Post-COVID-19, Contact Centers Should Reinvent Themselves
THE COVID-19 pandemic was a major shock to all aspects of society and a big blow to the economy and to many companies. Yet the pandemic has accelerated many changes to business models that were already occurring. The trend toward “virtual” transactions spans industries. Large department stores and shopping centers have increasingly lost business to online shopping. Telemedicine, which gives patients an easy and convenient way to access doctors who are increasingly being viewed as commodities, has become a popular form of healthcare. The work-from-home model is becoming a necessity for many companies to hire and retain top talent, even if management hasn’t yet gotten fully on board. Home delivery of most everything, including cars, has become ubiquitous.
These are a few examples of the many business activities and models that were altered or encouraged by the pandemic. The companies embracing these changes could emerge from this crisis stronger and more competitive than before, though it might take a few years.
CONTACT CENTERS PROVE THEIR VALUE
The role of customer service and contact centers changed dramatically and lastingly when nonessential companies were forced to close their doors for the health of citizens in many countries. Contact centers and self-service solutions became the primary and, in some cases, only methods for interacting with customers and conducting business.
During the most stressful and frightening days of the pandemic, contact center executives and their employees demonstrated the agility and flexibility of their departments, as anywhere from a few to thousands of agents moved from the office to their homes to work, a transition that took two to 10 days, depending on the company. Sure, customers’ wait times with many companies and government organizations increased, as volumes went up by 5 percent to as many as hundreds of percentage points, but agents all over the world showed up and performed their jobs, allowing companies to keep their virtual doors open when there was no other way to conduct business.
Enterprise executives had begun to appreciate contact centers during the past couple of years as customer experience (CX) emerged as a primary differentiator. COVID-19 demonstrated to executives that service departments do much more than respond to inquiries—they deliver a great deal of value and serve as their voice to the market.
THE NEXT PHASE FOR CONTACT CENTERS
Many companies are trying to assess when, or if, they should require employees, including contact center agents, to return to the office. But there’s a lot more at stake. All contact centers should leverage the changes forced by the pandemic to drive a full, long-overdue transformation. Enterprises that have voice-only service—a surprisingly large cohort—had a rude awakening during the pandemic, as they were unable to deflect calls to more appropriate automated channels. These companies have hopefully seen that their current service models are not viable in the post-pandemic world.
Companies using older interactive voice response (IVR) systems that are dependent on programmers to make enhancements and changes have not been able to use these systems as intended: to respond rapidly to customer needs. During the pandemic, companies using outdated IVRs could not adapt quickly enough to handle the substantial increase in volume and the changing nature of the calls. This vulnerability left them with no choice but to use live agents to respond to inquiries, including many transactions that could easily have been handled by an effective self-service solution. The perception of these limited IVRs is extremely negative, driving home the need to invest in digital channels and artificial intelligence-enabled bots, intelligent virtual assistants, and other types of smart applications that use machine learning to continuously improve.
CUSTOMER EXPERIENCE IN THE FUTURE
System, operational, and procedural changes that should have been implemented 10 years ago will move forward post-COVID-19. Enterprises that want to succeed will invest in automation, analytics, and AI to establish a technology framework to support their new business models. Digital transformations will finally move forward, but other change will happen as well: Contact centers, which demonstrated their tremendous value during the pandemic, will be invited to play a larger role in the future of organizations. This will be a very different future, where conducting business as usual will no longer be an option.
Donna Fluss is president of DMG Consulting. For more than two decades she has helped emerging and established companies develop and deliver outstanding customer experiences. A recognized visionary author and speaker, Fluss drives strategic transformation and innovation throughout the service industry. She provides strategic and practical counsel for enterprises, solution providers, and the investment community.