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Contact centres will be reborn post-pandemic

12th May 2020
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It will probably take the rest of the decade for us to fully understand all the implications of the Pandemic. However, what has been clear very early on is the huge variations in the digital preparedness of companies. This has been most apparent in the difficulty many people have had in communicating with organisations. Helplines have been jammed and websites have crashed leaving people feeling frustrated and helpless.

This is not a minor problem. Often the information people need to get is critical to their day-to-day lives during the crisis. Applying for mortgage holidays, refunds, updates on essential deliveries and a raft of other highly time-sensitive information is often not readily available. Many people do not have the time to sit on hold for hours on end or navigate complicated websites. For the most vulnerable this creates additional anxiety in an already challenging time.

Businesses have faced a perfect storm, unprecedented demand on their communication channels has hit just as staffing levels have had to be severely reduced. There has been a monumental effort from many to support the nation. However, some businesses will reflect on their previous operational decisions that have left them lighter in capacity than they perhaps would have wanted in the current crisis. For example, call centres have, for the past decade, borne the brunt of cost-cutting measures. Often seen as an archaic costdrain in a digital world, some companies have sought to move all their contact with customers entirely online. Others have outsourced to low paid and skilled call centre farms. Many have simply sought to discourage customers calling by burying contact information or erecting byzantine phone menu options.

While seeking to move the majority of comms online is not a bad strategy - in fact it is exactly what many companies should be doing - the Pandemic has exposed that these plans were, in many cases, not fully thought through and implemented. The ability to add a raft of new information and functionality onto online contact portals, spare capacity to deal with unprecedented demand, and fall back measures such as helplines for the most urgent enquiries have often been absent.

The crisis should serve as a wake up call for communication and customer service representatives at every company. It is an opportunity to better serve their customers and prepare themselves should another crisis hit. This can be done by taking a four track approach, dealing with the immediate, short, medium and long terms.

A four track approach

First, to deal with continued spikes in demand, it is critical that simple functionality such as online call back booking is implemented. This is a cost-effective tool that can take less than a week to get up and running. It has been shown to radically improve call volume handling, saving consumers precious time.

Next, is creating a ‘triage’ system for your contact centres. Using techniques such as customer segmentation, you can quickly identify the percentage of customers that are vulnerable or likely to need the most help. Call back booking slots can be reserved for this group. They can be emailed with personalised messages directing them to a separate landing page which provides them with tailored information and even a separate contact number that automatically escalates their calls. By automating these campaigns by building simple templates with scripts that automatically pull the relevant data, and the most recent information such as social media updates, you can significantly reduce costs and the burden on your marketing team (many of whom may have been furloughed).

In the medium term - rediscovering SMS will pay dividends. Delivery companies have leveraged text messaging for the past few years to keep their customers informed and provide an easy mechanism for them to update their preferences. For other businesses, text messaging can be an untapped channel that will provide an easy dialogue with their customers - further alleviating call centre and website traffic. Creating automations that deliver bulk SMS service messages is easy and inexpensive. So too is aligning SMS with other communication channels to create multi-channel journeys. Customer interactions can be tracked via links in the messages that can trigger communication such as supplementary information via email - and vice versa. 

Long term, tackling the issue of digital transformation is a must. Much has been written and even more has been spent on these initiatives. A large number of businesses will now realise that they were not as ‘digital’ as they thought. Vulnerabilities have been exposed - too many to go into in this article. However, for call centres and digital communication it has been made apparent that a one size fits all approach simply doesn’t work. Attempting to have the entire customer conversation online with chatbots, forms and online messaging can alienate a huge number of customers. Businesses still need a real world, human presence to handle more complex and urgent enquiries. All of their customer service representatives need to be able to work flexibly - in this case from home. This means companies need the technical infrastructure to let them access all the systems they need and also be served quickly with customer data. The contact centre worker, who may have been deemed a low priority while digital transformation strategies were discussed, has been revealed to be a key worker.

Being fully digitally transformed means that all communication channels and systems work in harmony. Digital transformation is not complete without data being embedded and influencing that journey to making it personal and expedient for the customer. The single customer view and multi-channel customers journeys are not just for clever marketing activities, they have also been shown to be critical for crisis communication.

When the crisis is finally over businesses the world over will need to take stock of how their systems and processes have performed. I believe this will precipitate huge investment in customer services - specifically contact centres. Better training, pay, resources and systems, will enable contact centres to become a more equal partner in a hybrid approach to communication. Data will underpin this approach, enabling customers to be automatically moved along journeys that best suit their needs. Integrating all communication channels will provide spare capacity to cope with high demand. The net result will be organisations that provide personalised, higher-quality customer service. This will serve them well in both good times and bad.

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