Calling on Coronavirus Preparing the contact center for a pandemic

Uncertainty or crisis? Preparing the contact center for the unknown

Most of the world has its eyes on the news about coronavirus and its potential business and human impact, and there is uncertainty and potential for disruption in the coming weeks. In order to maintain business operations, organizations are looking to rapidly prepare for the challenges today and will want to prepare ahead for the possibility of these events as part of their disaster recovery, just as they would for natural disasters.

Companies that operate contact centers, especially those related to healthcare, government, travel, hospitality, and financial services must especially be prepared as they could play a key role in supporting their customers and their communities.

Businesses and governments are increasingly asking employees work from home or are shifting work to employees in less affected regions to maintain business continuity and handle large swings in interaction volume during the outbreak.  NICE is supporting contact centers during this crisis, including a free work-from-home module for business continuity and free voice ports for 211 and 311 services to assist with expected volume increases.

  1. Free work-from-home module for contact center workers using NICE CXone cloud customer experience platform. With CXone, organizations can route all voice and digital channels to agents located anywhere. With a computer and an internet connection, agents can continue to answer customer inquiries via phone, chat, email or other digital channels. Administrators and supervisors can continue working from anywhere as well with access to admin controls, quality monitoring and reporting from an internet browser.
  2. To support communities and the vital role that 211 and 311 organizations play in their areas, we are providing unlimited free voice call ports to them through August 31, 2020. When customers request to have their ports increase, the change is immediate.
  3. NICE will also offer a free Business Continuity Planning review to verify that work from home and geographic flexibility can be performed without interruption to the business.

The First Line of Defense

In the case of a health crisis, many citizens will be looking for answers from healthcare providers and other service businesses, and their first instincts will be to do an Internet search or more likely, pick up the phone and call them directly. And businesses across all industries are fielding increased volume of inquiries from concerned customers.

At this point the contact center becomes the first line of defense to respond to the surge of call volume, while also pressured to manage their own employee safety and overall business continuity. It is critical that contact centers can quickly support work-from-home agents, shift work between sites in different regions, and reliability scale up and down quickly based on spikes in customer interaction volume. If not, your contact center could experience a bottleneck or even worse be delivering busy signals to callers – who are already stressed.

Contact centers for health services or for government or community services are the primary mechanism for disseminating information to concerned citizens. People will call with questions about symptoms, emergency relief, patient statuses and more – information that can change by the minute.

For organizations in healthcare, government or education there is a good chance that the contact center will have to extend beyond its normal operating hours, likely taking calls 24-hours a day for certain functions, like say a nurse triage line or referrals to local clinics or temporary emergency facilities with the goal of keeping volume down in their emergency departments.

And of course, businesses across all industries, such as travel, events, and financial services, have been fielding increased inquires from customers on the direct and indirect effects of COVID-19.

Preparing the contact center for a crisis

One thing both health experts and contact center executives agree on is that organizations must have an established plan for their contact centers in the event of a crisis that can affect a contact center in several ways – first, reducing the capability of the company to answer calls or messages as normal. Second, the nature of the call and messaging traffic coming in will change.

The goal for any company is to keep the business running smoothly while keeping employees and customers safe. A well-prepared plan must include:

  1. How to handle increased inquiry volume
  2. How to staff the contact center to accommodate more calls with potentially fewer agents
  3. How to keep employees safe
  4. How to ensure network uptime

How to handle changing inquiry volumes

Many businesses and government entities have already seen a large spike in customer contacts since the COVID-19 outbreak. To handle this their contact center software must have two very critical capabilities: scalability and simple scripting with flexibility.

One, it must rely on cloud technology to dynamically scale and expand to accommodate the extra agents that might be needed to support the increase in contact volume including email, chat, text, social messaging as well as voice calls. This means being able to quickly and easily create new users and automatically provide them with the needed functionality to begin handling contacts. This requires the software to be built on a flexible cloud platform that can be instantly scaled.

