2020 has been a year to remember – unprecedented and unpredictable. The pandemic lockdowns altered the business landscape as consumers changed their buying habits, businesses pivoted to survive, and so many companies permanently shut their doors.
It's tempting to put 2020 behind us and move on, but before you get out your shovel and put it in the ground, you should do some honest lessons learned about the past year and use the information to guide your 2021 contact center investments.
An effective lessons learned session needs to include answering the question, "Were we as prepared as we could have been for the impacts of the pandemic?" Granted, it would have been difficult to predict this particular scenario, so maybe reword the previous question to, "Is our business prepared to handle the unexpected?" '
Part of business continuity is ensuring all functions in your organization, especially the contact center, are resilient and can weather storms with agility and built-in adaptability. Adaptability across all parts of the business - agents, operations and business creating real flexibility agility across the board. This will ensure your organization can respond better to any crisis, regardless of the specific scenario.
In 2021, contact centers should invest to get built-in adaptability by increasing agent support, implementing digital channels, and embracing AI-powered bots.
1. Investing in agents becomes more critical
Your agents are your greatest assets, playing such a critical role in satisfying your customers. You probably sent them home to work at the beginning of the lockdowns and many may still be there. Have you made remote agents part of your permanent operational model like so many other contact centers?
Your agents were probably real troopers when you sent them to work from home, stoically putting up with technology glitches, changing plans, and not having everything they needed to do their jobs. But enough time has passed that these initial bumps should be smoothed away. At-home agents should have necessary tools and still feel like they’re part of a team.
a. Give them all the tools they need
Prior to the pandemic, some organizations had embraced a remote agent model, but many others had only dabbled in it and still others had work from home (WFH) pilots on their long-range road maps. The pandemic forced the hands of the more reluctant contact centers and those future pilots became immediate, full-scale implementations.
As an example, our customer, Alphanumeric, had a portion of their global agent workforce working from home prior to the pandemic, but then moved all 400 agents home within 24 hours when the lockdowns began. Alphanumeric supports global clinical drug trials for pharmaceutical companies
"Downtime is not an option for us,” explains Jay Baucom, Senior Vice President, Global Operations and Chief Information Officer.
It turns out that contact centers (and many agents) really like the remote agent model. In fact, the 2020 Customer Experience (CX) Transformation Benchmark revealed that 70% of contact centers expect they will continue to have agents work from home after the outbreak.
A key to making this model work is providing at-home agents with access to all the applications they use with full availability, reliability and speed. This can include their agent desktop, CRM, knowledge base, performance dashboards, quality monitoring tools, scheduling applications, and more. If these are all in the cloud, giving agents access is quick and straightforward, especially compared to making on-premises software available to remote workers. Get a laptop and a good connectivity and you are mostly set.
Ensuring remote agents' internet access is fast and secure is another key to success. IT teams may suddenly find themselves in a new role as they interact with internet service providers to optimize home Wi-Fi, routers, and internet access. Additionally, IT groups need to focus on making sure the internal infrastructure can support remote workers, which can include ensuring VPNs, data centers, hosted applications, and connectivity to them can support the additional load from WFH employees.
And organizations may need to invest in new capabilities to support remote workers. A Nemertes study revealed that organizations are planning to invest in several areas that will benefit contact centers, including head sets, security, contact center apps, and connectivity.
b. Offload agent work with self service
Most workers like the elimination of mundane work tasks and agents are no different. Strategic use of self-service capabilities can ease the burden of performing repetitive tasks and allow agents to flex their problem-solving muscles. Increasing customer adoption of self-service tools can change the nature of agents' roles and increase their value as they begin to focus more on complex issues.
This move can not only make an agent's job more fulfilling, but having strong self-service capabilities should also be part of every organization's business continuity plan to ensure they have an agile contact center. Being able to quickly turn on and promote self-service in a time of crisis provides contact centers with the flexibility they need to continue to support their customers.
In fact, many organizations relied on simple IVR self-service to help manage the large spike of inbound calls they experienced at the onset of the pandemic or as sophisticated as investing in bots.
Every customer that self-serves represents a task an agent doesn't have to perform. This can be good for both morale and the bottom line. More businesses are beginning to understand the value of self-service, as 43% of the businesses in our benchmark survey said they prefer self-service channels over agent-assisted methods, a 15 point year-over-year increase.
c. Make meaningful process improvements
A new year is a great time to scrutinize some of your suboptimal processes and do something about them. Start 2021 right by improving processes that create friction with your agents and customers or drive up costs through inefficiencies.
Begin by looking at your stats. Are your hold times higher than target? What about transfer rates? Is there an opportunity to shave some time off average handle times (AHT)? Or do you want to improve quality scores?
Then, talk to your agents to find out their ideas, because they'll have some good ones. They will be able to tell you what additional support they need, which process or policy standards degrade CX, if certain aspects of the technology are cumbersome, and more. As you know, this isn't a shy group. Give them a forum and they will share their ideas.
