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How COVID-19 changed the role of call centre agent

16th Sep 2020
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For those in the world of customer service, successfully taking work home has been a big challenge to overcome. Contact agents, synonymous with working in call centres, have been badly hit, with concerns being voiced over the social distancing measures available in offices.

It is therefore vital that organisations recognise the new challenges that call agents are forced to deal with and offer them the tools and support needed to succeed remotely.

Customer distancing

Since March, many businesses have experienced ‘customer distancing’ in a struggle to nurture their customer relationships. More than ever, consumers turned to the phone when contacting businesses to make complaints and pose queries. One borough council customer service centre in Wales, recorded an increase of 12,000 calls under lockdown compared to the same time the previous year. How can call agents and staff keep up with such spikes in volume?

In response, some businesses have had to boost their number of call agents with truly rapid deployment, with Scottish firm Ascensos, having increased its number of call agents by sixty times. Equally, some companies like Virgin Media went so far as to ask customers not to call at all while customer service lines were under such pressure.

One highly personal communication channel that has become increasingly popular during the crisis has been video-calling apps. For individuals whose roles include little external phone interaction, the likes of Zoom, Microsoft Teams, and Google Hangouts provide appropriate alternatives. However, such platforms do not cater for contact agents’ needs; their challenges are far greater than these solutions can deliver on. 

Call routing, case deflection, call queues, wallboards, listen-in coaching, data syncing of customers through click-to-dial, and screen pops are all vital tools that businesses with high customer demand need to be able to provide an effective customer service.

With the pressure mounting, it begs the question: how have call agents adapted to operate under the new working circumstances and what lessons must they take forward?

Hidden challenges for the contact centre agent

Working remotely as a call agent is certainly not as simple as just ‘logging on’ from home. There is a mass of hidden complexities behind the change. It affects their phone system capabilities and configuration, not just for redirecting calls to mobiles, but for handling call queues and hunt groups effectively. So, what might seem at first like a simple transition, is not. 

The concept of making or receiving a call, for example, is easy. It is a one-to-one direct connection between a customer and an agent. In this sense, moving agents to the home does not affect the fundamentals of customer service. 

However, with 93% of European and North American businesses still using desk phones, many customer service agents don’t have access to their usual calling devices from home. This presents the unexpected challenge of which device they use to speak with customers and subsequently, which number is presented to the customer when they make an outbound call. Does the agent use their mobile or does the business shell out and provide them with a work mobile? What happens when the agent’s mobile is out of reach? And what happens when an agent needs help from a colleague and must redirect the call?

These questions lead to further complexities. For one, agents shouldn’t use a personal device for security reasons, and at the very least shouldn’t use a personal mobile number for professionalism. Equally, if an agent uses their personal device, that device and associated number becomes the customers direct contact point. So when that agent is ill or on holiday, the call has nowhere to be routed to and the customer is limited to one point of contact that isn’t available. A company needs to be present for around-the-clock support to make their customers feel valued.

The home and the office: same difference

One of the tools that is helping businesses tackle these problems and ford the widening divide between customers and call agents is intelligent telecommunications technology. This brand of customer service tech opens up a range of possibilities for a workforce that is more inclined towards flexibility. In fact, it is shifting the concept of flexibility entirely.

Cloud-supported interfaces, for example, are already available to give agents the agility to work from anywhere, on whichever device they want. These interfaces can give them complete control over who can contact them and on whichever device, all through a centralised company phone number. If one agent is unavailable, the call will be automatically routed through to an alternative agent.

In effect, this technology means there’s minimal difference between the way a call agent operates in a call centre and at home. All data is then easily shared back into their business’ CRM system, improving the efficiency and personalisation of future customer communications. Employee admin time is also drastically reduced.

Contact agents’ future calling

In the long-term, this combination of remote working during the pandemic and emerging technologies will create a wider acceptance that a home worker in any role can be productive with the right tools.

As a result, organisations can now widen their hiring pool, no longer limited by the location of a call centre, and with the ability to offer more flexible working hours and working from home offerings. This will ultimately lead to a new workforce market made of a wider range of people whom previously might have been eliminated from consideration, but who can now be utilised in this new dynamic way of working in a way that wasn’t possible before. For example, working mums and home carers, who benefit from roles that offer flexible hours and the ability to work from home. Businesses will also benefit in becoming more efficient, cost-effective, and productive, some even working from entirely virtual offices. 

So, with the world re-aligning itself in the wake of a crisis, it’s vital that companies reassess their business tools. They should question the status quo and explore areas previously ignored. Doing this, they may well find that their legacy technologies are not so well equipped for an environment that requires greater agility. With change comes greater opportunity.

This may well be a challenge that improves customer service for good.

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