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Covid-19 crisis has speeded up contact centre digital transformation

Pandemic has accelerated digital transformation in many business sectors, including contact centres such as those of the University of Huddersfield and UK Power Networks

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The impact of the Covid-19 pandemic on the contact centre market has been dramatic.

According to Leigh Hopwood, chief executive of the Call Centre Management Association (CCMA), many of its members believe the industry has “jumped forward five years in three months” because of the opportunity afforded it “to implement new technology to support a mass migration to homeworking and to deliver a digital transformation”.

Many operations were already “going down this path” anyway, says Alexander Michael, global practice leader at research and consulting firm Frost & Sullivan. But the fact that they had to adapt quickly to new circumstances, combined with the changing expectations of customers and the business, “focused minds and accelerated decision-making”, he says.

While Michael points out that some organisations experienced “incredible failures that shouldn’t have happened” because of inadequately provisioned offshore contracts and/or a lack of internal investment, most managed the transition reasonably effectively – after an “initial couple of weeks when everyone was scrabbling” to deal with a difficult scenario.

But the situation did reveal a clear divide between those businesses that had invested in a digital-first, cloud-based strategy and those that had maintained a more traditional on-premise approach, with the former finding it much easier to cope – although many on-premise suppliers “were quick to offer their customers trial cloud licences for free for up to 90 days, so they could get up and running quickly, with the hope they’d stick”, says Michael. 

As for the shift to home working, it has given contact centres an opportunity to introduce more flexible shift patterns – although there is currently a growing realisation that while being based remotely works for some employees, it does not work for others.

Growing importance of a mixed approach

This means that a blended approach is likely to become the norm, says Jonathan Allan, chief marketing officer at contact centre-as-a-service provider Puzzel, which collaborated with the CCMA on its latest report, The evolution of the contact centre.

“As contact centres have realised they can operate perfectly well with staff at home, they will work out which skillsets and employees work best remotely or on flexible hours,” he says. “If it’s a technical contact centre, you could be very flexible and just buy an hour or two of someone’s time, while others might be almost entirely office-based, with everything in between.”

But the pandemic has also affected consumer behaviour. Because of widespread expectations of congestion on traditional phone lines, many consumers – often for the first time – have turned to newer channels, such as email, chat and social, to deal with simple transactions.

This situation has led to “sharp increases” in the adoption of technology, such as chatbots, self-service and even artificial intelligence (AI) in some instances, says Hopwood. But for more complex interactions, most customers still prefer talking to a human agent.

Allan explains the dynamic: “When people got the response they needed, it gave them confidence where they didn’t have it before, and they haven’t gone back. It also forced contact centres to experiment too, whereas in the past there were a lot that didn’t think they had the capacity or didn’t believe there was enough interest.”

Another thing the pandemic has done is speed up internal decision-making. Whereas in the past, obtaining approval for change was often cumbersome and involved numerous parties, the imperative for swift action has led to the creation of more agile ways of working, which have largely remained in place.

Impact of digital transformation

This situation has, in turn, led to an acceleration of digital transformation across the industry. While on the one hand, Frost & Sullivan’s Michael expects the physical size of contact centres to contract because of the widespread adoption of a blended working approach, he also predicts a “big jump in automation” over the next two years.

The secret to success here will be to find the most judicious mix in terms of how humans and machines interact together, he says. Important software in this context includes workforce management, which is currently in the early stages of adoption, but handles everything from shift scheduling to the monitoring of employee productivity and wellbeing.

Other useful systems that are also expected to become more common include natural language processing applications. These help contact centre agents understand customer intent in order to help them deal with calls in the most appropriate fashion.

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Yet another potential upshot of the pandemic is perhaps more surprising, however. Puzzel’s Allan explains: “Contact centres are becoming more strategic, as in many instances they’re becoming the face of the brand. Companies are also realising that understanding the lifetime value of a customer is based on the knowledge held in the contact centre.”

Rising levels of automation are also likely to boost their importance because agents will be able to move beyond their current predominantly reactive role and become increasingly involved in “customer experience-based selling”.

In other words, says Allan, “companies will start using the contact centre to provide customers with additional value, for example by connecting information together so they can be more proactive with offers”.

The empirical customer-related evidence that contact centres have access to will also enable them to influence the activities of other parts of the business, such as customer support, to ensure the removal of any bottlenecks that are negatively impacting service.

