Covid-19 crisis has speeded up contact centre digital transformation

The impact of the Covid-19 pandemic on the contact centre market has been dramatic.

According to Leigh Hopwood, chief executive of the Call Centre Management Association (CCMA), many of its members believe the industry has “jumped forward five years in three months” because of the opportunity afforded it “to implement new technology to support a mass migration to homeworking and to deliver a digital transformation”.

Many operations were already “going down this path” anyway, says Alexander Michael, global practice leader at research and consulting firm Frost & Sullivan. But the fact that they had to adapt quickly to new circumstances, combined with the changing expectations of customers and the business, “focused minds and accelerated decision-making”, he says.

While Michael points out that some organisations experienced “incredible failures that shouldn’t have happened” because of inadequately provisioned offshore contracts and/or a lack of internal investment, most managed the transition reasonably effectively – after an “initial couple of weeks when everyone was scrabbling” to deal with a difficult scenario.

But the situation did reveal a clear divide between those businesses that had invested in a digital-first, cloud-based strategy and those that had maintained a more traditional on-premise approach, with the former finding it much easier to cope – although many on-premise suppliers “were quick to offer their customers trial cloud licences for free for up to 90 days, so they could get up and running quickly, with the hope they’d stick”, says Michael. 

As for the shift to home working, it has given contact centres an opportunity to introduce more flexible shift patterns – although there is currently a growing realisation that while being based remotely works for some employees, it does not work for others.

Growing importance of a mixed approach

This means that a blended approach is likely to become the norm, says Jonathan Allan, chief marketing officer at contact centre-as-a-service provider Puzzel, which collaborated with the CCMA on its latest report, The evolution of the contact centre.

“As contact centres have realised they can operate perfectly well with staff at home, they will work out which skillsets and employees work best remotely or on flexible hours,” he says. “If it’s a technical contact centre, you could be very flexible and just buy an hour or two of someone’s time, while others might be almost entirely office-based, with everything in between.”

But the pandemic has also affected consumer behaviour. Because of widespread expectations of congestion on traditional phone lines, many consumers – often for the first time – have turned to newer channels, such as email, chat and social, to deal with simple transactions.

This situation has led to “sharp increases” in the adoption of technology, such as chatbots, self-service and even artificial intelligence (AI) in some instances, says Hopwood. But for more complex interactions, most customers still prefer talking to a human agent.

Allan explains the dynamic: “When people got the response they needed, it gave them confidence where they didn’t have it before, and they haven’t gone back. It also forced contact centres to experiment too, whereas in the past there were a lot that didn’t think they had the capacity or didn’t believe there was enough interest.”

Another thing the pandemic has done is speed up internal decision-making. Whereas in the past, obtaining approval for change was often cumbersome and involved numerous parties, the imperative for swift action has led to the creation of more agile ways of working, which have largely remained in place.

Impact of digital transformation

This situation has, in turn, led to an acceleration of digital transformation across the industry. While on the one hand, Frost & Sullivan’s Michael expects the physical size of contact centres to contract because of the widespread adoption of a blended working approach, he also predicts a “big jump in automation” over the next two years.

The secret to success here will be to find the most judicious mix in terms of how humans and machines interact together, he says. Important software in this context includes workforce management, which is currently in the early stages of adoption, but handles everything from shift scheduling to the monitoring of employee productivity and wellbeing.

Other useful systems that are also expected to become more common include natural language processing applications. These help contact centre agents understand customer intent in order to help them deal with calls in the most appropriate fashion.

Yet another potential upshot of the pandemic is perhaps more surprising, however. Puzzel’s Allan explains: “Contact centres are becoming more strategic, as in many instances they’re becoming the face of the brand. Companies are also realising that understanding the lifetime value of a customer is based on the knowledge held in the contact centre.”

Rising levels of automation are also likely to boost their importance because agents will be able to move beyond their current predominantly reactive role and become increasingly involved in “customer experience-based selling”.

In other words, says Allan, “companies will start using the contact centre to provide customers with additional value, for example by connecting information together so they can be more proactive with offers”.

The empirical customer-related evidence that contact centres have access to will also enable them to influence the activities of other parts of the business, such as customer support, to ensure the removal of any bottlenecks that are negatively impacting service.

Here are two organisations that reacted quickly to these trends and are now reaping the benefits:

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