In 1918, calls were coming in faster than customer service workers could manage. A global pandemic was driving people to rely on technology instead of interacting face-to-face. That increased reliance on technology placed an extraordinary burden on the shoulders of customer service workers.
The 1918 Spanish Flu pandemic revolutionized how telephone switchboard operators dealt with a never-before-seen influx of calls from people quarantined in their homes.
The pandemic led companies and governments to urge telephone use in place of in-person meetings for social and business activity. But telephone companies were held back by the technology of their time and did not have the tools to fully adapt. That—in addition to the fact that many operators fell ill themselves—led to long hold times and messages from telephone companies that were working as quickly as possible to connect callers.
The above is another proof point of necessity being the mother of invention. During this time, phone companies innovated and solved for problems in a two-year period that otherwise may have taken five, 10 or even 15 years at a normal pace of progress. Fast forward 102 years and customer service teams faced a very similar situation. In 2020, contact centers certainly dealt with long hold times and highly stressed customers, but 100 years of innovation prepared customer service to adapt. Advanced customer service strategies came together with cutting-edge technology to help contact center teams adapt in ways that simply were not possible in years past. In the contact center alone, we have seen things that we were planning to do in three to five years—such as moving to the cloud—accomplished in one year.
The adaptations contact centers made to weather the brunt of the COVID-19 pandemic will be a blueprint for the ever-evolving modern contact center over the next five to 10 years. The following are the biggest lessons from the last 12 months that contact centers should keep in mind as they look to build their operation for the future.
Train Your Agents for Success
Training agents is certainly not a new phenomenon. There have been many different training strategies incorporated in contact centers over the years, like shadowing, QM coaching and manager one-on-ones. However, one outcome from the pandemic and ensuing shift to remote work was the added difficulty of conducting traditional coaching. It is a challenge to shadow another agent virtually, and managers walking the floor to give out tips based on performance is simply not possible in a remote-work world. Contact centers found they needed to be smarter about their training methods, using more speech, text and desktop analytics. A reliance on data to fuel more insightful training will be a sign of future-proofed contact centers in the coming years.
With speech, text and desktop analytics employed, contact center managers can understand the “why” behind the result of an interaction, not just see the “what.” This insight into customer touchpoints will help contact center managers coach agents to desired results in near real-time. If agents are succeeding, managers can direct them to the reasons why and point out strategies they can continue employing. If agents are struggling, managers can highlight specific examples where a change in tactic could make all the difference.
Smart contact centers will also use analytics to view trends and amend trainings as a whole, fostering new best practices for improved customer service. For example, one Calabrio customer recently used AI-driven analytics to parse out calls with long or multiple hold times and was able to determine that new agents were missing opportunities to leverage their resources—leading to excessive hold time. The customer used this insight to adjust onboarding, ensuring agents understood their resources, and quickly saw an average call time reduction of 1.54 minutes.
Each contact center faces unique challenges, and the best way to prepare agents for those challenges is to utilize analytics-driven insights and create smart coaching strategies.
Get Agile, Reach for the Cloud
The COVID-19 pandemic stretched the limits of many contact centers, but now those contact centers are more nimble and agile. The key to that agility was transitioning to the cloud. According to a 2021 survey of contact center managers commissioned by Calabrio, three-quarters of contact centers have moved to full or partial adoption of the cloud. Of those, 68% did so during the pandemic.
The cloud is no longer a “nice to have,” it is a strategic “must-have.” Modern contact centers must be flexible and have the agility to respond and scale to match any number of challenges. The cloud can facilitate that. Cloud-based systems create better connectivity across channels, higher data processing speeds and more workforce flexibility than traditional software options. These benefits help contact centers match customer needs. For example, since the pandemic, customers expect quicker response times and a human, empathetic touch in their customer service experience. Fully transitioned cloud-based contact centers are twice as likely to have implemented multichannel customer service options to more quickly meet customer desires.
Cloud-based systems can also facilitate machine learning and AI-fueled analytics. In fact, nearly 70% of cloud-powered contact centers say that cloud-based solutions are helping them improve analytics capabilities for both customer and employee data.
But not all clouds are created equal. Businesses must evaluate their cloud offering and their provider to ensure they have the most efficient cloud-based solution for their operation. The cloud should be founded on scalability and shrinkage responses, employee flexibility and digital transformation.
For those that have not transitioned to the cloud, the time is now to do so. According to the Calabrio study, two-thirds of on-premise contact centers feel limited by their current solution. While on-premise solutions may work for some contact centers now, in the future, the cloud will be necessary to survive.
Recognize the Importance (and Limitations) of Technology for Teams
The newest hallmark of the modern contact center is autonomy. With the sudden shift to remote work, contact center managers quickly learned that the agents who were comfortable with—and adequately equipped for—working autonomously were the most successful. During the pandemic, agents were expected to handle their work with limited oversight, and they overwhelmingly rose to the challenge. The new modern contact center employee will realize that autonomy is necessary. But autonomy is not a synonym for abandoned. Successful agents will be given clear directions from managers and will be equipped with the proper tools.
In fact, one of the biggest takeaways from the initial shift to remote work during the height of the pandemic was the importance of the right technology. At the business level, Zoom calls were a daily reminder of this. For contact centers, their workforce engagement management systems, high-speed connections and cloud-based solutions to run multiple apps at once were the reminders. According to Harvard Business Review research, one of the key difficulties for agents during the height of the pandemic was the unreliable technology they had in their homes. In fact, the research measured a massive uptick in both customers and agents saying, “I can’t understand you,” revealing the concrete effects of a limited-tech solution.
If agents are to be autonomous in the modern contact center, they should be supported with a solution that can facilitate their needs. Sentiment analysis helps them decipher customer interactions, speech-to-text analytics to help them respond accurately in real-time, and self-scheduling options are just a few technology needs for autonomous agents.
Contact center managers should also look out for situations where technology is not the solution. Working with a human agent is still a make-or-break factor for many customers. As important as finding the correct technology is for contact centers, it is equally important to remember the importance of agents. Technology should be there to support the real solution—the human agent.
Looking to the Future
There is no doubt that 2020 was a difficult year for all industries, but contact centers saw a unique challenge. However, diamonds result from pressure. After 1918, telephone companies were never the same; after 2020, contact centers will not be the same either. With the lessons learned and adaptations made to survive the pandemic, contact centers will be set up to succeed in the coming years.