Here are two organisations that reacted quickly to these trends and are now reaping the benefits:

Case study: University of Huddersfield

To cope with the usual peak in call volumes during the student clearing period when all of its agents were working remotely this year, the University of Huddersfield decided that a virtual contact centre was the only answer.

The university had traditionally managed this busy time by creating an on-site contact centre based in its IT department. It also brought in up to 85 employees from other functions to supplement its usual team of 15, which fields a range of enquiries from prospective and current students.

This year, though, not only did the pandemic mean that all of its support staff were working from home, but the university was also in the middle of a tender process to replace its internal PBX-based telephony system.

After taking advice from consultancy 4C Strategies, which was helping with its tender, the organisation came to the conclusion that adopting cloud-based contact centre software was the most effective way forward. So it rolled out Content Guru’s storm system in eight weeks, which included training the necessary agents. This meant it was ready for a trial run during early clearing in the first week of July before using the system in anger in mid-August.

Joanna Radley, the University of Huddersfield’s head of core IT infrastructure, says: “We saw the situation very much as an opportunity rather than something that was forced on us. As we looked beyond Covid to what could help us transform in future, we leapt forward three years in three months, from where we started out to where we are now.”

The biggest single shift was in organisational attitudes towards remote working, where a very campus-focused culture had led to an “if it’s not broken, why fix it?” approach. But the supervisory capabilities inherent in the new system “allowed people to keep an eye on things and monitor call queues and agent interaction, which meant that rather than being physically present in a room, it was possible to do the same job in a different way using technology”, says Radley.

Also, given the tight timescales the university was working under, it would have been impossible to implement a new on-premise system swiftly enough, which meant that without cloud-based software, “we wouldn’t have been able to carry out clearing at all”, she adds.

While the tender for the university’s main telephony platform is still taking place, the aim is to retain storm as a dedicated system for providing students with ongoing support services, which includes the annual clearing peak.

Case study: UK Power Networks

Despite facing a number of challenges when dealing initially with the Covid-19 pandemic, a mixture of public goodwill, internal flexibility and the judicious use of technology has resulted in UK Power Networks’ contact centre boosting its customer satisfaction scores.

As with many organisations, the initial challenge experienced by the country’s largest electricity distributor was to equip most of its 300 agents with laptops to enable them to work remotely. At the time, only 40 had access to work-related mobile devices.

The process, which was completed in just over a fortnight, enabled most staff to access Content Guru’s cloud-based storm contact centre software and other customer-related systems from home. But 25% of the workforce continued to work from the office to ensure critical services could be maintained – not least for vulnerable people, such as those on life support machines – which meant creating a Covid-safe environment.

As Alex Williams, UK Power Networks’ head of customer contact centre, explains, because people working for utility companies are classed as key workers, it would be almost impossible to move to a 100% homeworking model.

“To connect to our network remotely, it has to be done securely via a VPN, which goes through a firewall,” he says. “This means that if there were any problems with the system, potentially vulnerable customers couldn’t get through to us, whereas if employees are in the building, they are inside the firewall and so everything would still work.”

After the initial shift, the next step was to move as quickly as possible into “business as usual” mode by providing good levels of service and low wait times. To this end, a number of other technologies and processes were introduced, a key one being Microsoft Teams.

This system proved particularly useful in answering agent queries about customer issues. A spike in phone calls to team leaders before its introduction was replaced by individual team members supporting each other online, which reflected their former office-based interactions.

But Teams has also been used by leaders, including Williams, as a key communications platform. After finding that tools, such as email, could not replicate more traditional face-to-face interactions, the decision was taken to use other mediums, including interactive slide decks and weekly video updates.

But despite all the upheaval, Williams says staff sickness levels in August were the lowest on record at 2.75%, compared with an industry average of 5-5.5% – a situation he attributes to the flexibility of remote working. He adds that customer satisfaction scores have risen from 92% in 2019 to 92.2% this year.

“There’s been a lot of positivity towards key workers in general, but it helped that we kept to our commitment to send out engineers within three hours to deal with power cuts,” he says. “We also maintained the same level of service throughout, which I don’t think would have been possible without technologies such as the cloud and video calls.”

Importantly, Williams also believes the pandemic has served to heighten the strategic importance of contact centres in representing the voice of the customer.

“The wider business was always fairly good at listening to input, but it was often if there was an issue that needed addressing,” he says. “But the mood of the public is now being judged mainly on feedback from the call centre and, since lockdown, we’ve been sharing that mood on a more regular basis as it’s being seen as increasingly pivotal.”

Read more on Customer relationship management (CRM)

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