[Note that depending on the industry-type, the volume of digital and voice interactions could decrease significantly rather than increase. Changes in spending on travel, sporting events, public transportation, cars, houses, and other luxury items could decrease, so companies in those industries would want the ability to scale down their contact centers to avoid overstaffing and overpaying.]

Second, contact center operators must consider the flexibility they have for quickly updating how call flow and overflow behavior. Callers cannot be put on hold for hours, so the Interactive Voice Response (IVR) system must be able to be easily changed to convey critical information and provide callback options, usher them into a queue to provide self-service information, or prioritize their call to the next available agent based on urgency level.

NICE CXone cloud platform gives organizations the ability to rapidly scale up or down in a quickly to ensure that no matter your situation, you can respond to changing conditions and make sure that you are there for your customers and also protecting your bottom line.

How to manage agent scheduling

If there is widespread sickness, chances are agents in the contact center will be affected even if they aren’t infected themselves. Staff will have to care for family members that fall ill. There is also a good chance that schools will close, leaving parents to care for their children.

Having a workforce optimization system in place will greatly benefit contact centers in this case, particularly as the number of agents scales up to the hundreds or thousands. Workforce management software schedules agents based on volume demands, uses AI to detect and respond to scheduling gaps, and allows for the running of what-if scenarios to determine staffing needs in the event of a staffing shortage. Additionally, quality management software will provide a mechanism to evaluate agents to ensure they are using the level of empathy and sense of urgency appropriate when interacting with customers and patients during such a sensitive time.

How to keep employees safe

Like any environment in which many colleagues are working in close physical proximity to one another, contact centers can be at risk for spreading germs even under the best of circumstances. So having agents work from the office during an outbreak could increase the chances of the infection passing among them and further decimating your agent availability. Consider your employees’ commutes on public transportation as well, which will further potentially expose them to the outbreak.

Part of the contact center’s plan often includes the ability for employees to work remotely as part of a disaster plan. A cloud contact center platform makes this possible, eliminating the desk phone agents typically use at work. With the free softphone, agents have what they need to work with only a home computer and internet connection.

Calls from the automatic call distributor (ACD) are routed to the agent and screen pops provide customer information prior to answering the call. Calls can be recorded and stored in the cloud, and supervisors can monitor agent activity from wherever they are.

How to ensure network uptime

Paramount to providing service in the event of a pandemic affecting your area is to ensure that customers are always able to reach the contact center even in the event of network or voice service outages. Business Continuity and Disaster Recovery (BC/DR) for network and voice connections should be part of any emergency plan. Part of an effective BC/DR plan is employing a second secure data connection to serve as a backup, as well as software protocols that automatically switch to the backup network should network downtime occur.

The same process should be employed for voice connections, as it is the most widely used channel for contact centers. Voice as a Service (VaaS) or hosted voice for contact centers is often delivered an internet service provider (ISP) of the company’s choice. Should the ISP experience an outage, a backup connection with a separate ISP can prevent voice services from going down. Cloud contact center providers such as NICE can provide their own voice services to contact centers and ensure redundancy by using a mix of multiple ISPs – sometimes up to nine or ten. Using a mix of just three ISPs reduces the chance of voice downtime to one in more than a billion.

As the leading cloud platform for contact centers, NICE CXone has a global, geographically redundant cloud infrastructure with built-in elasticity to dynamically scale up or down based on demand. We proactively monitor and continuously forecast demand with reserves for immediate spikes in volume and ability to add data and storage capacity immediately. Customers can rely on the 99.99% guaranteed availability on our carrier-grade network with global data centers and points of presence (POPs) as well as 24/7/365 network operations monitoring.

While there is no way to predict how a virus outbreak or other disaster will affect business, contact centers can be prepared for nearly anything by planning on how to handle emergencies company-wide. Again, the main goal of the plan should be to provide aid while keeping their employees safe and the business up and running.

If you have questions about business continuity planning or disaster recovery for your contact center, we can help. For specific info and consultation on creating an emergency plan, contact us here.