COVID made things even worse for call centers. Here is how you make it through

Photo by engin akyurt on Unsplash
Photo by engin akyurt on Unsplash

The Covid pandemic has changed the world. The call center was not exempt. Here are the changes we have seen and the changes we will see.

Spiraling out of control 

Traditional contact centers have been having problems with understaffing, long average hold and handle times, and high turnover rates pretty much since they came to be. 

They have been trying to address these pains by reassessing KPIs, investing more in proper onboarding, adding a little bit of automation here and there (their creaky databases would buckle under the influx of traffic). It didn’t really help – call centers still ‘boasted’ a turnover rate of between 30 and 45 percent, perhaps the highest among industries. 

But then the pandemic rained chaos, bringing these problems and more to light. 

And boy did things escalate quickly. 

There are stories of people being put on hold for 11 hours before reaching a call center rep. Or here’s another one: in April, the Department of Economic Opportunity in Florida could only handle 2% of incoming calls, with an average hold time of six and a half hours.

Call centers that ran on skeleton crews predictably collapsed under pressure, and those properly staffed faced a different problem.  

It turned out they run a pretty high risk of exposure because of tight spaces, shared equipment and a lot of staff coming in for different shifts. For a TD Bank call center in Tennessee, it was okay to have at least 250 workers in a large room. Some companies offered paid personal days to their employees with kids when schools closed down, along with 2 weeks of extra pay if they showed signs of exposure. That was very nice of them, but it didn’t help handle influxes of calls. 

Experts urged business executives to automate and go to the cloud as fast as they could because it was the only way to contain the outbreak. The most important thing was to get agents home immediately.

While onshore BPOs were scrambling to switch to WFH, the outsourcers in India and the Philippines became the answer – but not for long. Companies like Verizon who have around 50% of its call centers in the Philippines were best positioned to transfer the workload. Unfortunately, COVID has brought old problems to light. 

Offshore call centers have long faced a litany of problems bordering on human rights abuses. The wages are low, job security is virtually non-existent, the pressure to perform is high, working conditions are often unsafe and the pressure to deliver translates to a constant fear of job loss. 

Just as they did during the Taal volcano eruption in January of 2020, call center owners forbade their workers from missing shifts in the wake of COVID infection for the fear of losing their jobs. Can you imagine having to decide if the risk of losing your life is worth the certainty of losing your job? This was exasperated by the fact that the Philippines saw COVID as an opportunity to bring in money, especially Chinese money, and refused to close its borders. The situation was out of control when the order of total shutdown came. Just like that on March 18th the U.S. lost a large chunk of its call center support and Australia lost 100% of its phone workers.

How the call center persevered

Shifting to work from home was absolutely necessary. It was painful, too. Many employees simply didn’t have the essentials: a laptop, a headset, a stable Internet connection and software to process and handle customer data (also a quiet room, but that’s probably asking too much). 

T-Mobile sent 12,000 customer representatives from 17 call centers worldwide to WFH. The shift took almost three weeks to complete and required great efforts to ship hardware and software to employees' homes in compliance with newly-imposed safety standards. CIO Cody Sanford named this initiative as one of the toughest during his tenure. Which is not surprising at all, since they had to rebuild the entire customer care operations.

But T-Mobile was one of very few companies that handled the switch with (relative) grace. Most CX companies didn’t even plan for their staff to work from home. When call centers began to shutter, many failed to replicate their CX working environment, including the hardware and software needed to ensure call support.

In India and the Philippines, agents that were forced to work from home suffered from poor internet connection or lack of working space. It turned out some jobs couldn’t be done at the kitchen table, which probably hit too close to home for service reps in banking, since contacting clients has to be done on site for security reasons. 

Although offshore BPOs tried to reassure their western clients they still maintain security standards, a lot of parent companies chose to cut back on their services. For example, Virgin Media recruited 500 call center workers in the UK because of call center disruptions in Asia.

Needless to say, providing employees with the stuff took a while: ISG states that call center capacity is back only 80 percent. So, as we can see, it’s an ongoing process. 

Some software solutions included:

  • Making sure vital information is easily accessible online and all the FAQs are there to relieve the pressure on call centers. That meant using conversational AI for repetitive tasks. Experts urged firms to start automating more calls so that many of the simpler requests could be solved using a software tool, not a human. Only difficult inquiries should be directed to real employees.

  • Intelligent call routing for assigning callers to right agents. Instead of having agents picking up the phone, many decided to implement an AI that could pick it up and route the calls. This is what we at Dasha AI have been doing for our clients for quite some time, as this is a great way to offload agents – and it proved especially handy during the crisis. 

As for those agents that still had to be present on site, the federal Occupational Health and Safety Administration came up with COVID-related recommendations. Aside from urging more hand washing and good health etiquette, companies were prompted to offer flexible work sites and hours and discourage employees from using each other’s desks, phones and other things.

Problems don’t just go away

Not all companies have had the time and resources to implement automation into their workflow. Most are busy trying to complete the shift to WFH and withstand the spikes in demand. 

In these call centers, agents are struggling with spotty internet or background noise, supervisors have to figure out how to handle onboarding, and managers need to ensure they still comply with privacy regulations — which is not unlike what other industries have been experiencing.

What does it all mean? Is the call center dead?

No. 

In fact, the need for the call center is now more urgent than ever – it’s quite surprising, but in times of crisis, many people still tend to choose voice.

Merijn te Booij, CMO of Genesys, says that when it all began customers deliberately switched from online to voice since they wanted to hear the person on the other end of the line, share their fears, get some empathy and assurances.

Donna Fluss, president at DMG Consulting LLC, expands on that point by presenting contact centers as the free psychological counseling centers during the crisis. “Often people call up and they dump their fears and their concerns,” she stated

With call center agents acting as counsellors, it’s vital they have the resource to do so. But the chances are slim as long as they have to deal with repetitive 1-2 minute calls. These are extremely predictable, algorithmic if you will. They eat up operator time. There are many such conversations – and good news is, most can be automated with Dasha AI. Using our call center AI apps to handle these calls with human-like efficiency, you will ensure that real humans are there for their clients when they need agents the most. 

So the call center is here to stay. But the new normal means moving to a digital world – and we have to accept that. 

Even before COVID-19, IDC suggested that 80 percent of revenue growth will depend on digital offerings and operations by 2022. COVID fallout made it clear that call centers might use some help from automation and AI – especially voice AI, since it’s natural, scalable and immune to illnesses and stress. 

Dasha AI is all of the above – and more. 

To find out how Dasha can help you call center, schedule a call with an expert now.

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