Hearing the Need for Audio Quality


Hearing the Need for Audio Quality

The call center industry is facing a concentration crisis, with background noise levels exacerbating stress and limiting productivity in the workplace.

When IRIS Audio Technologies surveyed 500 contact center agents in the U.K. and U.S. in Q3 2022, a stark majority of respondents — 89%— noted that quality of calls, ability to communicate, and time to resolution are all demonstrably impacted by background noise at both the agent and customer end of calls.

A further 85% of survey respondents noted that background noise results in both parties wasting time repeating themselves. And 84% of agents felt noise had a negative effect on achieving positive outcomes with customers.

With results this clear, it would be shocking, if not unprofessional, to ignore them.

Background noise is a four-pronged issue. You have:

  • The sound your agent can hear from their end of the call.
  • The sound your agent can hear from the customer’s end of the call.
  • The sound your customer can hear from the agent’s end of the call.
  • The sound your customer can hear from their end of the call.

The bottom line is this. Background noise must be addressed in the workplace, particularly in call centers. As companies grapple with virtual communication and the challenges it has introduced to productivity and wellbeing, it’s time to consider how better audio and the supporting technology may improve both the agent experience and the customer experience.

The Impact on the Employee Experience

The call center concentration crisis is troubling news, and it is compounded by the fact that customers still regard telephone and voice-based customer service as a premium channel — one that has to work optimally when it’s used.

Put it this way: when it comes to transactional customer service, such as making changes to an account, scheduling, or getting a status update, many customers feel comfortable using chatbots and self-help channels.

However, when it comes to making a major complaint, dealing with a high-stake sale, or solving a niche, high-value or complex issue, voice conversations are still the go-to.

The issue is that working environments are nearly never quiet enough, whether call center agents are working in offices or at home.

In another survey run by IRIS, we found that the majority of employees wish their workspace was quieter. More than half of respondents indicated that they didn’t like the buzz of office background noise and opt to wear headphones as a result.

When asked how frequently background noise interrupts their calls throughout the day, the majority said they were disrupted at least once a day (89% at home and 91% at office).

The issue is that working environments are nearly never quiet enough, whether call center agents are working in offices or at home.

All these factors are hurting the call center employee experience, and that’s just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to the science of sound in the workplace.

This isn’t a minor issue either — it’s actually estimated that repetition on calls costs the industry $170 million annually.

Background Noise and Mental Health

Another stat we uncovered in our research is that 69% of call center workers feel noise has a negative effect on their mental health and wellbeing — a key factor in an industry with staff churn of 30-45%. This is supported by recent news that employees with burnout are 63% more likely to take a sick day and six times as likely to be actively seeking a different job.

Furthermore, the Great Resignation is very much still happening in the contact center industry. According to the International Customer Management Institute (ICMI), up until 2020 the average “lifespan” of a contact center worker was approximately three years, with a turnover of 33%. In 2021, however, another ICMI study reported an average agent turnover rate of 58%.

These stats are enough to make leaders seriously reconsider employee wellness and the employee experience. While many companies are investing in one-off wellness activities for employees, the impact of noise on the employee experience is enough to make you think: how would taking care of background noise improve your business?

Home Alone: Call Center Agents, Unsupported

Back in 2020, the sudden shift to virtual working raised more than a few questions surrounding the ability of call center agents to work effectively in remote environments, especially in an industry that has typically been entirely office-centric.

While the majority of contact centers have since reopened, there is no doubt that remote working isn’t going anywhere.

A Gartner study recently revealed that 81% of service leaders believe between 30% to 80% of their workforce will primarily be working from home (WFH) two years from now. This is most definitely reflected in agent demands, with 70% requesting to continue WFH long-term.

While the benefits of remote working have been felt by many agents, it also presents some harsh realities. Only 36% of people have access to a dedicated workspace at home, with many resorting to working in shared living rooms and noisy cafes.

Background noise poses an obvious issue, with privacy concerns over sensitive information being seen or heard in public spaces. At worst, remote call center employees risk poor communication and compromised confidentiality, not to mention coming across as unprofessional.

The issue of background noise is obviously no stranger to the call center industry, but the problems that arise from noise in a call center are very different from those that come with working remotely.

The Productivity Predicament

Recent statistics on productivity in the U.S. are cause for concern across all business sectors, and the call center industry is no exception.

According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, business sector labor productivity decreased by 7.5% in the first quarter of 2022, as output decreased by 2.4% — despite American employees working even longer hours. It’s the largest decline in quarterly productivity since the third quarter of 1947, which puts the impact of the pandemic on productivity nearly on par with the effects of a World War.

This trend is impacting all sectors and workers, but one that has seen a particularly huge upheaval is the contact center industry, which revolves around virtual communication.

The important questions are these: can we improve the productivity of call center workers with better technical infrastructure? How big a role does audio play in boosting or hampering the productivity of call center workers?

Realistically, if call centers are to rely on audio as a premium channel, and if they want to ensure they are providing both call center employees and their customers with the best possible experience, there’s quite a bit of work to be done.

The productivity predicament can absolutely be solved and fixing the problem of audio is a big part of this.

Isolating the Voice

Artificial intelligence (AI)-backed voice isolation software is one easy way to get there. By removing background noise on both sides of calls, it enables employees to take control of their working environments, no matter where they are.

By investing in better audio tools such as voice isolation, call centers can bring the focus back to great conversations,
resulting in enhanced productivity and mental wellbeing.

Voice isolation software isolates your voice for the other person, and their voice for you. It utilizes AI to recognize any noise that isn’t your voice and removes it from both sides of a call.

The software can detect other voices that are clearly not the focus, like fellow agents on the call floor, general office babble, or maintenance or IT staff in offices. And at home your standard nuisances like barking dogs, screaming kids, beeping appliances, droning construction, and rowdy roommates.

How does voice isolation software stack up against noise-cancelling headsets, sound masking, or other methods?

  • Active noise-cancelling (ANC) headphones only work for the person using the headphones, blocking noise from their side of the call. Anyone else on the call will still hear distracting noises coming from your end unless you remember to mute yourself. And you’ll still hear distracting noises from their end, unless they remember to mute themselves.
  • Clear voice capture (CVC) cancels the noise around you for the other person, but it doesn’t cancel the noise around them for you. So, while customers may hear call center agents, agents may not be able to hear their customers.
  • While noise-absorbing partitions and increased space between agents may help on a call floor, these tactics are hard to replicate in different agents’ homes — and likely won’t help anyway when the kettle boils or when an ambulance drives past an open window.

When you consider that up to half of all customer service calls are abandoned by customers due to recognizable background noise, AI-powered voice isolation could dramatically improve business results as well as both employee and customer experience.

In summary, the productivity of the call center industry is fragile. Noise and distractions are hampering the employee experience, which in turn aggravates agent attrition and burnout. By investing in better audio tools such as voice isolation, call centers can bring the focus back to great conversations, resulting in enhanced productivity and mental wellbeing.

Jacobi Anstruther

Founder and CEO of IRIS, Jacobi Anstruther is an audio entrepreneur who has made it his mission to reinvent the way we interact with sound, putting the listener at the heart of the audio experience. Using scientifically proven technology, IRIS’ patented products improve focus, engagement, and wellbeing for all.