By P.V. Kannan
We currently live in a time where nearly every email starts with “I hope you and your family are safe,” and ends with “stay healthy.” The COVID-19 pandemic has changed the way we interact with each other as a community, and it is going to forever change the way businesses interact with each other.
The speed at which the COVID-19 pandemic spread, and the urgency shown in various countries with lockdowns, definitely caught many people by surprise. While every company has a business continuity plan, few had considered a scenario in which all regions went into lockdown, much less all at the same time. In my 20 years as CEO, I’ve never seen anything like this. We’ve had to invent along the way and, even though we are not yet through this crisis, we are beginning to see the lessons learned during the pandemic, the pressures it placed on customer service, and the framework for how we must all operate in the new world.
During a crisis like the COVID-19 pandemic, the need for customer service doesn’t slow down – in fact, it increases. Communications between businesses and customers have never been more important. As soon as travel restrictions started, consumers called airlines, hotels and rental car companies to change or cancel reservations. Customer effort went through the roof, as did hold times, as agents struggled to help customers. Similarly, in the banking industry we saw inquiries on contactless payments (e.g. Apple Pay) increased 53%, while requests to stop or defer mortgage payments rose 500%. Even as call volumes are dropping, digital interactions and shifts in the exceptions of customer service are significantly increasing.
Since the COVID-19 pandemic began, there are three key business contact center and customer service-related problems that have emerged from my conversations with executives:
And even though we are not yet through the covid-19 pandemic+3, some recommendations for improving customer service have become clear:
One thing became clear early in the COVID-19 pandemic -- how ill-prepared most companies are, and customer service is for automation. Call volumes and hold times shot up as a direct result of the COVID-19 pandemic. If you don’t have messaging, you pay the price. Consumers will clog your phone channels and contact centers as they desperately seek information. In many cases, they are waiting two hours to speak to someone, and when you do that to a customer, you make them feel helpless. You ruin the customer experience. You can lose that customer. For companies who have not already deployed a digital customer service solution in their contact centers, either automated or staffed by agents, now is the time to quickly stand one up. Here are my key recommendations:
While AI and automation technology is important, it is still critically dependent on humans to provide a quality customer experience. Most B2C businesses rely heavily on human agents to help customers, so what happens when a worldwide pandemic shuts down offices worldwide? It is important to ensure that agent capacity at contact centers is spread across different geographies, with specific process level balancing as a key building block. In my business, we have deliberately based our agents in several geographies to ensure proximity to companies and suppliers, as well as for business continuity to provide customer service. Because we operate contact centers in the Americas, India and the Philippines, we have been able to adjust capacity in each region as new government orders were issued.
Lesson learned during pandemic+1 customer service times means acknowledging the importance of resource distribution and allocation. Ensure data centers are distributed globally and enabling each to operate in a standalone capacity, delivers the redundancy required to maintain services. Use of dynamic DNS controllers to monitor client links and ensure that any failover is directed to other sites is imperative. Critical hardware components must have next day on-site support. And the habits of providing routine on-site maintenance through onsite data center operators, with the backup of local contractors on standby delivers resources when travel is restricted.
Customer service contact centers are designed around agents being in an office to help customers. Work stations are specially configured, and the workspace is designed around supervisor availability. Effective contact centers in this new age of customer service and customer experience expectations mean they must overcome numerous operational challenges including; channel hopping (going from phone to digital channels and vice versa), availability of context from previous interactions, process complexity, training and development, frontline leadership and understanding of industry-specific challenges. These are big challenges for a contact center under ordinary circumstances, but are especially critical in crises like the COVID-19 pandemic, when offices are closed and agents are working remotely.
We have taken important steps to meet the demands put upon our contact centers by the COVID-19 pandemic. It is a scenario that we anticipated and planned for in advance of government ordered shutdowns around the world. There are several specific steps we have taken as part of our business continuity plan to stay competitive and keep our customers and your customers happy. It is essential that we keep our services up and running for our clients and there are several steps we have taken to keep contact center operations going, customer experience managed and customer service top-notch while shutdowns are in place, while we also evaluate changes for contact center needs in the long term.
Contact centers ultimately need to become much more automated and flexible in terms of how they deliver services in order to improve the customer experience. Even as digital channels become more important to customer service and digital chat and messaging agents are able to work remotely, there is still work to do to ensure that voice agent solutions can work remotely.
On a personal note, I hope that everyone reading this is staying healthy and safe. At times like these, we must reflect on what really matters in this world. Take care of your family, and ensure that they have the emotional support they need right now. Reach out to your co- workers to say hello and make sure they are doing okay. Even though we can’t be with our work colleagues or business partners right now, we must work together to support each other as one big extended family.
P.V. Kannan is the co- founder and chief executive officer of 7.ai, a leader in AI-driven customer experience software and services. He holds more than 30 patents (issued and pending), and has been featured in several books as CX thought leader. His new book “The Age of Intent: Using Artificial Intelligence to Deliver Superior Customer Experience,” is now available on Amazon and iBooks.