Here are some process improvements we have seen that produce meaningful results for our customers:
- Skills-based routing. Skills-based routing is a process improvement that can positively impact agent satisfaction, customer experience, and operational efficiency. It can help solve problems like high transfer rates, hold times, and AHT; low customer satisfaction scores; and low agent engagement. Modern ACDs are capable of sophisticated skills-based routing, so consider tuning up your routing rules or, if your ACD is outdated, an upgrade may be in order.
- Factor self-service interactions into agent staffing needs. As you increase your self-service offerings, the number of agent-assisted contacts should decrease, perhaps significantly. When you look at staffing look at self-service deflection rates so you are much more optimal in your scheduling.
- Monitor interactions and reward good agents. When so many agents are working remotely, it's important to stay connected with them through frequent communications, ongoing development, and appropriate rewards and recognition. As your quality team evaluates interactions, have them flag ones that deserve recognition. To get a more comprehensive view of quality, consider implementing interaction analytics, which can assess 100% of contacts and calculate agent-level customer sentiment scores.
If there is one strong trend coming off COVID-19 it is around digital adoption and investment discussions on long-term digital transformation. It is imperative for organization to pivot to this business model earlier than later.
Also your customers want to interact with you on digital channels. Are you meeting those expectations? Our consumer research has shown that 90% of consumers say they are more willing to do business with a company that provides more ways to communicate. Further, digital channels like email and chat have strong preference scores and others are gaining ground, especially among Millennials and Gen Z.
There's an imperative for digital first customer service that many contact center leaders recognize. In fact, digital channels are gaining favor among decision-makers, with chat and SMS experiencing the highest YOY increases as preferred interaction channels.
But these gains aren't just limited to agent-assisted digital channels. Self-service digital channels are also experiencing gains, led by mobile apps.
Customer demand isn't the only reason to implement digital channels. There are also very practical reasons to go digital - it can help contact centers manage demand and provide more agility as part of business continuity plans. Most digital channels, unlike voice interactions, don't require real-time responses. This means agents can respond to, for example, emails and chats and switch over to real-time phone conversation and come back to doing chat and that too concurrently.
This characteristic was particularly helpful at the start of the pandemic when phone volume and wait times were high - customers who couldn't get through on the phone could send an email or a message on Facebook Messenger and eventually receive a response without having to wait in a long phone queue. Also having agents respond to interactions in parallel – talking to someone in chat but taking a call in between and going back to a chat.
Vera Bradley has been using CXone email, chat, and SMS with great success. They opened up text on toll free numbers and saw up to high deflection rates even before they announced it to their customers. These digital channels provide communication options for their customers, which has been particularly important during the pandemic.
For maximum flexibility in reacting to changing customer preferences or emergencies, contact centers should implement software that enables digital channels to be quickly turned on and off.
AI-powered bots are no longer experimental technology. Organizations are successfully using them for self-service or in conjunction with agent assistance for an optimized customer experience and more efficient operations. And, like digital channels, they can help manage contact demand and should be a part of business continuity plans.
Bots can be deployed in various channels – voice, chat, IVR and many more and are typically used to answer common questions or facilitate simple transactions. They are also effective at gathering customer information that can be handed off to the agent for quicker agent-assisted interactions.
Both consumers and businesses believe bots need to be smarter, which is happening over time. As artificial intelligence becomes more useful, consumer and business adoption increases. For example, in our research we found that 66% of contact centers use at least one AI channel for customer support, a substantial 16 point increase from the previous year.
Forward thinking contact centers are including more AI in their near-term plans. In fact, 40% are investing in customer-facing AI capabilities, like chatbots, in the coming year. But even more - 52% - plan to invest in AI that will improve operations.
AI isn't just used for chatbots. Contact centers can also use it to improve forecasting and routing and to measure customer sentiment. Additionally, AI-powered bots can act as agent "co-pilots," advising agents about the next best action and performing some of their administrative tasks.
Our customer, DSW, has successfully incorporated bots into their service model. Driven by a need to increase efficiency, their biggest win to date has been adding a voice bot to their IVR to authenticate callers. This allows agents to get right down to business and make a sale or solve an issue. The results have been impressive - a 30% increase in customer satisfaction and a two minute decrease in average handle time.
Time to go cloud
Investments on digital, bot and agents remain critical in 2021, specially as we look for that built-in resiliency that companies now have to think about. These investments are all critical, but they need to be implemented on the right platform to ensure maximum success. As per our research, 66% of contact centers who are not using cloud today are planning to accelerate their move to the cloud as a result of the pandemic. They recognize the flexibility cloud-based solutions provide.
A cloud platform allows agents to onboard quickly and seamlessly work from home. Additionally, when your contact center software is in the cloud, adding and integrating new digital channels is a snap. And the open nature of cloud platforms makes integration of AI capabilities much easier compared to on-premises solutions.
Start 2021 off right with a decision to invest in agents, digital channels, bots, and a cloud platform to ensure your contact center is prepared for the unexpected. Make 2021 the year of the resilient contact center. Goodbye 2020 and Welcome 2021!Listen to our contact center leader panel discussion to hear more about how they managed demand swings in 2020 and insights on contact center investments in 2021.