Five Ways to Prepare for an Unpredictable Future in Your Call Center

Five Ways to Prepare for an Unpredictable Future in Your Call Center

Life in the contact center can feel like a collective emotional journey, and that was never more true than in 2020.

You and your customers rode the waves of the uncertainty that defined the year. There was disruption like never before. Contact centers had to adapt quickly to serve customers who were anxious and seeking help.

COVID-19 created a contact center rollercoaster

Contact center traffic was also inconsistent and unpredictable. Combine this with the need to suddenly disperse the workforce to their homes and it was a rollercoaster of a year!

The shifts in volume and agent call capacity were striking. Just some of the reporting from the Flash Report of Covid-19 In the Contact Center is telling:

  • The early stages of the pandemic led to contact center overall call volume to increase 300% in just days!
  • Later stages created environments where enterprise contact center call volumes jumped to 800% over normal levels.
  • Agent capacity was a roller coaster, too. Operational changes led to shifting capacity: dropping 20% and then restoring back to 50%.COVID impact of total call center volume

Source: Pindrop Pulse Flash Report: Five Insights of COVID-19 in the Contact Center

Customers tried new things

It wasn’t just what changed with contact centers, it was what changed in customer behaviors, actions, and expectations.

The pandemic also led to changing customer behaviors, in sometimes dramatic fashion.

  • According to McKinsey & Company’s COVID-19 Consumer Pulse Survey, 75% of consumers tried a new shopping behavior since COVID-19 started.
  • Customers also tried new brands – and 73% intend to continue to incorporate those new brands into their routine, according to the same survey.
  • Customers who sought out analog experiences in the past have grown comfortable with digital shopping, but they bring different expectations with them and require more support.


Customers tried new things in 2020

Survival & success depend on the ability to adapt

Business leaders must adapt to the changing landscape in real time. This means predicting what can be controlled while also being prepared for what can’t be.

Those who fared better in 2020 had one thing in common. They had already started investing in the customer experience and understood their customers, their own values, and how technology, data and tools can help guide them through unplanned times.

This isn’t the only thing successful call centers had in common, though. Those who adapted to these unpredictable times shared a few common strategies which will continue to serve contact center leaders into 2021 and beyond. These strategies can be a powerful antidote to “wait and see,” and that’s why we’re going to look at each in detail below.

Five ways to prepare for an unpredictable future in your call center

Ready to prepare for the unexpected? Here are five ways to plan, prepare and provide for your contact centers, your agents and most of all, your customers.

  1. Understand your customer’s journey TODAY
  2. Recognize your customer where they are on the journey
  3. Agile tools and the right mindset go hand in hand
  4. Make the most of the data
    5. Empathy and compassion are more important than ever

Let’s investigate each of these in greater detail.

1. Understand your customer’s journey for today

Find The Baseline

Before we can adapt, we must have a starting point as a baseline. If you aren’t sure where your customers and their expectations have been or where they are going in today’s normal, how can you adapt to the next normal?

Every organization has some collection of tools and processes designed to establish the end-to-end workflow: Process maps, escalation matrices, and swim lanes, to name a few.

The problem with these is that as detailed as they are, they’re internally focused and aren’t really showing you the customer’s perspective.

These systems claim to show an end-to-end process, but from the customer’s perspective, it’s only a part of their experience.

  • The customer doesn’t think “oh good, they’re transferring me to Tier 2 support to investigate and remediate my problem.”
  • The customer thinks “my problem still isn’t solved. I hope this person can help. I hope I don’t have to repeat myself AGAIN.”

See the difference?

There’s another tool that can help you get a picture of the experience from your customer’s perspective: A customer journey map.

Customer journey mapping walkthrough

Source: Customer Journey Mapping: Real-World Examples & Use Cases

A journey map helps everyone inside the contact center better empathize with what the customer is actually going through, leading to better outcomes for customers, agents and organizations alike.

Journey mapping is a process that leads to a visualization of the customer’s journey, and typically includes:

  • Phases of the customer’s journey, from awareness through exit
  • The goals and activities of the customer, typically represented in touchpoints
  • What the customer is thinking and feeling before, during and after those interactions
  • The emotional wins and challenges throughout the journey, often represented in a wave
  • Feedback metrics and insights for key parts of the journey, like NPS or CSAT scores

Give Your Teams a Flashlight

Journey mapping is a best practice, but it’s often not practiced!

In the webinar, Agile Service Models To Manage the Contact Center Rollercoaster, we asked the attendees at the live session when was the last time they had created a journey map for their contact center?

The leading answer, frankly unsurprisingly, was never.

Agile webinar survey results

Source: [Webinar] Agile Service Models To Manage the Contact Center Rollercoaster

Contact centers are often asked to brave these changing tides without the full view of the customer journey. That doesn’t only make things more difficult for your customers, it makes things tougher for your employees too. Imagine how difficult it would be to provide great service to an individual customer when you don’t have guidance or a clear idea of how their interaction fits into their larger customer journey!

