We’re now well over the half way point of 2020 and…wow…what a year.
COVID-19 has caused dramatic change across the working world, with contact centres being one of many business divisions feeling substantial effects.
For industries like travel, finance and utilities, COVID-19 brought a tidal wave of unexpected customer contact almost instantly, causing mass disruption to customer support.
Contact volumes sky-rocketed by more than 5x for many brands, leading to painful wait times and unhappy customers. As contact centre teams tried their upmost to cope, they also had to transition to a remote working setup, which many were not ready for, nor had the technical capability to do so. The resilience of customer support teams were well and truly put to the test and that continues for many brands today.
However, amongst the chaos, there have been some beneficial learnings that will now shape the future of customer support and contact centre operations. I cover three of them in this blog.
1. The tightrope of remote working.
Perhaps the most obvious of the three, but one that must be recognised and will play an important part in what the future footprint of a contact centre operation looks like.
Government restrictions forced us to realise that you don’t need an enormous premises with hundreds of desks to maintain a successful contact centre operation. Remote working creates the opportunity for organisations to dramatically reduce their premises and facility overheads, improve work-life balance through reduced commute times, as well as enhance their business continuity plans (BCP). This could have a great impact on employee engagement, happiness and reduce attrition. Heavyweights like Google quickly shared plans to maintain home working until at least summer 2021 (1) and will likely extend this further.
However... a move to remote working also poses substantial risks to employee engagement, as they become more and more detached from the brand and it's culture as time goes on. Contact Centre leaders who are planning to maintain a remote-working operation need to re-evaluate their engagement activities quickly. This will likely mean leveraging new communication channels, increasing the frequency of team interactions and creating a bigger social calendar. Handling the change from what was planned and likely communicated as a temporary fixture, to what will now be a permanent way of working, needs to be done delicately to avoid a long-standing impact on employee engagement and in turn, productivity.
My personal view… in order to maintain a 100% remote working world say 5 years from now, technology needs to evolve substantially, as workers will start to crave more physical interaction with their colleagues and the workplace. Perhaps virtual and augmented reality can play a part in closing this void, but I don’t feel solutions are anywhere near where they need to be right now. I believe that a hybrid approach of greater remote working and some formal office time will be chosen by most in the long run. Only time will tell.
You can check out my previous blog on how to make a successful move to full-time home working for some more tips on this subject.
2. Customers are more aware of asynchronous channels than ever.
Messaging, or 'Conversational Commerce' has been on the rise for a few years now, with many brands looking to direct customer queries away from the inefficient voice channel, to more efficient, customer centric channels like SMS, WhatsApp, Apple Business Chat and Facebook messenger. Not only are these channels more efficient, but Customer Satisfaction scores have proven that customers prefer the convenience and efficiency of messaging.
COVID-19 has had a positive impact on customer adoption of messaging as they battled with long hold times and live chat queues to get their queries answered. Those that found a messaging option quickly realised how convenient it was to converse with a Customer Support Agent in the same way that they’d message their friends and family. Instead of sitting on hold listening to repetitive music, they were able to get on with their day, replying to the agent when it was convenient for them.
On the business side, messaging can be over 3 times more efficient than voice, as agents can handle many more conversations at one time, due to the asynchronous style of communication. Customer's expectations are managed up front to ensure they understand replies won't be instant like live chat, so they can continue with their day and converse throughout.
During the spike in contact volumes caused by COVID-19, brands with messaging enabled were able to quickly direct contact away from voice and in to their messaging teams, through tactical changes to 'Contact Us', web pages and IVR flows. This gave them a much better chance in keeping on top of the uplift in contact volumes.
There are now over 2 Billion WhatsApp users and over 1.3 Billion Facebook Messenger users across the globe(2) with numbers rising each year. Brands who aren’t incorporating asynchronous communication channels into their CX strategy should expect a downwards trend in NPS scores as Millennials and Generation Z become larger customer demographic segments.
3. Harnessing automation for customer support needs to be handled carefully.
The dawn of Chat Bots is well and truly upon us and similar to messaging, consumer awareness on the convenience this technology brings has increased through COVID-19, as they search for answers to their queries. Brands that have harnessed Chat Bot capabilities in the right way have been much better equipped to deal with the large spike in contact volumes experienced and have absorbed a significant amount of this contact and handling time as a result. The ROI seen in both efficiency savings and customer experience preservation during this disruption has created a compelling business case for automation.
That being said, there are risks to customer experience when a Chat Bot conversation is not seamless. Two key aspects of a successful ChatBot strategy that have been proven through COVID-19 are:
Positioning a ChatBot in the right place, for the right intent.
It’s highly unlikely that even the most sophisticated solution can assist with every single customer query type received by a customer support team, so where you position a Bot is integral. By developing a positioning strategy that is intent driven, you’ll be able to place your Bot in front of a customer it's more likely to be able to help. Leveraging website tracking data is critical and measure your chatbot's success by analysing it's Containment Rate % is necessary.
During COVID-19, successful brands were able to swiftly train their ChatBots to offer help with COVID-19 queries and position them on specific web pages where COVID-19 related contact was being driven from, ensuring the Bot could handle the customer’s query. Customers that were prompted to use a ChatBot when it was unable to help with their query became frustrated and are likely to dismiss the channel in future, hindering adoption.
Offering a seamless escalation flow to humans is important.
COVID-19 has been an emotional ordeal, which reflects in customer behaviour. Brands that offer a ChatBot which can automatically escalate to a human when it gets stuck will achieve higher NPS scores and greater customer adoption than those who offer a standalone ChatBot. A poor hand-off process significantly impacts the time it takes to resolve a customer's query and requires greater effort from the customer as they have to repeat their question or problem when contacting support.
A counter argument however, is that integrating your ChatBot to automatically escalate to a human risks driving incremental contact volumes as it's almost too easy to contact support, which can increase your operating costs.
A delicate and important balance to get right, and one that must be thoroughly thought through during planning.
Now is the time for contact centre leaders to be reviewing their operational, channel and automation strategies and COVID-19 has taught us many lessons on how the contact centres can reduce costs whilst improving customer experience when plans are strategic and delivered successfully.
There are so many things to think about when forming your strategy and taking the wrong path can lead to a negative impact on customer experience, plus A LOT of wasted time and money. If you require help, I welcome you to get in touch.
An independent management consultant and certified Prosci®️ Change Practitioner, who specialises in helping contact centre leaders evolve CX whilst significantly reducing operating cost through strategic change & transformation.