How would you redesign a call centre from scratch?
Imagine you had to design your call centre from scratch. Today’s call centre would certainly look very different to call centres designed ten years ago, or even last month. COVID-19 has redefined what business continuity means today, with many traditional options such as enabling outsourcing, or moving to other premises not being a viable option.
The global pandemic and the mass movement to work remotely has also had a profound influence on CFOs, as was demonstrated in the results of Gartner’s March 30th survey of 371 CFOs regarding what may be the lasting impacts of the COVID-19 crisis and the impact on business. Seventy-four per cent of those surveyed reported that they intend to shift at least five per cent of their workforce to remote work permanently post COVID-19.
When we look at both today’s remote working requirements, as well as the future landscape where remote working is set to feature more prominently, it’s clear that the call centre is set to be designed with new operational models, and driven by new technologies.
However, even before the COVID-19 pandemic, there were some companies that had begun to implement new approaches in addition to traditional call centres. In this article, we discuss what they are doing that works, and how these approaches may help future-proof call centres.
Using a blended resource pool that can handle scale and disruption
Most call centre operations run as cost centres and have to constantly wrestle with ever increasing pressure to reduce the cost to serve, while at the same time delivering great customer service - improving one of them can also increase the other.
When chatbots and AI hit the customer service technology market some years ago, there was an enormous gold rush for companies eager to be able to handle customer service enquiries at a fraction of the cost of people. There was also mass appeal in serving an increasingly digital savvy customer base with instant results that would ultimately get good feedback and very low customer effort scores. The advancements in this space have been truly impressive and they continue to grow, but perhaps not at the same pace as they have in the first five years or so.
What we are now seeing is an evolution of the contact centre technologies that have come to fruition. However, there are four key aspects that a technology should entail - being able to simplify and leverage value, leverage and automate this value, and to automate and eliminate customer ‘irritants’. At present, only one customer technology can fulfil the requirements of all four quadrants in the modern call centre, and that's a customer service offering that combines gig-based 'experts' with a permanent workforce. This is termed GigCX.
The reality is that there will always be a place for automation (done right) and there will always be a place for in-house people for those more complex requests where something has gone wrong. But with the huge number of inbound requests generated in call centres, there is a significant amount of demand in between that we’re finding alternative solutions for. This demand can be broken into three areas: customers looking for reassurance, customers seeking the opinions and options available to them, and customers wanting guidance through a process or on a product.
In recent years, when it comes to customer support, various future-focused businesses have put different solutions in place that span a variety of strategic workforce models, using various technologies. Much of this effort has been dedicated to tackling the issue of scale, which has always been a top priority and a challenge in customer service, whatever the size of a call centre.
Just like any other line of business, customer support has peaks and troughs. Holidays, for example, can cause additional and expected volume in customer support queries. Whether volume is expected or unplanned, peaks and troughs don’t really lend themselves well to good hiring policy, as they can cause businesses to have to make employees redundant or overwork understaffed teams. Furthermore, COVID-19 has highlighted the issue of scale in that many, many brands have seen increased volume in customer service queries surrounding services, and increased demand for products.
Now more than ever, there is an increased need for agility and flexibility to deal with variable demand for customer service: however, this should not come at a cost to quality of service. When considering customer service and call centre design, companies need to consider how they can scale to meet different levels of demand, while maintaining quality.
While the traditional call centre will no doubt make a comeback post COVID-19, many companies are also looking to compliment their call centre offerings with virtual agents and gig customer service workers, which scale naturally according to demand. Frequently, these are useful ‘frontline’ query handlers for simple customer service queries, and if they are unable or not available to answer queries, these can then be re-routed to people.
Using these types of tools means that call centres can scale more easily, at a reasonable cost, keeping humans as the core element of their customer service model. A call centre built with these tools in mind also helps many companies to ‘hedge’ their customer service capacity across various models, which in the case of COVID-19, has helped meet demand.
Give Your Customers Choice
In using various models and channels for customer service, you also provide your customers with the one thing we hear about time and time again in top customer service priorities: choice.
The way people access and consume customer service varies significantly. Some of us will scour a website and self-service knowledge base long before picking up the phone. Others will dash off an email, or head straight to a virtual agent to begin tapping in a query electronically.
However, many of us want to speak to a person directly, especially in the time of COVID-19, where human to human communication has been limited. In this case, gig customer service agents have made for a welcome addition in maintaining a personal level of service, at a similar cost to that of virtual agent customer service. Where staff capacity and availability is limited, we are now finding that a range of technologies and platforms are used to bolster the in-house and virtual agent workforce.
Though many may consider the blend of human and technology in the customer service space a sign of being stuck in limbo, this is not necessarily the case. At present, we have a gap between what we term to be automated and assisted support, and the ultimate goal for customer service providers may not be to automate as much as possible. Rather, the introduction of assistive technologies - like gig customer service agents that work on AI driven platforms - will best address the human behaviour changes we are seeing in relation to technology. Fully autonomous technologies cannot solve everything - even the most secure people need reassurance sometimes, and people tend to value and trust the opinions of other humans.
What it all comes down to is ensuring that your call centre offering gives customers the choice of both human-based and technology based customer service, and maintaining consistent quality levels of service between both.
Trial to Build Trust
It’s understandable that those companies that have used traditional call centres for so many years will be reluctant to implement new working models, and it’s normal to be wary of new technologies. However, as the COVID-19 crisis has so quickly taught us, business needs to be flexible right now, and many companies are having to take a leap of trust in trialling new models and technologies.
It is also worth looking at companies who have extremely successful track records in customer service, such as Microsoft, to see that it has deployed several models that span in-house agents, a gig customer service workforce and automation as a multi-tiered approach. It reports both improved levels of customer service satisfaction, as well as improved response times. This flexibility has allowed the company to be extremely agile in its customer service approach to the COVID-19 crisis by being able to increase the traffic to those elastic channels. It has allowed the company to flex with the increase in demand and importantly maintain the key performance metrics of resolution rate, time and quality.
Businesses around the world are having to consider and trial new models, such as re-deploying all on-floor sales staff digitally to ensure sales and business continuity. By being open to new approaches, they are working in the best interests of business continuity.
Several things are for certain: the call centre of the future can absolutely be prepared for anything. By accessing new 24/7 talent pools and making use of new technologies, we can respond faster, reduce the cost-to-serve and enhance the customer experience in a forward thinking, future-proofed way.