Voice Remains a Key Part of the Customer Service Value Chain
For decades companies have been experimenting with new technologies (chat bots, emails, artificial intelligence) to respond more effectively to customer inquiries. However, if the recent COVID-19 events have revealed anything, it is that sometimes people simply need to talk to a real-life person. This is not only true for the current crisis but extends to any complex, time-sensitive, or personal crisis at any point in time.
During any unique event, such as the current pandemic, organizations must maintain a high-touch and hands-on approach with their customers, potential customers, and any others they might serve. To this day, the customer-preferred option continues to be through direct and live discussion with representatives on the phone - just ask the Harvard Business Review.
Unfortunately, during the initial COVID spread many organizations were caught severely flat-footed. Stories abound, including this Washington Post piece on the frustrations (sometimes actually life or death) that result when the voice calling capabilities of organizations are ill prepared and unavailable. However, while the events of COVID-19 quickly exposed call center deficiencies across organizations throughout the world, it also simultaneously highlighted their significance while accelerating what the call center of the future will look like.
As the current events unfold, a new normal is already well underway. One in which call center and voice-based interactions will remain key to the customer service value chain but require fundamental and operational adjustments to maintain long-term customer success outcomes.
Work From Home is Here to Stay
COVID-19 has forced nearly every global organization to re-evaluate the world of ‘remote work’. When the daily impact of the pandemic subsides (and one day it will), the office culture and where people work will forever remain changed.
Case in point, call centers were among the most impacted groups suddenly forced to operate from home considering the typical density of agents in a single workspace. However, while most other businesses witnessed a substantial decrease in activity during the crisis, call centers experienced a dramatic increase. For example, United Airlines’ call volume doubled. Yet despite the dramatic rise in daily activities and customer interactions, call center agents were removed from their place of work, at a time when stability and access to company representatives were needed most.
As a result of the events of COVID-19, organizations have begun to re-assess the traditional call center model. For starters, the on-premise systems that many enterprise institutions rely on today (Cisco, Avaya, Genesys) have quickly shown their limitations when it comes to maximizing agent flexibility and business continuity. At the same time, employers have seen the benefit of allowing people to work from home, including reducing their own overhead on physical space and other costs that come with bringing tens or hundreds of call center agents into a centralized space every day.
Moving forward, a more geographically flexible call agent workforce will be the new norm. As such, enterprises are likely to accelerate their transition from on-premise solutions to more flexible cloud-based call center platforms. In addition, despite the growing proliferation of self-service and digital tools, enterprises are likely to re-assess the strengths and weaknesses of all of their various customer service channels (email, chat, SMS, voice, self-service, etc.) and re-balance accordingly – the importance of voice-enabled and live-agent customer service is likely to get a firm boost as will the use of AI-enabled technologies to address common requests and tasks. In the end, make no mistake, as organizations learn and adjust call centers will continue to be the last line of defense.
Customer Success will Hinge on Simplification and Integration of Systems and Processes
Of course, allowing call center agents to work from home is only a true cost saver if organizations can maintain or even increase overall agent productivity and/or efficiency. While temporarily increasing the number of agents can help during times of increased call volume, many long-attributed call center issues (ie: long wait times, routing to unqualified representatives, etc.) during good times and bad can be linked back to more systemic challenges. To name a few: too many platforms (as of 2018, the average number of applications per company was 128!), too many agent screens to display all those platforms, lack of integration between agent systems, overly customized on-premise systems - and so on.
As the proliferation of work from home continues to gain momentum, organizations will need to quickly simplify the technologies and processes currently in place, as well as the analytical tools required to effectively oversee a remote team as opposed to an in-office one. For one, the agent workspace will need to be reduced and streamlined to ideally allow for a single agent workspace from which all customer data and interactions can be managed. The same will hold true for call center supervisors who will no longer enjoy the benefits of “walking the hallways”, but instead will require a streamlined view of the effectiveness of their team with the help of automated alerts, AI and actionable wallboards to draw attention to where they are most needed - all of this from the convenience of a single desktop, PC, or tablet.
The Importance of Bringing Personalization Back to Customer Engagements
In recent years, chat bots, artificial intelligence, and the convenience of Google have increased the ease and convenience by which customers interact with organizations. However, the COVID-19 pandemic has quickly reminded organizations of the apparent pitfalls of overly digitizing the customer service model - especially in times of crisis. Case in point, 59% of customers would prefer to speak to a live agent when their issue is complex, time sensitive, or unique.
Simply put, the added comfort of speaking with an individual as they remain by your side to resolve an issue, while simultaneously addressing any emotional distress, continues to have no substitute. It also remains a key avenue by which to build differentiated and long-term customer relationships, which is crucial in retaining customers.
In 2019, 49% of American consumers switched companies solely due to poor customer service. Customers expect to feel valued, 84% of customers say being treated like a person, not a number is very important to earning their business and 59% of customers say being treated as an individual is even more important than how fast the issue is resolved. Harvard Business Review notes that acquiring a new customer is anywhere from five to 25 times more expensive than retaining an existing one.
Bottom line, companies cannot afford to overlook the live agent experience. Customers expect the ability to call-in and have their issues resolved but, too often, they do not feel that they are getting satisfactory resolution from an automated system. What they do get is frustration. COVID-19 has reconfirmed the crucial need for call centers. As call volumes have dramatically increased, so has the need for human beings to speak to human beings.