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COVID may have wrecked your call center, but it was your customers who suffered the most. Here are their stories

Photo by Murray Campbell on Unsplash
Photo by Murray Campbell on Unsplash

Not so long ago, I took a really close look at how COVID disrupted the call center industry. The chaos caused by lockdowns across countries, the hurdles of switching to WFH, the agents under tremendous strain – it’s all still fresh in our minds.

It might be that your call center was not exempt either.

This time, I’ll tell you the same story, but from a different perspective: your customers’. 

In their desperate attempt to stay alive, many companies got so immersed in tracking metrics and analyzing numbers that they stopped seeing the people behind them – the real people who had been hit by the pandemic too, and who also suffered. 

Below are stories told by citizens and customers. The stories span a variety of industries and settings, but all have a common thread.

These are the stories of people who waited. 

Healthcare

In Ontario, Canada, the authorities were forced to ask citizens to call their family doctors and not the Telehealth system (a free service where you can consult with a Registered Nurse) if they needed medical advice. The reason was quite unsettling: wait times for COVID-19 related calls averaged 1 day, and 2.5 days for non-related calls. 

One London, Ontario resident decided to reach out to Telehealth with stomach pains and a fever, suspecting appendicitis. After trying several attempts to get through to an operator, she was told a nurse would call her back in four days and 10 hours. 

What about people who didn’t have a family doctor? you might ask. An Ontario official suggested they don’t really have much of a choice. 

“Telehealth is still available,” he said


In Victoria, Canada, you had to phone the local healthcare facility’s only call center to book a COVID test. 

A Victoria resident started to develop symptoms and began calling the facility Monday morning. He managed to get through only on Wednesday morning. His symptoms worsened. After being put on hold for more than 3 hours, his call finally got transferred to a nurse, but she couldn’t hear him because of technical difficulties and hung up. 

The man got fed up and decided to take a testing site by storm, but was told upon arrival that the test had to be registered through the Island Health line as they were unable to accommodate unscheduled visits. 

Finally, the man went to an urgent primary care clinic and was given a nasal swab for COVID-19 (the doctor said he likely had the flu). The man regrets skirting the rules, but his heart condition and the possibility of becoming severely ill propelled him to demand a test.


This August, the residents of Marion County in Indianapolis saw a rapid rise in 911 wait times: some callers were put on hold for minutes. 

One of them was Sarah Evans. Her father had collapsed in his bedroom, she called 911, and only 4 minutes and 8 seconds later was she able to talk to someone who could dispatch paramedics. An ambulance arrived 16 minutes after she initiated the call. She could have gotten her father to the hospital faster than waiting on them, she said. She also wondered: if they can’t pick up the phone right away, what’s the point?  

It should be noted that while national standards dictate 90% of emergency calls are to be answered in 10 seconds or less, nearly 29,000 callers trying to reach Marion County 911 since March had to wait more than 60 seconds.

Unemployment

Across many states, local authorities got bombarded with calls regarding unemployment benefits. You don’t need me to tell you how many people lost their jobs because of COVID disruptions. Let me give you a glimpse of how they handled it.

In April, the Department of Economic Opportunity in Florida could handle only 2% of incoming calls, with an average hold time of more than six and a half hours. In May, the agency had already spent more than $119 million on contracts to add thousands of call center workers and support the system.

In August, the Employment Development Department in California would take 4 to 6 weeks to call people back regarding unemployment benefits. 

But nationwide, it doesn’t get better with time. Now (and I’m writing this in October), people trying to reach the Nevada Department of Employment are still put on hold for 7-8 hours. The officials state they have been deploying new staff, but claimants say nothing has changed

And even if you do get through to an operator, chances are they won’t be able to help you with your request. This happened in Texas: the local Workforce Commission hired hundreds of contractors who were unable to provide much beyond basic assistance and instructed callers with complicated issues to call back in hopes of reaching someone who works directly for the TWC.

Banking

Banks too were inundated with amounts of calls they had not been prepared for. In March, Capital One callers had to wait over 20 minutes on average to reach a customer representative. Compare that with an average of 41 seconds in 2018. Some customers sat on hold for 3 hours, were disconnected 7 times and got nothing accomplished.

Same went for Bank of America’s clients: to defer a payment, they were put on hold for more than 30 minutes – an unprecedented amount of time.

Mortgage

COVID made things hard for millions of homeowners. And when they attempted to work things out with mortgage lenders, they too found that call center capacity left much to be desired.

As the pandemic broke out, wait times skyrocketed. So did abandonment rates: a lot of people were prompted to hang up early. Those that persevered felt that the calls also became longer.

In early March, average speed to answer was 2 minutes, with handle times averaging 6 minutes. But in late March wait times ballooned to 13 minutes, prompting as many as one in five callers to hang up before being put through.

Airlines 

Of course people had to cancel flights. But then again, it wasn’t so easy. Delta was one of the airlines with the most severe call center issues.

What’s interesting is that Delta customers with Platinum and Diamond elite status were at least able to request a call-back, with wait times of between 42 minutes and two hours, while all that people without one heard was a prerecorded message asking to call again.

Final thoughts

You and I, we’re all part of the customer experience industry. The recent disruptions showed just how easy it is to forget who you actually serve. My point is, we must always remember why we’re here – and that is to ensure superior customer experience. Even at times like this. Especially at times like this.

Putting yourself in the customer’s shoes and hearing their voice should help you regain focus. It sure helped us. Once you do, make eliminating long wait times a top priority.

And don’t let these numbers distract you again.

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