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Pivot to remote call centers difficult for some; others roll with it

Remote contact center tech easily supports agents working from home, experts say. It's the culture of each team that determines success in the current national health crisis.

For many companies, shifting to remote call centers after offices closed due to COVID-19 safety and social distancing initiatives wasn't as simple as procuring equipment and flipping the switch.

Some call centers in certain sectors have experienced overwhelming volume spikes that can't be handled with even the best technology, said Brad Cleveland, co-founder of the International Customer Management Institute (ICMI) contact center association.

"Some manufacturing and technical support operations feel like they're just not able to be there, and they say as much -- 'We're not able to be there, and otherwise provide the support we want to,' -- and are just kind of throwing in the towel," Cleveland said. "But I'm not seeing as much of that as I expected."

Others are grappling with a sudden culture change to support their remote call centers. In talking with call center managers, Cleveland said the ones who have been the most successful are companies that were already proactively supporting work-at-home agents for competitive reasons -- such as JetBlue.

Contact centers that didn't regularly allow remote work -- and on top of that, use agent monitoring and performance metrics resembling a factory environment -- are struggling the most.

"That just doesn't work in this kind of crisis," Cleveland said, adding that while many contact centers have moved away from that model in recent years, remnants of such 1990s-era call center management remain in the industry. "It doesn't work very well in the normal routine, either. Having engaged employees that have the flexibility, autonomy and empowerment is what's working the best right now."

The silver lining, Cleveland said, is that he's also seen companies in verticals such as internet communications, grocery stores and airlines handle dramatically rising customer contact volumes well, despite the quick shift to all-remote call centers. He said a large government call center he works with  had "stereotypical" agent-monitoring workflows, but "a lot of that has fallen by the wayside as it's all hands on deck."

He added that contact centers that don't have the staff to cover massive volume spikes have deferred answering some customers -- one example being an airline whose customer service team asked that customers who aren't traveling in the next 72 hours call back later, so it could serve travelers with immediate needs.

Call center agent working from home
Moving away from a 'manufacturing' productivity metaphor -- or at least adjusting performance goals to accommodate agents working from home -- is the key to running a successful remote call center, experts say.

Employee health top priority -- not productivity

Virgin Pulse, a health and wellness vendor for large enterprises in Providence, R.I., got the word on March 12 that social distancing would send its 225 customer support associates and wellness coaches home from its home office, as well as from its facilities in Dallas and Tuzla, Bosnia and Herzegovina. A business continuity plan under development over the last 18 months made the switch go smoothly as possible in three working days, said Michael Pace, director of global member services.

Call volume overall has gone down for Virgin Pulse, Pace said, but the company has had to post content resources to support end users -- its employer customers' employees -- and enable them to stay healthy in their home environments, while continuing to pursue wellness initiatives. Calls have come mainly from employers asking how to continue wellness programs during this period of remote work, and how to best adjust health incentives when some services aren't available.

"Some of the programs have steps in them that involve going to a doctor and getting [routine] screenings," Pace said. "It's incredibly hard to go to a Quest Diagnostics today and get a screening."

Virgin Pulse does engage in some agent monitoring, mostly for quality of service, Pace said. There is some quantity measurement, but goals have been reduced since COVID-19 forced employees to work from home. Agent monitoring now falls low on the list of priorities, behind making sure associates are safe, healthy, provisioned with enough gear to work from home, and up and running.

Jen Jackson is vice president of customer success at one of Virgin Pulse's technology vendors, Serenova, which provides unified communications as a service and contact center as a service offerings. She said the top questions among its customers in the last month revolve around how to monitor agents from home, along with how to configure systems for remote work and keep connected with employees in home environments.

There's this fear of, 'Can my agents be as effective at home?'
Jen JacksonVice president of customer success, Serenova

"There's this fear of, 'Can my agents be as effective at home?'" Jackson said, adding that Serenova, like many vendors, quickly developed content and advice for customers from its own experience moving its customer service operations to all-remote.

Call centers across New England hit hardest are those whose technology infrastructure doesn't support remote work -- and there are many of them, said Pace, who also serves as president of the Northeast Call Center Forum (NECCF), an independent user group.

One member, which handles appointment scheduling for healthcare providers, took several weeks to get a remote call center up and running. But it had no choice, because the 70 or so agents were crowded into a small space, and it would be impossible to space them six feet apart in the call center to adhere to social distancing mandates.

"Getting them out was not just a business imperative," Pace said. "People's lives were on the line."

Self-service, bots taking some heat off agents

Over the last several years, contact center technology vendors have touted self-service systems, chatbots and AI automation as the future of customer service, diverting routine calls from humans and providing customers with the means for solving their own problems. Some of it has proven valuable in the COVID-19 pivot to remote call centers.

The best self-service tools that have benefited NECCF members, Pace said, are those involving messaging apps. While some customers can take care of themselves, the asynchronous nature of messaging helps human agents better balance and prioritize their workloads.

"Bot technology is actually pretty solid," Pace said. "We employ it. Roughly 17% of our chats are completely mitigated by our AI bot technology, and I believe that has to have helped more than my team."

While AI chatbots have proven to help manage volume, Pace said simple callback technology that keeps a customer's place in the queue and lets an agent call back has proven even more helpful.

Companies and governmental organizations around the world have seen their call center offices closed, both locally and offshore, said Gartner analysts Olive Huang. Often, she said, voice capabilities can't be switched over to work-from-home environments. That's where the digital channels are helping.

"Enabling [agents] in digital channels -- email, chat or asynchronized messaging -- [involves fewer] requirements for home technology and the physical environment, and therefore can be rolled out much faster," Huang said.

Those who can set up agents for calls at home can use other technologies to reduce volumes, she said. "Organizations also quickly adjust the flows in automation technologies -- IVR, chatbot and process automation guidance, too -- as the first line of response to reduce call waiting time."

While automation technologies can help call centers cope in these times, they have their limitations, said ICMI's Cleveland. Many contact centers will learn to effectively use self-service and AI technologies in ways they hadn't before, and he said he predicts a "healthy" discussion of their place in the technology stack after COVID-19 times are over. But he cautioned against overselling their ability to replace people for customer service.

"It's a mixed bag, and I worry about some of the messaging around AI and self-service being the answer," Cleveland said. "Clearly, technology and self-service capabilities have been absolutely essential as a part of the mix of getting through this. But they're not 'the' answer as they're being presented by the vendor community, at least in the cases I'm seeing."

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