Re-shoring and chatbots: Is Australia's COVID-19 response proof customer service has changed forever?
The rapid transformation to Australia's customer service sector proves COVID-19 has changed everything.
Over the last decade, Australian consumers became progressively, and on occasion, begrudgingly, accustomed to the sound of an offshore call centre agent.
The labour arbitrage was simply a magnet for businesses in Australia, where the cost of running a contact centre is among the highest in the world. Australia became the Philippines’ number 2 BPO (Business Process Outsourcing) client after the USA, and the local contact centre industry was stagnant.
From March this year, however, all that changed. COVID-19 created a seismic shift in the way Australians receive customer assistance.
The impact of lockdowns in the Philippines and India was as fast as it was severe. The large BPOs simply could not mobilise a workforce to accommodate clients’ business-as-usual activity, not to mention the surge in inquiries in sectors such as telecommunications, energy and financial services. Australian companies raced to develop solutions which their Disaster Recovery plans just never anticipated.
Australian companies raced to develop solutions which their Disaster Recovery plans just never anticipated.
Some simply turned off phone service temporarily, leaving angry customers in web chat queues or waiting days for an email response. In the background, however, a feverish recruiting drive began: the telcos announced thousands of new contact centre roles repatriated onshore, banks dramatically expanded their existing capacity and government led the way with thousands of positions advertised.
Consumers clamoured for information on financial support and health advice and, often in an emotional or flustered state, speaking with someone local, familiar with the geographic context, was just what the doctor ordered.
Of course many industries, such as travel and hospitality, experienced a dramatic downturn, prompting a variety of platforms offering “labour exchange” between organisations upscaling and downscaling. Hatch Exchange linked the HR department of booming corporates such as supermarket chains and logistics providers with bleeding airlines looking for a temporary home for their highly trained frontline workers.
Matchboard’s contact centre hotline helped some companies’ inhouse contact centres launch a mini-BPO operation, just so they could keep staff employed until the return to normality. Meanwhile, specialist contact centre recruiting agencies reported never being busier.
Many industries, such as travel and hospitality, experienced a dramatic downturn, prompting a variety of platforms offering “labour exchange” between organisations upscaling and downscaling.
What the future holds
With COVID-19 cases in Australia now at relatively low levels, businesses are starting to assess what their future contact centre strategy will look like. Already the country’s largest telco, Telstra, has declared all inbound calls will be moved back to Australia by 2022, leaving its partners offshore to manage just the digital interactions. In the spotlight are location footprint and geo-risk associated with disasters like pandemics and extreme weather events. (Catastrophic drought and bushfires in December and January are still fresh in the Australian psyche.).
One of the most popular strategies to de-risk is not to “put all your eggs in one basket” - large Australian organisations will be inclined to spread their customer operations across two or three countries rather than over-exposure in just one. In addition to the resurgence of domestic contact centres, emerging offshore destinations such as Fiji and South Africa will increasingly compete for a slice of the pie currently dominated by the Philippines and India.
The country’s largest telco, Telstra, has declared all inbound calls will be moved back to Australia by 2022
In addition to geo-diversification, we should expect that many more customer service workers will continue to be based at home rather than in bricks-and-mortar centres. Already Australia’s second largest telco, Optus, has announced home working as a permanent new feature of its operations. The Government’s National Broadband Network has widely been lauded as an enabler while other countries were let down by sub-standard internet in the home.
The work from home call centre revolution had already been in swing in Australia throughout 2019, with insurance giants IAG and Suncorp employing thousands of agents – up to 70% of their contact centre workforce - through work-from-home arrangements. Covid-19 has propelled this strategy into the mainstream for businesses of all shapes and sizes.
Human digital balance
The most in-demand skill in Australian customer service today is emotional intelligence. With millions of consumers and businesses in financial distress, and with the prospect of the Government’s JobSeeker and JobKeeper packages ending in September, contact centre agents are dealing with unprecedented levels of caller anxiety and trauma. In recognition, employers are screening carefully for agents with the right mix of communication and coping skills, as well as investing in a range of employee training and support initiatives.
There’s no doubt that humans like talking to humans when they are under stress – which 2020 has served up in bounds. At the same time, people have been pushed to the limit in working overtime on the frontline to help – whether that’s answering bushfire emergencies or tele-triaging for Coronavirus. Technology has helped relieve the contact centre workforce of some of the burden, enabling questions to be answered faster through chatbots, or sending proactive risk notifications through SMS broadcasts.
Australia had been a chatbot laggard compared to the US and UK, but already COVID-19 has spawned a range of record-time implementations at all ends of the market – from Mums and Co’s chatbot to help Australian working mothers to Deloitte’s chatbot for swamped super funds. What this has shown is that Australian businesses can be fast and agile when they want to be. Chatbot vendors reported clients were taking more than 12 months to press the button in 2019 – with the sales cycle now stripped to weeks.
Forced to think outside the box as BPOs became unavailable offshore, companies like Suncorp began automating processes previously outsourced, with excellent results. Digitalisation has kicked labour arbitrage off centre stage.
COVID-19 has spawned a range of record-time chatbot implementations at all ends of the market
Two disasters - the coronavirus pandemic and catastrophic bushfires - have left an indelible mark on Australia in 2020.
One of the silver linings to emanate from these crises is an acceleration of initiatives to improve both the employee and customer experience: from flexible home working arrangements and cross-sector opportunities for employees, to more home-grown contact centres with local context to best help stressed customers. Australia's rapid response to tackling COVID-19 has gained much international interest over the last four months, and its contact centre industry has been a key component.
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Sharon Melamed is a multi-award-winning Australian entrepreneur. Following a career in BPO across five countries, she founded Matchboard, a free-to-use website where companies can enter their needs and get matched with best-fit suppliers. Sharon was named Suncorp Innovator of the Year...