Workplace trends come and go. From the hierarchical corner office setups and cubicle rows that dominated most of the 1900s to open-plan campuses with free lunch and foosball that came with the internet boom of the mid-1990s and early 2000s. From “we need to concentrate more” to “we need to collaborate more.” From IBM calling telework the future (then backpedaling) to Yahoo banning remote work entirely… knowing what we know now, none of these has aged particularly well.
Because who had “global pandemic” on their 2020 business continuity plan? Oh, you didn’t? Interesting. Neither did anyone else! A recent Gallup article observed, “After 12 months of challenges, leaders can walk away with decades’ worth of invaluable workplace lessons.” We’ve essentially crammed 10 years of learning into the last one. No wonder everyone’s exhausted.
Yet, we’re also a little wiser.
Much to many people’s surprise, we did find out that work-from-home (WFH)/work-from-anywhere (WFA) actually works and it’s here to stay. Gartner surveyed company leaders and found that 82% plan to allow employees to work remotely at least part-time after the pandemic (whenever that is), and nearly half will allow employees to work from home full-time. We learned, albeit painfully, of our myriad operational and technical shortcomings as we scrambled for quick fixes to systems that were not set up to send everyone—least of all contact center agents—home overnight. And, if you didn’t already know, most of us figured out that anything really is possible when we don’t have a choice.
Now we need to migrate from temporary fixes to permanent solutions. We must safeguard our contact centers and our customer experience against whatever is next. Here are three things we can do today to get there.
1. Stop delineating between agents and everyone else—we all serve the customer.
We need to stop pretending that only contact center agents and frontline workers—or the employees we call “customer-facing”—matter when it comes to the customer experience. If you work for a brand that has customers, you serve those customers.
So, the first thing to do is get everyone onto one system. And I don’t just mean all agents, I mean the entire organization. Combining CCaaS + UCaaS + CPaaS technologies unites the contact center with the rest of the business, opening up the biggest knowledge base we have to the entire employee population. Breaking down that fictitious barrier between the contact center and all other departments will help every brand better serve customers.
Once we address the who, we must address the where. Let’s face it: WFA (work from anywhere) is not going away. It’s time to put reliable tools in place that connect agents with customers and employees with each other—whether they’re sitting still or not, whether they’re in the same time zone or even on the same continent. We can no longer afford to tether everyone to a desk. It’s just not how work works now. So let’s stop talking about enabling work from anywhere and actually do it.
We can do this by putting the exact same tools with the exact same power and functionality we’ve given them at their physical desktops into their pockets. There are (finally) solutions that let us cut the IT chains that have held us all captive for far too long. When we free ourselves from relying so heavily on one department, we decentralize the power to make change and bring it closer to the customer. We make it possible to be more nimble (even if we’re big), so we can then tweak the way we deliver service on the fly based on input and desire that comes directly from those we’re trying to captivate.
2. Work from anywhere also means work from anyone.
Let’s redefine what we mean by agents. When we think about what is possible—and necessary—it’s time to think beyond the traditional contact center. Can a bot do the job? Or does the interaction need a human? Or both? Who should that human be? Where should that human be?
Maybe it’s a student. Or someone managing multiple gigs. Maybe they drive for a ride service, or deliver groceries or last-mile packages in rural areas. Could be a stay-at-home parent. Perhaps they have a hard-to-find skill or knowledge set you need for certain interactions. Or they speak a language that helps expand your support offerings. Maybe you don’t need more full-time agents. Maybe they don’t need a full-time job, either. You see where I’m going.
What if you could even leverage your customers to help one another? Who is a better expert than someone already using your goods and services regularly? It’s why customer reviews have become so critical in the buying process. Qualtrics reports a whopping 93% of consumers say online reviews influence their purchase decisions. Even the majority of B2B buyers (92%) are more likely to purchase after reading a trusted review. What if you could turn those reviewers into your “agents” as you need them?
For example, I’m a big fan of Rothy’s. They make shoes and accessories out of recycled water bottles. I fancy myself somewhat of a Rothy’s expert. (Yes, the pointy flat runs smaller than the slip-on sneakers. Yes, all the shoes can actually go in the washing machine and come out looking brand new.) See, I would be a perfect Rothy’s brand ambassador! And if I weren’t so busy revolutionizing customer service, I would be thrilled to let the company use me as an on-demand expert to help answer other people’s questions in exchange for a paycheck or, say, merchandise. (Rothy’s, are you listening??) Imagine what that would do for the experience Rothy’s customers have. It would be like talking to a friend which—let’s be real—is a bigger influence than anything any brand can say about itself. Ever.
There are endless groups of bright people working on degrees, raising families and earning livings in our gig economy. They could be an extension of your contact center if you have the right tools to leverage them. Imagine what is possible when you have everyone, no matter who or where they are, on one system—and you only pay for what you use. When you’re not locked into expensive software licenses. When you can tap into endless new talent pools. Let’s open up the self-inflicted boundaries and create more opportunities to do better at giving customers what they want.
3. Make software matter again.
The fastest route to the happiest customers is through the happiest agents. Unsurprisingly, the percentage of workers who are “actively disengaged” hit historic highs AND lows during this last year. It’s time for some consistency here, because the Center for Talent Innovation’s (now Coqual) numbers say that, when people feel like they belong at work, they are more productive, motivated, engaged and 3.5 times more likely to contribute to their fullest potential. Yes, please.
Some of the biggest barriers to achieving this are the tools we give employees to do what we’re asking them to do. Most people hate the software they use at work. In The New York Times OnTech newsletter, author Shira Ovide explored this phenomenon. Her key observation was, “When the workers rather than the bosses decide on the technology, it matters whether the technology is nice to use. So those newer workplace technologies mostly don’t stink, or they stink less. But the person writing the checks is still the most important customer, and that probably means you’ll hate the software you use at work.” What a shame. And, it does not have to be so.
As humans, we already know what using great software feels like and what having a “true omnichannel experience” means. Our phones have set the standard: beautiful, powerful, every channel in one screen, and so easy to use we don’t even think about it. Do we contemplate our phones in this context? Do we remark about what a “seamless experience” we had in our last friend-to-friend interaction? Of course not. And yes, it’s as ridiculous as it sounds. And in the name of all that is holy, enterprise customer experience has got to catch up.
The software we use at work should be as beautiful, powerful and nice to use as our phones. We need to give agents one window for everything—not all the windows that fit on the monitor. And the best part is… we can! This customer experience software is real. Today. It’s not some future ideal. If we expect adoption, compliance and happy customers, then the employees using the tools matter as much as (or more than) the executives paying the bills.
It would be nice to think that “once in a generation” means we won’t likely have another global pandemic in our lifetimes. But, it’s tough to overstate just how unprepared we were—as people, as workers, as a developed nation that mostly thinks it has all the answers. Not many could have imagined where we find ourselves, yet here we are. If nothing else, we must be prepared for the unknowable, and that has to start now.
Ultimately, I reject the idea that we are adjusting to a “new normal” or that eventually we will go “back to normal.” None of that is an accurate reflection of where we’ve been or where we’re going. We are charting a whole new course. We’re learning as we go, making some assumptions, taking a risk or two, stepping outside our comfort zone, and rethinking all that we believed to be unshakable. The Accenture Technology Vision 2021 report boldly asserts: “A new future is on the horizon—one that’s different from what the world expected. As this future takes shape, there will be no room for enterprises that cling to the past.” Amen.