A day in a call center can feel like wandering a dark, maze-like path. Each encounter brings with it potential pitfalls, twisting turns, and opportunities to get tripped up on the path to a resolution.

Giving your teams a customer journey map is like handing them a flashlight -- the obstacles remain, but they’re so much easier to recognize and anticipate that it makes their job much easier.

Need a Quick Fix? Just Start Where You Can

A journey map is one step to understanding your customer’s experience so you can adapt and react faster. But it can feel overwhelming and like it requires too much data to do well.

Robust, detailed customer journey maps are very powerful, but sometimes, when things are changing quickly, a quick and dirty journey map can still help!

Need to do something quickly? Take a few moments to imagine your customer’s actual journey. What do you know is probably true about them?

In times like these, we know that anxiety is high, life is uncertain and few things are going as expected.

  • The customer might have been on hold with the unemployment agency or waiting on test results.
  • They might be caring for loved ones or managing school-age children in virtual classrooms.
  • Meanwhile, they have a problem with a product or service.

Knowing that, how does that change the customer’s journey? When they reach out to the contact center, what state are they in?

  • Worrying about…(fill-in-the-blank)
  • Juggling new life stresses (maintaining social distance at their workplace or making lunches for the kids at home…the list goes on and on!)
  • Trying new things! They might be ordering online for the first time or trying a different brand because the supply isn’t available.

Journey maps -- even quick ones, scribbled down on a piece of paper -- can highlight this type of emotional state to help agents and others provide more empathy and understanding. This type of awareness around the customer’s real life also helps agents feel prepared for the more emotionally-charged situations that are sure to arise.

Start where you can.

2. Recognize Your Customers Where They Are on their Journey

Know Your Customer, And This Means On Automated Journeys, too!

75% of consumers in Microsoft’s Global State of Customer Service report said they wanted the agent in the contact center to “know who they are, what they have purchased and have insights into previous engagements.”

The same report reveals that only occasionally (31%) did the agent have this information.

While customers are flocking to channels like chatbots and social media messaging for service, they want the flexibility to use different channels for different needs.

Customer self service portal

Source: Bain & Company Self-Service Portal

Customers are also willing to use self-service to attempt to resolve their issues. The demand for that is higher than it's ever been, and Bain and Company predicts 88% of customers will turn to self-service options to perform routine tasks or get information digitally without assistance by the year 2023.

But if they try self-service and get stuck, they’ll still reach out for support and the contact center should understand their journey.

According to a HiverHQ report, 1 in 2 people say the most annoying part about customer support is explaining their problems multiple times. This is what it feels like to not be recognized as a customer!

Hiver Survey Report Customer Support

Source: Hiver Survey Report -- Customer Support Through The Eyes of Consumers in 2020

Make It Personal, Every Time

It’s important for contact center agents to have one view of the customer.

  • Where did they reach out for support?
  • What was the outcome?
  • How long have they been a customer?
  • What feedback have they provided?
  • What’s their NPS?

These types of data points can assist agents doing what they do best – creating personalized and meaningful experiences for customers, no matter what channel the customer selects.

Of course, the only way to really provide this type of central view for the agent is to have a centralized data strategy.

Asking agents to look to one system for one piece of information and a whole other system for something else is both overly complex and a challenge to a great customer experience.  Unifying all customer data into a single view makes your agents’ lives easier while ensuring efficiency and avoiding redundancy.

One view means customers are seen not just as someone involved with the one interaction of the time but a customer with a relationship with the brand.

3. Agile tools and the right mindset go hand in hand

Ride the Demand Wave and Keep Your Head Above Water

What do customers need when they are exploring new ways of doing things? They need service and support!

And they want this type of support on their terms.

That means swings in contact center demands. And that means one channel might be in high demand one day, and a different one the next!

Thanks to tools that leverage artificial intelligence (AI) and automation, contact centers can be ready for these unpredictable swings.

CXone integration channels for call centers

Source: CXone Interaction Channels for call centers

Tools like CXone can help respond in real-time to the unexpected swing of demand. Leveraging AI and empowering agents to move from one channel to another is just one way contact centers can provide agile and flexible support.

Technology + Mindset = Incredible Results

Of course, technology is not enough -- you need the mindset to match!

Preparation goes beyond just using a tool. Preparing for the demand swings and the next unpredicted event means investing in people!

It was common in the past to have support teams trained on specific channels, like a social response team or a voice-only team. With the channel availability of today, training agents and providing quality management feedback on all channels (or at least a few at once) is a critical way to be prepared.

An agile tool and one view of the customer empowers agents when they have the knowledge on how to leverage those tools. Ongoing training and sharing of best practices helps all agents get better.

Combine a true understanding of the customer’s journey with centralized data to take advantage of slow inbound times with outbound, proactive outreach. Reach out at the right time with the right offer or service to provide exceptional customer experience while also reducing service costs in the future. It’s truly a win-win!

