For Contact Centers, Going Remote Wasn’t Easy, but Opportunities Emerged
Back in early March 2020, Jeff Neblett, CEO of ISPN Network Services, was at a trade show with his colleagues. There were early concerns about the COVID-19 pandemic, but it still felt safe to work, travel, and conduct business as usual. Neblett couldn't have imagined that within weeks, he'd be telling his employees to work remotely, with no return-to-office date in sight.
ISPN, which is based in Lenexa, Kan., is a contact center services provider that works with internet companies to offer technical support to their customers. Typically, its entire workforce operates out of its physical contact center, but within a span of three weeks, 95 percent of its team transitioned into a remote environment to adhere to local shelter-in-place orders.
On top of this massive shift, ISPN faced an unprecedented spike in call volume. As Americans nationwide faced lockdowns and pivoted to remote work, many reached out to their internet service providers to troubleshoot connectivity issues, increase internet speeds, and seek other support, which put pressure on ISPN and, at times, increased wait times. But, Neblett maintains, quality never diminished.
Some contact centers had plans to take at least some operations remote long before the pandemic, and COVID-19 significantly accelerated these plans. Many others, however, never intended to operate virtually and had to venture into completely uncharted territory.
ISPN fell into the latter camp, but as challenges arose, it, like so many other contact center providers, adapted. Now, looking back on a whirlwind of transition, clear lessons have emerged, and it seems unlikely that the industry will go back to how things were. Though there were—and still are—a myriad of obstacles to overcome, from providing quality assurance remotely and maintaining security, to training new hires, contact centers are now paving a new, more flexible, and promising path forward.
Security was one of the biggest concerns that arose when work went home with employees. Contact centers can't have employees saving information from callers on their personal devices, for example, even if they're just providing technical support. And if a contact center handles billing or other personally identifiable information, compliance requirements grow exponentially: Not only do 52 percent of countries worldwide have strict consumer data protection laws, but 80 percent also have electronic transaction laws that organizations must follow, according to the U.N. Conference on Trade and Development.
"Because contact centers are a rich source of valuable company and customer data, they're commonly seen as a soft target for fraud," suggests Eloisa Ferreira, product marketing manager at Talkdesk, a contact center cloud provider."Without the right tools and policies in place, agents can become easy prey to wrongdoers that encourage them to access private information or release information they shouldn't even have access to," she points out in a recent blog post.
At the very least, contact centers must ensure that their remote agents are using secure VPN connections to work from home. But there are additional measures that contact centers are now considering as well, and many of them were a long time coming. For example, facial recognition technology can ensure that only legitimate employees can log into contact center remote work platforms. Similarly, IP address verification systems can be used to confirm that agents are only operating on designated devices from approved locations.
"Contact centers have to be able to confirm that agents are where they say they are; otherwise, if they're not where they're meant to be, like in a different state in the U.S., you could be dealing with different wage laws," Lance Rosenzweig, CEO of Support.com, explains.
At ISPN, agents have been required to log into their physical in-office workstations to maintain security, but as Neblett looks ahead, he's considering virtual workstations.
Massive businesses like Amazon already rely on them to enable agents to work from anywhere. They offer an appealing model for remote work because they provide the security of a physical workstation (agents still need to use a secure VPN to log in), without the hardware costs.
QUALITY ASSURANCE ANXIETY
Another question contact centers faced as they shifted to remote work was whether they'd be able to deliver quality assurance as effectively as in physical settings. Different businesses have different metrics for quality assurance: Are agents sticking to the scripts? What's the customer satisfaction rate? How quickly are calls resolved?
Regardless of the specific metrics, quality assurance is the cornerstone of contact center operations. Typically, agents are monitored and their conversations are recorded. Once managers have a chance to review their performance, they then provide feedback and coaching in person. The pandemic challenged this model in several ways.