COVID-19 and the Contact Center: Horror, Heartache, Humanity and Hope


Has anyone besides me noticed how many contact center industry work-from-home (WFH) experts there suddenly are? I thought there was only one, really. That would be Michele Rowan and I wrote about her in my April column (“On-Trend: At-Home Agents”). The timing of that column was totally serendipitous. We had no idea when we were writing the column that, by the time it would be published, we’d all be working from home due to the coronavirus pandemic.

But judging from my email inbox and the number of webinar invitations I receive daily, the number of WFH experts in the industry seems to have grown exponentially in a period of about three weeks. As contact centers scramble to comply with safety directives from the Center for Disease Control (CDC), plenty of other companies are aiming to cash in on it. It’s a shame these experts didn’t do a better job of positioning themselves and their services prior to the COVID-19 pandemic. After all, it’s not like we didn’t know this thing was coming.

In a 2015 TED Talk, Microsoft Co-founder Bill Gates warned that a pandemic was inevitable. He talked about the lessons learned from West Africa’s 2014 Ebola virus crisis and said in no uncertain terms that the U.S. and other countries were not ready for the future pandemic that would hit them. Gates warned that the U.S. had invested very little in a system that would stop an epidemic and was not ready to confront a pandemic. Darned if he wasn’t right.

The same criticism could be applied to the contact center. Technology and solutions that would have allowed the contact center industry to quickly respond and adapt to the current pandemic have been available for years. But many contact center decision-makers have been dragging their heels when it comes to adopting these solutions. Instead of having to scramble to find solutions when state and local governments started shutting down businesses in accordance with CDC guidelines, contact centers could have made a smooth and speedy transition to a WFH model in a matter of hours. But that wouldn’t have made good fodder for the press.

Within hours of the first signs that the COVID-19 situation was getting serious in mid-March, I started getting calls from journalists who wanted to write about how dangerous it had become to work in a contact center. It was a point I couldn’t really argue. Given the close working quarters in most contact centers, shared workspaces and sometimes shared equipment, it seems the contact center embodied the ideal environment for spreading the coronavirus among workers.

The first media call I received was from the Maine Sun Journal newspaper. Once that article was published, it apparently made the media rounds because I started getting calls from trade magazines like American Banker, and other newspaper reporters who had seen the Sun Journal and wanted to pursue their own angle on the COVID contact center story. I also got calls from television stations that were reporting on the story. Interestingly, most of the calls came from media outlets in smaller metropolitan areas around the country, but that makes perfect sense given the fact that most contact centers are located in areas that offer a relatively lower cost of living. So, I didn’t make the CBS Evening News, but I did make the news on WJHL TV in Johnson City, Tenn.

The concerns raised by the media were also validated by unexpected calls and emails I received from people working in contact centers who were scared for their safety and didn’t know what to do or who to turn to. One in particular that stands out in my mind was an email from an agent at a call center in Colorado. This person wrote that she was 65 years old, asthmatic and working in a job making $12.25 an hour because she needed to supplement her social security and the job provided, ironically, health benefits. She said they were still working practically elbow-to-elbow and she feared for her health. Her manager said extra cleaning was being undertaken on the shared workstations in order to prevent the spread of the coronavirus. Other than that, she said nothing else was done with the exception of periodic broadcasts of recorded video messages from the CEO that were basically all rainbows and unicorns.

She had seen my name quoted in other articles and contacted me for help. I replied to her email twice and had both my replies returned to me as undeliverable. So, I called her and two days later we finally connected. She told me that she had walked into her supervisor’s office at 8 p.m. the previous evening, put her headset on his desk and walked out. She decided to take her chances with unemployment rather than continuing to work under what she considered to be dangerous working conditions.

But it hasn’t all been doom-and-gloom stories for the past month. One curious story came to me by way of The Wall Street Journal reporter Aaron Zitner. He called to tell me that he had heard from a couple of sources that their contact center agents were having a hard time getting callers to hang up at the end of a call. They wanted to keep on talking. And this wasn’t just happening to agents at incoming customer service centers, it was also happening to agents in outbound sales and collection contact centers. Agents previously challenged to get people to just pick up the phone now can’t seem to get them off the phone.

My first instinct was to validate this highly unusual trend via the membership of the National Association of Call Centers (NACC), whose members I do research for throughout the year. As it turns out, many other contact centers are experiencing this same phenomenon.

“There is no doubt that some of the members we talk to need to share their stories and experiences,” said NACC member and Apple Federal Credit Union AVP Mark Whitney. “While many who call or chat with us have a more businesslike approach, there is certainly a large percentage of callers that just want to talk. I would not go as far as to say they won’t let my agents off the phone, but there is a compelling need for agents to be there for the member and listen as part of the process to help as much as possible. As I have listened in on many of the calls that fall into this category, I wouldn’t try to make the call any shorter myself. I think on some level it’s as therapeutic for the agent as it is for the member.”

NACC member Mark Pereira, Trainer and On-Site Supervisor at Briljent, LLC, found similarities between the current pandemic and the Great Recession of 2008. “When I was taking calls in 2008,” Pereira recalled, “I had callers that would keep me on the phone for well over an hour on a single call. Most just wanted to talk or tell stories.

“I’ve had the opportunity to talk to many agents taking calls now and it is surprisingly similar,” Pereira continued. “I’ve spoken to many of our agents who tell me that some of their callers are clearly scared or lonely when they call, and they’re very appreciative of having someone to talk to.”

Everything I’ve read or heard to date regarding the coronavirus pandemic is unanimous in the opinion that things are not going to be the same as they were before when we finally emerge from this crisis. I hope the contact center industry also embraces what we’ve learned during the COVID-19 crisis and doesn’t try to go back to business as usual. It’s time for the global contact center industry to fully accept and adopt the cloud contact center, WFH agents, AI-driven automation, and workforce engagement management. Despite itself, I believe the industry will survive the coronavirus pandemic. Next time, it may not be as lucky.

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!