COVID-19 sends support tickets soaring as contact centres feel the strain


Contact centres are struggling as COVID-19 takes hold, with customer queries increasing and staff numbers dwindling. 

31st Mar 2020

Customer support queries are soaring as a result of the COVID-19 crisis, putting contact centres across both the public and private sector under strain – a situation exacerbated by sick/self-isolating staff and a lack of preparedness to deal with such an abrupt switch to mass remote working.

For instance, the week of 15 to 22 March saw a 20% jump in the number of service tickets being issued compared with the same period last year, revealed Zendesk’s Benchmark Snapshot report. The CRM software supplier has been analysing the support interaction data of more than 20,000 global companies since the start of the pandemic.

The three sectors most affected over the last three weeks, it said, consist of remote conferencing and learning (calls up 216%), airlines (up 199%) and grocery brands (up 39%). Travellers wanting to change their itineraries with Canadian airline WestJet, for example, have experienced waits of more than 10 hours, while longer than average hold times at banks and credit card companies are likewise being reported by customers, with some even having their calls disconnected.

Contributing to the issue of prolonged or futile wait times are understaffed or shut contact centres. Sky UK was forced to close its contact centre in Cardiff this week when it feared an employee had contracted COVID-19, while Barclaycard has been forced to contact customers to warn them that there are fewer colleagues available in its contact centres as a result of the coronavirus outbreak so delays should be expected. 

This data is backed up by similar findings from LivePerson, which provides customers, such as Sky, Virgin Atlantic and RBS, with an AI-based messaging platform. It found that conversation volumes are up by an average of 18% since mid-February, rising to 130% in the hospitality industry and 96% for airlines, indicating that many customers are also turning to self-service software for help too, not least due to long wait times.


The dangers of volume and volatility combined

According to the Snapshot report though, the impact of spikes in contact centre support calls in Europe is currently being most felt in Italy, Germany and the UK, all of which still struggling to contain the virus. Latin America has seen a leap in calls over the last two weeks too, but things are starting to stabilise in Asia Pacific as the number of cases decline in major markets, such as Singapore and Japan.

Volatility is also an issue, however. Elisabeth Zornes, Zendesk’s chief customer officer, said that the situation was creating new challenges for customer experience teams: “Things are changing so fast right now and in ways that feel increasingly difficult to predict. Business simply isn’t business as usual, and we’re prepared for things to continue this way for many months.”

But contact centre providers are trying various tactics to cope with the situation. Rick Bloom, chief executive of tech support firm, for example, has put out an announcement saying he wants to hire an unlimited number of remote support agents.

However, Adrian Swinscoe, independent advisor, speaker and author on customer service, experience and engagement, warns in a recent Forbes blog that “things are not going to change any time soon”.

“The challenge facing service and support teams is likely to be more like a long sprint rather than a marathon,” he warns. “But if customer service and support teams work hard, take care of each other, work with their customers and seek help where they need it, they will deliver.”

How to alleviate the pressure on your contact centre

In a blog post, consulting firm Baringa recommends that organisations implement the following steps to help alleviate the pressure on contact centres during this challenging time:

1. Eliminate calls and non-urgent interactions 

  • Check your ‘first line of defence’ is working how it should, update your website and reflect how you want customers to reach out to you and how they can self-serve.
  • Expand, regularly update and order high volume FAQs.
  • Relax some of the identification and verification checks you would normally run. 
  • Streamline communications and proactively reach out to customers, don’t wait for them to contact you. 
  • Stop all low-value activities to free up time (e.g. nice to have data capture or some sales activity at the end of calls). 

2. Route and message effectively 

  • Focus on your most vulnerable customers, guide all trivial queries to other channels.
  • Be ruthless in your customer segmentation, and move segments to self-service where possible. 
  • Switch interaction to webchat instead of calls; these are easier to handle in a remote working environment than voice calls, and agents can often handle a number of interactions in parallel. 
  • Route calls away from agents to automated messages wherever possible. 

3. Automate

  • Mine datasets and automate interactions for specific customer segments, e.g. banks are proactively messaging those customers they can identify as currently being abroad.
  • Train your chatbot to respond to COVID-19 related questions.
  • Create digital forms that customers can fill in themselves without the need to speak with a customer service agent.


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