customer service and contact center operations has made him a sought-after advisor to companies in a variety of vertical industries. Tim has worked with and advised some of the world’s most recognized service organizations—USAA, DELL, AIG, Coca-Cola, Farmers Insurance, Allstate, The Gartner Group, Amerigroup, Harvard Medical School, and hundreds more. Recognized as a talented speaker, Tim has become a regularly featured presenter at the contact center industry’s largest conferences. He has delivered workshops and keynotes in seven countries to more than 20,000 customer service and contact center professionals worldwide. To schedule a conversation with Tim, email him at [email protected].