Customer Service in a post-COVID world

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Like many other industries, the Customer Service industry has been forced into massive changes over the last 6 months.

During peak lockdown periods over March through June, many brick and mortar contact centres, especially those outsourced offshore, had to either close down temporarily, or dramatically reduce capacity, as the risk of widespread infection in densely seated contact centres was all too real.

At the same time, demand for CS services spiked exponentially, as COVID and lockdowns turned the global economy on its head, causing unprecedented change in consumer habits. Customers scrambled to adapt their banking, insurance policies, and travel plans, and buying almost everything online has become the new normal.

Something had to give way, and there can be no surprise that SLA metrics slumped – it was commonplace to see websites warning customers that contact turnarounds would be slow, if not dismal. And on many other UK company websites, consumers were rather bluntly advised that unless their call was urgent, that they should avoid engaging with their limited CS capacity altogether.

Not exactly the message you want to get across to your customers.

Customer Contacts and Working from Home

The ability to perform customer support duties in a remote and WFH manner became a polarising survival factor during lockdown – those companies fortunate (or forward thinking!) enough to have implemented WFH strategies for their CS staff pre-COVID were in a much better position to weather the COVID storm than those operating centrally from an office.

But transitioning existing CS functions to WFH isn’t as simple as may sound:

  • In the UK, it’s reasonable to expect a computer with broadband access in every home, and office staff are quite used to performing after-hours support from home infrastructure.
  • But in developing countries, CS staff are less likely to have a dedicated home computer, and most brick and mortar centres use desktops – employees can’t simply take their work laptop home.
  • Morover, 24 x 7 operations generally use desk sharing, so each computer could be shared by 2 or more employees during the course of a 7 day week.
  • Reliable internet and fibre bandwidth can’t yet be taken for granted in developing countries
  • In fact, in some countries like South Africa, continuous electricity supply can’t be guaranteed during contact hours.
  • The home environment is not controlled, and can pose security and compliance challenges, and awkward background interruptions – we all know how “BBC Dad” feels!

At the very least, a large capital outlay on equipment would be needed to shift brick and mortar centre operations to WFH.
Even post-COVID, desk sharing could well be a permanent casualty, unless decontamination procedures are conducted in between shifts.

As a result, the general work-from-home environment is better suited to Email and Chat channels, and many of the CS support and management functions can be successfully done via WFH , e.g. post mortem agent productivity and QA functions, KPI and SLA measurement, and general staff HR functions.

For offshore outsourcing, it’s far easier to mask infrastructural and home-office environment issues with chat and mail, and as with the case before COVID, the cultural and language barriers between agents and customers shrink in written-form channels (e.g. agents can use automatic language translators on chat and email).

That said, moving a call centre from brick and mortar to decentralised WFH on a like-for-like basis is not likely to be as cost effective as might be envisioned.

Any perceived savings in office rental will need to plowed back in investing in (and insuring) employee equipment, and there will be additional costs associated with meeting compliance, security and end point control.

Customer Self-Support and Automation for new Software Systems

For companies just starting their CS strategy, Vanestum Consulting encourages a strategy of self-sufficiency and automation as far as possible.

  • Keep your software systems intuitive – confused customers are far more likely to request support.
  • Provde thorough end-user Self-Support documentation, Knowledge Base FAQs, Forum, and How-To training videos
  • Link to these self-support pages by providing context sensitive help links in your Apps and Web sites
  • Once you are confident that you’ve covered all bases with your support documentation, take the time to build and train Expert System or AI search functionality into a chat bot to lead customers to these articles

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