Why the Call Center Was Already Collapsing—Even Before COVID-19


COVID-19 has made the fundamental flaws in phone-based support impossible to ignore. Overwhelmed and under-equipped reps are struggling, anxious customers are stuck on hold for hours, and the very premise of crowded call centers has come to seem hopelessly outdated given the need for social distancing.

In reality, the collapse of phone-based support is neither new nor temporary. Even before the pandemic began, there was ample evidence that the channel just can’t meet the needs of modern businesses or their customers. As companies scramble to adapt to today’s challenges, they should also be looking ahead to better days—and finding better ways of doing business for the long run.

COVID-19 Pushes Customer Service to the Breaking Point

Traditional call centers are facing an impossible situation. Companies from banks to internet providers, retailers and health insurers are flooded with customer calls. With many call centers forced to close, reps have had to adapt quickly to work-from-home at a time when every other part of life is in upheaval as well. It’s no wonder company websites now routinely post warnings to expect wait times lasting hours or entire days. For customers already facing myriad pressures and frustrations, the experience can be truly awful—and it’s no better for the overwhelmed rep on the other end of the phone line.

Communication Breakdowns Send Customers Elsewhere

The hurdles in handling customer calls from home have exacerbated a perennial shortcoming in the phone channel: the difficulty of understanding each other clearly. According to a recent study reported in the Harvard Business Review, both reps and customers are now much more likely to say “I can’t understand you” during a call, while escalations up the chain of command are up more than 68%. This has a direct impact on the business—not just customer dissatisfaction, but also conversions: “For one company in our study, difficult interactions had only a 6% chance of resulting in a cross-sell or upsell, compared with a more than 80% chance that an easy interaction would.” Customers threatening to defect were also only one-fifth as likely to accept a “save offer” enticing them to stay if their interaction had been difficult rather than easy.

Office-based Infrastructure Stays Behind in the Shift to Work-from-Home

For support employees, an already stressful experience has become worse than ever. Working the phones from home can be inconvenient and unreliable, especially with personal land lines or cell phones. As challenges come up, there are no co-workers or managers close at hand to offer advice or support. Web-based resources may be available, but the experience as a whole feels disorganized and chaotic just when reps need to do their best work. Calling and confirming credit card numbers over the phone with other people in earshot puts sensitive information at risk.

Outbreaks Expose the Hazards of Physical Call Centers

A Korean call center found that 94 of 216 employees working in one room had been infected by the virus—a rate of 43.5%. A Sky call center in Cardiff, U.K., was closed for cleaning after a positive diagnosis. Even call centers with no reported infections have had to close due to local restrictions. Those remaining often lack sufficient staff to meet customer demand. With an uncertain timeline for vaccine development, and no reason to doubt the emergence of unrelated pandemics in the future, maintaining a crowded call center seems impractical to say the least.

Digital Alternatives to the Failings of the Phone

As work-from-home becomes the new normal for now—and maybe for good—companies need to empower support reps to help customers more effectively from wherever they’re working. Digital channels such as chat can help agents handle issues much more efficiently than phone channels, often several at the same time, while managing the distractions of a work-from-home environment. Specialized tools can help them quickly find the information they need while interacting with digital customers, reducing difficulty and stress, and improving agent satisfaction and productivity.

Even better, companies should spare customers the need to call in the first place. Providing proactive, automated guidance in the context of the online experience can make it easier for people to get information, complete transactions, and avoid the kind of difficulty that leads them to seek support. In addition to improving customer satisfaction, digital self-service tools can ease the burden on support reps and allow them to handle the remaining calls more quickly and efficiently. Many companies had already been moving in this direction in recent years as part of a broader trend toward the “guided economy,” using digital tools to anticipate and address customer needs proactively rather than waiting for them to ask for assistance. Others should follow suit—as quickly as possible.

Phone-based support was already struggling to meet the demands of an increasingly digital world. Facing the strain of the COVID-19 crisis, it’s simply no longer viable. The future of support will be built on digital tools and automated, proactive guidance—and companies that fail to make the shift will be left in the past.

As Vice President of Product Management at Moxie, Nikhil Govindaraj is responsible for all aspects of product management, product design and strategy. Govindaraj has more than 15 years of experience in CRM, enterprise collaboration and multi-channel contact centers. He joined Moxie, then Talisma, in 2000, and has served in several key roles within the organization including program management, sales engineering and product management. Govindaraj earned his MBA in Systems and Marketing from Symbiosis International University in India.