A certain pandemic has turned the world on its head. With lockdown measures now easing, attention has turned to prospects for businesses, employees, and customers. As the so-called new normal dawns, contact centres are being hailed for helping to preserve the link between businesses and customers and deliver a shot in the arm to businesses eager to bounce back.

Pyrios has been in the thick of the action, helping clients to recast their contact centre operations for at-home and work from anywhere agents. While remote workers and technologies that make it possible are nothing new, the scale of their success in the heat of a single compelling event is still sinking in.

Over the last four weeks I’ve chatted to clients and others at the contact centre coalface. The following is a snapshot of their experiences and observations.

Highspeed proof of concept 
The at-home contact centre has been a huge success. Remote working systems were up and running in days, sometimes even hours, off the back of cloud systems popularised for their scalability and inherent capabilities as a business continuity platform. The switch to remote working proves that people should be trusted to do their jobs well when they have the right tools and support. Cloud systems make it possible and also ensured contact centre agents freshly recruited from other industries were up and running quickly. Ingrained prejudices concerning security and productivity of remote agents have been well and truly debunked.

All eyes on the contact centre 
Level 4 lockdown was a king-sized spanner in the works, causing most businesses to grind to a halt. During that time, contact centres were the critical link to customers, answering their questions and managing expectations surrounding business availability and services. The situation provided a brutal lesson in the importance of contact centres to business continuity and skills and knowledge of contact centre agents.

Traditionally viewed as an unsexy cost-centre, contact centres are having their moment. Contact managers are now finding a seat at the boardroom table and have never been in a stronger position to ensure their operations feature prominently in top-level business planning.

New respect fosters collaboration
Staff from other departments have witnessed first-hand the pressure inside a contact centre and the level of knowledge and skill required to keep customers happy. The stigma that once attached to contact centre agents is fast disappearing as interdepartmental collaboration rises to meet ongoing challenges facing customer communication.

Higher adoption and usage of existing self-service tools
Customers have taken to new channels, such as web forms and phone app functions, to perform basic self-help activities, including changing account details and settings. The move shows both a willingness to use alternative channels, which is making a real impact on the volume of incoming calls, and an expectation that in exceptional times self-service will be faster and less painful than waiting for help from a live agent. For the most part, IT teams have been able to deploy new customer functions extremely quickly, ably demonstrating the potential of IT departments to seamlessly introduce new forms of customer engagement.

Achievements in the wake of Level 4 lockdown have encouraged some businesses to reprioritise digital investments in favour of services that more directly address urgent customer requirements over loftier marketing goals.

Fewer ‘transactional’ calls, more empathy
For some contact centres, web and other channels have lightened call volumes, which has given agents more time to spend with customers, who are often stressed and scared. In uncertain times people crave human contact. Empathy has never been as important. Thankfully, live agents now have more time to demonstrate empathy as self-service gains traction.

Callers more accepting of long wait times
Customers for whom a live agent is the only option are more tolerant of long wait times. Most contact centres haven’t recorded an increase in the number of complaints, despite lengthening call queues, suggesting that customers appreciate the impact of extra demand on contact centres.

New cadence for technology decision making
The successful deployment of new channels and self-service functions in the heat of lockdown has set a new expectation for the speed of future service enhancements in the contact centre. Contact centre managers need to keep the ball rolling as business reopens and IT departments get pulled in other directions.

Managers develop a deeper appreciation of agents’ lives 
With agents at home, working from kitchen tables, bedrooms, and other quiet spots, managers have glimpsed the personal lives of their workers, capturing a better appreciation of working conditions and at-home stresses. Managers have stepped up, providing more personal support to address issues which, under normal circumstances, remain out of sight. Virtual group huddles and individual calls are now part of normal operating procedures.

The situation has also put KPIs under scrutiny, with higher importance placed on individual needs over strict compliance to performance metrics. On the training and coaching front, however, normal cadence has been maintained to preserve a semblance of normality and keep standards in check.

Ironically, perhaps, when everyone is working in the contact centre, where managers have a direct line of sight to individuals and their activity, the opportunity to build deeper relations between agents and leaders are rare.

The future contact centre will mix the best of remote and centralised work 
The success of remote contact centres has opened eyes to their potential. Most managers believe the future will feature a mix of at-work and at-home agents. The need for human contact will drive many to return to their workplaces, with at-home work options accommodating agents who require flexibility. Work at home capabilities also allow employers to retain their best staff should they decide to move to another part of the country, or when their availability changes. Such flexibility works well for employers in large urban areas, where the cost of living and travel make them far less appealing places to live and work.

Primed and ready to go in the new normal
If our response to the pandemic proves anything it is that people and processes can change quickly. Technology supporting new ways of working is up to the job. And when your people have the tools and support they need, they can be trusted to do their jobs well. A direct line of sight to employees is no longer a base requirement of management. Technology tells managers what they need to know. Combined with knowledge bases and remote training and support tools, contact centres have everything they need to work seamlessly from almost any location.

Author: Kelly Brickley

Business Development Manager at Pyrios

Connect with Kelly on LinkedIn.

Kelly has been in the business of contact centres for 30 years and has, since her return to New Zealand in 2009, focussed on supporting contact centres to maximise their operations through deployment of operations management best practices and best of breed technology tools.