2020 was nothing short of challenging for businesses. When the COVID-19 pandemic hit in March, we all scrambled to adjust to the new state of the world. Virtually overnight, hundreds of thousands of agents transitioned to working remotely and the approach, management and infrastructure of contact centers were completely restructured.
In the months following, we have learned much. But maybe the most important revelation is that we could have envisioned this reality long ago. In fact, many of the changes made to adjust to our new way of working have been to processes, policies and operational models that have long been discussed as shifts our industry needed to make. Remote working, automated workforce management, analytics-driven insights, rapid cloud adoption and more empathetic customer interactions are just a few of the changes that are likely here to stay. The only question left is, what was holding us back?
Rapid Technology Adoption Is Possible
One silver lining of the pandemic is that it forced change to happen very quickly. We didn’t have time to think about the downsides of change, the budget or buy-in required, or the potential complexities: We just had to do it. And now, with our evolution a few months old, the majority of contact center leaders are looking at the individual and collective result of our actions and seeing success.
To qualify this, Calabrio worked with an independent research advisory firm to survey U.S. and U.K. contact center managers. The goal was to uncover perceptions about the changes accelerated by COVID-19 and to identify expectations for our future industry landscape. The State of the Contact Center: Embracing the Evolving World of Work includes input from contact center leaders across retail, financial services, utilities, distribution, airlines and health care.
There have been numerous reports that technology adoption across all industries may have been accelerated by as much as five years in the months following the March lockdown. Shep Hyken, a veteran customer-experience consultant and speaker, agrees, saying that customer service managers were encouraged by the pandemic to adapt to a new way of doing business that we would have eventually found in three to five years.
But even more assuring is that these changes have had a positive impact: not only by getting us through the pandemic, but by adding value to our businesses for the long term. Almost three-quarters of contact center managers are encouraged by this, saying that changes made to accommodate the pandemic will become permanent models for our industry.
This shows that rapid technology adoption can work. And while we may not want to use the pandemic as our permanent technology adoption playbook, it has certainly allowed us to practice a rapid approach to digital transformation.
Human-Centricity Is Key to Meeting Customer Needs
Even before the pandemic, a smooth customer experience was paramount to the success of a brand. For some companies, this quest for an effective customer experience led to select artificial intelligence (AI)-fueled technologies like chatbots. But new technologies piloted during quarantine are here to stay.
Many customer needs brought on by the pandemic were not conducive to self-service options. Customers were emotional, under stress and desired high levels of empathy from customer service interactions. In the post-pandemic world, customers will expect this same level of attention to emotion and state of mind. In fact, most contact center managers agree that customers will begin to expect more emotional empathy and have a greater need to feel heard by customer service agents.
With this realization, technology is now being used to facilitate a more human-centric customer service offering. Smart customer service teams realized long ago that analytics-based insights provide a treasure trove of strategic information that can be used to inform training and business actions. Our study showed that more than half of surveyed marketing teams are now leveraging real-time automated analytics dashboards adopted during the pandemic to gain greater visibility into customer service metrics and performance.
With customer expectations rising, the ability to understand customer sentiment through speech or text analysis, or better understand needs through trend identification, is vital to creating richer interactions. The insights gained through analysis of this information can also be used to build informed agent trainings and more customer-centric agents.
Another way to nurture a richer experience is to offer the interaction channels customers are asking for. The pandemic created a situation in which human contact for many was only possible through virtual means, prompting an increase in multichannel communication, including video. Now, 70% of U.S.-based contact center managers are preparing for customers to demand an omnichannel customer service experience by shoring up bots, chat, mobile and other digital channels.
And leveraging technology to create an empathetic, human-first contact center is only going to grow in importance. According to contact center managers, more than half believe that the customer service experience will impact brand loyalty even more than changes in loyalty due to the pandemic itself.
Remote Agents Rising
Before the pandemic, one in three contact centers had at least half their agents working remotely. Since it began, most have moved to telework operations. With its unexpected success, 72% of managers now report that remote environments will continue and become standard, while 85% plan to continue flexible hours for agents, creating more options for “on” and “off” time as agents work from home.
Just over 70% of managers have been satisfied with remote employee productivity and nearly half say that enabling a remote workforce has increased available agent hours. This is in stark contrast to historical perceptions that a flexible operation would negatively impact agent performance and lead to financial losses. The reality is that contact center managers saw a financial gain from a permanent shift to remote work due to lower overhead costs. And since agents are happier in a work-from-home environment, lower agent turnover can reduce the financial and time costs of onboarding new agents.
That said, managing a remote workforce still has its challenges—namely managing employee productivity, enabling team collaboration and finding a way to facilitate operational insight.
Managers are now expecting agents to self-manage their schedules. To do this, they are rapidly adopting advanced workforce management systems that allow agents to see available shifts, schedule their availability and even volunteer to be on call for peak times.
In the evolved world of contact centers, this greater reliance on workforce engagement and workforce management software and analytics gives leaders better visibility into real-time staffing and availability. They are no longer forced to leverage agents within a physical contact center or during static hours of operation, and they can more easily match customer demand with agent skill sets. Since the pandemic began, 65% of managers have increased investments in remote-working workforce solutions like these.
Advanced analytics are also being deployed to manage the quality of interactions with remote agents. From desktop to speech to text-based analytics, contact centers can monitor interactions and offer real-time quality suggestions to agents based on keywords and conversations. Conversational trends can also be identified and used for agent training—and are equally effective whether an agent is remote or sitting within a physical contact center.
In the words of Paul Stockford, chief analyst at Saddletree Research, “Old school QA methods, such as walking the contact center floor, will quickly become obsolete. Analytics will be called upon to modernize and democratize QA, bringing objectivity to the QA process and supporting the career development of remote workers. Like the contact center itself, QA strategies must modernize in order to remain viable.”
The Importance of the Cloud
Another development closely linked to the rise of remote work is an increased reliance on the cloud. With a flexible workforce comes the need for flexible systems and operations.
With cloud-based platforms and applications, contact centers can experience equal or better connectivity and access, higher potential speeds and security, and more workforce flexibility for on-demand staffing than they have in the past. Cloud-based systems also facilitate valuable AI-driven analytics by supporting easier integration with systems outside the contact center: customer databases, financial systems, ERP systems, social media and more. By bringing together historically disparate data, agents have a clearer image of the full customer profile, experience and interaction history.
Already 8 in 10 contact centers are using some level of cloud-based software, but they plan to invest more as the value of the cloud became even more evident during the pandemic. Only 4% of contact center managers surveyed said they were unlikely to increase their deployment of cloud-based contact center software.
Even more important, contact center managers are relying on the cloud to build agility into their businesses. Cloud-based solutions are innately scalable and can flex to adjust in real time to a contact center’s needs. This particular benefit has been pivotal in contact tracing center operations. As governments have been working to combat the rising number of COVID-19 cases, cloud-based solutions have allowed contact tracing centers to spring up in mere days.
The pandemic adjusted the state of the contact center and pushed it to evolve faster than anyone anticipated, but the future is bright—84% of contact center managers believe that the pandemic permanently elevated the importance and value of the customer service function in the minds of consumers. If industry leaders embrace the evolution, are open to new technology and able to empower their agents, customer service and the contact center may just become a beacon of hope for other business struggling to adapt to our evolved world of work.