The same idea can be applied to busy inbound times as well, keeping them in check before they can put strain on your team. For example: Some power companies have begun sending out notifications to residents as soon as there’s a power outage in their area, acknowledging the outage and providing an ETA for when power will be restored.

4. Make the Most of the Data

It’s All Connected

Agility in the contact center is about keeping a finger on the pulse of what customers want. What expectations do they have and are those expectations being met?

The only way to do this well is to integrate operational data with experience data. Let’s define each of these:

Operational data consists of what you know about how things are working within the company and if processes, systems and suppliers are keeping up with demand.

Operational data includes measurements like:

  • Customer information in the Customer Relationship Management (CRM) system
  • Supply chain and product delivery information
  • Contact center data like wait times, first call resolution (FCR), escalation rates

Experience data, often referred to as “X” data, includes how the customer feels and the feedback they’ve provided.

This data includes measurements like:

  • Customer sentiment
  • Survey and other feedback mechanism results like NPS or CSAT
  • Employee feedback on particular customers or agent notes

By reviewing these two types of data in an integrated way, the customer’s story becomes one of business outcomes, too.

By tracking these together, leaders can identify correlations and patterns. For example: As call center wait times get higher, relational NPS goes down.

Leaders can identify when those leading indicators (contact center wait times) are heading in a direction which will impact experience data.

The more visibility agents have into this type of information, the better! They will be able to prepare for customer anxiety regarding disrupted supply chains and better empathize with those whose package didn’t arrive on time.

5. Empathy and compassion are more important than ever!

Make It Easier to Care

Contact center demand swings aren’t the only unpredictable situation of the pandemic and the times we continue to live in.

Customers are experiencing more in their lives that require more empathy, compassion and understanding.

The challenge for contact center employees is showing empathy for customers in authentic, integrated ways from the first customer of the day to the last. To do this well, contact centers need to consider not just how to train agents on empathy, but on how to take care of agents’ well-being and environment. If employees don’t feel cared for, how can they be expected to care for customers?

Contact center leaders need to focus on employee engagement and well-being to encourage and support empathy for customers. This can mean everything from managing workforce demands – like understanding their unique scheduling needs - to recognizing a job well done.

Investing in contact center training and employee well-being not only leads to higher customer loyalty, but higher employee retention, too.

This is a critical but often overlooked consideration. McKinsey reports most contact centers report annual average employee turnover rates of 60% or higher! How many extra resources are going into hiring and onboarding that could be saved if employee turnover was reduced? How much better of an experience could longer-tenured employees provide to customers?

Hyperpersonalization of customer care report by McKinsey

Source: The Care of One -- Hyperpersonalization of Customer Care report by McKinsey

This becomes more challenging with a dispersed workforce. Teams are no longer huddled together in a common space, where social interactions and group encouragement could be spontaneous. Now, leaders are required to be more deliberate in their engagement and think about ways to empower agents to avoid burnout without sharing space.

Care For Your Employees and Lead by Example

Here are a few ideas to encourage agents to take care of themselves so they can take care of your customers.

1. Encourage wellness through digital tracking of physical activities, standing minutes, and more.

Some contact centers provide fitness trackers and provide prizes for the monthly winners. These prizes don’t have to be focused on outcomes like number of steps or the like. They can also be about building healthy habits, like logging how many glasses of water were consumed  by the whole team in a week.

Get creative and try different things for different weeks or months.

2. Start staff meetings and other virtual team events with a meditation.

While some may think this is a little too “new age,” there is evidence to show how meditation can help lower stress, reduce future anxiety, and provide a positive outlook.

These are all skills contact center agents need, so making it a habit can produce happier agents.

3. Recognize when things went right before they went wrong.

It’s easy to recognize those service resolutions where the agent went above and beyond, and that’s important to do! But there are many instances when agents have stepped up and prevented those issues from happening in the first place!

Encourage agents to provide their insights and ideas for how to improve the customer journey. They are interacting with customers all the time and should be asked for their suggestions and recommendations!

Recapping: Five Ways to Prepare for an Unpredictable Future in Your Call Center

Disruption is happening. Contact center leaders need to prepare for whatever comes next. The best ways to do that is to really, truly understand your customers and their experiences.

1. Understand your customer’s journey TODAY

2. Recognize your customer where they are on the journey

3. Agile tools and the right mindset go hand in hand

4. Empathy and compassion are more important than ever

5. Make the most of the data

Finally, remember why your customers need you in the first place. They are trying to achieve a goal and your company helps them do that.

Providing empathetic, compassionate and personalized support is a meaningful way to help them achieve that goal. Done well, this doesn’t just help your customers… it can also have a meaningful positive impact on your employees and reduce costs for your company.

That’s a win-win-win!

For more insights into how customer journey mapping and technology work hand in hand to make for a more agile contact center, check out this webinar replay.