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In fact, the majority of contact centers are still in physical locations, which left many companies scrambling to shift people and equipment home and rapidly put in place the proper training, connectivity and security infrastructure needed for a virtual workforce. Those without clearly defined business continuity plans that factor in infrastructure needs were hard hit, impacting revenue and customer experience.

During the initial work-from-home phase, several of our contact center clients experienced up to 40% absenteeism as employees struggled to integrate work and home life. Many needed to refrain from working altogether because they had children at home to tend to, lacked a dedicated home office space or required additional bandwidth to operate. Across industries, contact centers experienced a surge of calls. This not only strained them, but also led to suboptimal customer experiences. Travel customers, for example, needed to cancel, rebook or get reservation refunds. Retail supply chain disruptions caused delivery delays that led to increased call volumes and longer hold times. And healthcare and banking organizations faced increased security risks made more complex by stringent compliance mandates.

Regardless of industry, it took the better part of a month for many of our clients to stabilize their call center work-from-home environments, which involved setting up infrastructure, establishing a new cadence of working in a distributed environment, and reskilling and training agents to address different customer inquiries. These measures, albeit essential, negatively impacted many key performance indicators (KPIs) including:

  • Average handle time (AHT) increased from 3 – 6 minutes to more than 10.
  • First call resolution rates fell as new multi-step workflows left agents unable to complete transactions and caused repeat customer calls.
  • Average queue/hold times rose as call volumes increased, either due to the acute phases of the crisis, as policy changes were implemented, or because there were fewer agents due to absenteeism.
  • Customer experience declined as new processes to handle quickly implemented policies turned agents into call routers, making the process more difficult and frustrating for customers.
  • Transfer rates increased as an effect of longer AHT and average queue time (AQT).
  • Abandonment rates rose from a target of 2% – 5% to more than 10% in some cases as AQT increased.

Having now shifted to a fully work-from-home model, call centers continue to face many of these same challenges. Even with basic technology in place, businesses struggle to effectively monitor their remote workers’ interactions with customers without onsite supervisors. Forced work-from-home revealed the need for a rigorous business continuity plan that can prevent business disruption. We advise setting up additional locations or backup sites where operations can resume when events such as a pandemic, hurricane or technical issue arise.

For example, we worked with a leading U.S. food services company, which was given four hours’ notice that its call center would be temporarily closed. We helped the company rapidly develop a business continuity plan and equip teams to work from home. To alert team members of the closure and the new work-from-home plan, we set up a calling tree to communicate the news to hundreds of employees and identify those who lacked access to a laptop or the internet. Over a two-day period, we deployed equipment and remotely trained employees, enabling them to seamlessly continue responding to customer inquiries, maintain service agreements and keep operations running smoothly.

Driving a warm care model with the right mix of people and technology

To address the disruptions caused by COVID-19, companies have blended automation tools with more personalized high-touch support and digital capabilities designed to improve performance and customer experience. For example, companies can maintain safety and ensure service reliability by using more and better self-service options, shifting work across locations and leveraging automation.

We worked with a food services company in the midst of its hiring process when offices were closed due to COVID-19. The company needed to quickly shift to hire and onboard new employees remotely. We helped the company distribute equipment and move its standard four-week training program to a virtual classroom. Within three weeks, the company’s remote recruiters conducted hundreds of interviews and hired more than a dozen new employees. Despite the inability to offer one-on-one training to new hires, our train- and work-from-home process provided a seamless transition that had little or no impact on the company’s ability to serve customers — as evidenced by a consistent above-target customer satisfaction score.

With such approaches, companies are not only able to effectively serve immediate customer needs, but also introduce new technology for longer term benefits. What businesses may not have expected are the tangible benefits that a work-from-home model can provide. For example, at-home agents answered 13.5% more calls than their in-house counterparts, and offering agents to work from home has been shown to reduce contact center turnover by 65%.

As the economy slowly reopens and a new normal emerges, many call centers will likely keep all or part of their workforce virtual for continued safety, satisfaction and cost reduction reasons, such as real estate expenses. Others may distribute work across multiple locations or cross-train employees to answer different types of calls, so the absence of resources during a spike in call volume is less challenging.

Many businesses are opting to partner with firms to handle some or all of their contact center operations to leverage an optimum mix of people and technology to support on-demand staffing for volume spikes.

For example, early in the crisis, a mortgage servicing company experienced a surge in calls from customers wanting to discuss mortgage options or request deferred payments. We provided a team of 120 work-from-home agents who were trained and productive in only 10 days.

Technology will dictate success

Regardless of whether organizations maintain or outsource some or all of their call centers, outcomes achieved will be dictated by technology, which plays a critical role in driving agent efficiency and enabling a mobile and remote workforce that can be operational anywhere. Deploying a digital-first operating model will create long-term contact center sustainability and enable continuous improvement.

To build resilience, contact centers should consider service interaction technologies such as cloud-based omnichannel solutions, artificial intelligence (AI)-driven interactions, bring your own device programs, and predictive analytics. We will see a shift toward Internet of Things capabilities and contactless technologies and channels such as AI, video, virtual assistants, interactive voice response and bots. We are already seeing the benefits of these technologies with our own clients. For example:

Additionally, organizations should use command centers to help manage remote, distributed workforces across multiple locations and ensure security and governance. Customer experience will remain paramount, and contact centers should consider tools like emotionally intelligent agents and AI-driven machine learning to drive the best experience possible. And the way they measure success will shift to new digital metrics.

When deploying solutions, organizations need to ensure that technology is easy to understand and used to maintain a good customer experience. Ultimately, the right mix of people and technology will deliver an equal or better experience at a lower cost. And the right digital operating model will ensure business continuity, should another crisis occur.

For more information please visit the Digital Customer Service section of our website or contact us.