Back in early March 2020, Jeff Neblett, CEO of ISPN Network Services, was at a trade show with his colleagues. There were early concerns about the COVID-19 pandemic, but it still felt safe to work, travel, and conduct business as usual. Netblett couldn’t have imagined that within weeks, he’d be telling his employees to work remotely, with no return-to-office date in sight.
ISPN, which is based in Lenaxa, Kan., is a contact center services provider that works with internet companies to offer technical support to their customers. Typically, its entire workforce operates out of its physical contact center, but within a span of three weeks, 95 percent of its team transitioned into a remote environment to adhere to local shelter-in-place orders.
On top of this massive shift, ISPN faced an unprecedented spike in call volume. As Americans nationwide faced lockdowns and pivoted to remote work, many reached out to their internet service providers to troubleshoot connectivity issues, increase internet speeds, and seek other support, which put pressure on ISPN and, at times, increased wait times. But, Neblett maintains, quality never diminished.
Some contact centers had plans to take at least some operations remote long before the pandemic, and COVID-19 significantly accelerated these plans. Many others, however, never intended to operate virtually and had to venture into completely uncharted territory.
ISPN fell into the latter camp, but as challenges arose, it, like so many other contact center providers, adapted. Now, looking back on a whirlwind of transition, clear lessons have emerged, and it seems unlikely that the industry will go back to how things were. Though there were—and still are—a myriad of obstacles to overcome, from providing quality assurance remotely and maintaining security, to training new hires, contact centers are now paving a new, more flexible, and promising path forward.
Security was one of the biggest concerns that arose when work went home with employees. Contact centers can’t have employees saving information from callers on their personal devices, for example, even if they’re just providing technical support. And if a contact center handles billing or other personally identifiable information, compliance requirements grow exponentially: Not only do 52 percent of countries worldwide have strict consumer data protection laws, but 80 percent also have electronic transaction laws that organizations must follow, according to the U.N. Conference on Trade and Development.
“Because contact centers are a rich source of valuable company and customer data, they’re commonly seen as a soft target for fraud,” suggests Eloisa Ferreira, product marketing manager at Talkdesk, a contact center cloud provider.”Without the right tools and policies in place, agents can become easy prey to wrongdoers that encourage them to access private information or release information they shouldn’t even have access to,” she points out in a recent blog post.
At the very least, contact centers must ensure that their remote agents are using secure VPN connections to work from home. But there are additional measures that contact centers are now considering as well, and many of them were a long time coming. For example, facial recognition technology can ensure that only legitimate employees can log into contact center remote work platforms. Similarly, IP address verification systems can be used to confirm that agents are only operating on designated devices from approved locations.
“Contact centers have to be able to confirm that agents are where they say they are; otherwise, if they’re not where they’re meant to be, like in a different state in the U.S., you could be dealing with different wage laws,” Lance Rosenzweig, CEO of Support.com, explains.
At ISPN, agents have been required to log into their physical in-office workstations to maintain security, but as Neblett looks ahead, he’s considering virtual workstations.
Massive businesses like Amazon already rely on them to enable agents to work from anywhere. They offer an appealing model for remote work because they provide the security of a physical workstation (agents still need to use a secure VPN to log in), without the hardware costs.
QUALITY ASSURANCE ANXIETY
Another question contact centers faced as they shifted to remote work was whether they’d be able to deliver quality assurance as effectively as in physical settings. Different businesses have different metrics for quality assurance: Are agents sticking to the scripts? What’s the customer satisfaction rate? How quickly are calls resolved?
Regardless of the specific metrics, quality assurance is the cornerstone of contact center operations. Typically, agents are monitored and their conversations are recorded. Once managers have a chance to review their performance, they then provide feedback and coaching in person. The pandemic challenged this model in several ways.
For one thing, coaching had to happen via Zoom or another communication/collaboration platform. But perhaps more important, contact centers had to scale quality assurance more than ever before and deal with harder conversations. The Harvard Business Review studied more than 1 million customer service calls at 20 companies in various industries at the height of the pandemic, scoring conversations on a scale of easy to difficult. The HBR found that not only did companies see a record-breaking volume of calls, but the average company also saw the percentage of calls scored as “difficult” more than double, from a typical level of 10 percent to more than 20 percent.
Issues related to the pandemic—from unexpected travel cancellations to appeals for bill payment extensions and disputes over insurance coverage—dramatically increased the level of customer emotion and anxiety in service calls, making a job that is hard for reps on normal days far more challenging. One company saw financial hardship-related calls, typically among the most difficult for reps to handle, increase 2.5 times in the span of a week.
On top of the increasing level of difficulty, agents had to grapple with other communication issues, including bad connections in their homes and lack of in-person access to supervisors and colleagues capable of providing live assistance. Taken together, these factors were a nightmare from a quality assurance standpoint. When volume reaches a breaking point, manually monitoring and evaluating every call and delivering timely feedback to agents working from home can become impossible, and automation technology becomes essential.
Artificial intelligence tools such as natural language processing can help quality assurance managers analyze agents’ conversations with customers at scale, catch errors quickly, and provide guidance to facilitate improvement. Support.com, for example, relies on its home-grown platform to empower agents and managers and maintain quality assurance. “Automation tools are in place to assist in QA and help improve performance,” Rosenzweig says.
If remote work is here to stay and agents are expected to deal with high call volume while working from home, it’l become harder for contact centers to scale operations without such technologies. “These tools are important, and they’re getting cheaper and easier to deploy. They’re definitely on our radar,” Neblett states.
But even with the most powerful tools in place, humans have work to do. “We’re constantly keeping an eye on metrics and making sure we’re meeting and exceeding customer expectations,” Neblett adds.
Agent training and new agent onboarding also posed difficulties for contact centers during the pandemic, because much of this work usually occurs in person. To deliver essential coaching for new and existing employees, contact centers took to virtual communication and collaboration platforms, such as Zoom, hosting orientation meetings and other training sessions via video.
But while virtual training can provide a temporary solution, the transition to working from home illuminated the need for an entirely different approach to learning, development, and onboarding. “A lot of these processes can’t just be translated to a virtual model for the long term. Areas like employee training need to be redesigned for remote work,” Rosenzweig warns.
That’s because employees simply work differently at home. From taking care of children to sharing workspaces with partners or spouses, there’s a need for flexibility, and offering pre-recorded videos or other materials instead of live instruction can incentivize employees to engage with learning.
“Employees are pressed for time. They’re juggling duties, working, and taking care of their families. Learning, which plays such a key role in agents’ ability to do their jobs, keeps quality high, and keeping customers satisfied can take a backseat,” Netblett says. “Increasingly, we’re working to build out a library of learning resources that new and current employees can access on demand, when they need it, and have the time and focus to engage with it,” he adds.
Lastly, as contact centers had to redefine communication and open avenues that mimic the connectedness employees feel when they’re seated next to one another at the office, many turned to applications such as Slack and Discord. With designated channels for discussion topics and direct instant message capabilities, these tools provided a lifeboat in a sea of loneliness.
“We had a lot of employees complaining of isolation,” Neblett shares, “so we did our best to over-communicate and share as much information as we had and also facilitate social interactions as much as possible. It’s still not the same as turning to a colleague and talking, but it created a better-connected group of employees.“
Though the shift to remote was unexpected, fast-paced, and even bumpy for contact centers, many are realizing that the pandemic provided the push they didn’t know they needed. And now they are seeing the benefits of remote work. Frost & Sullivan found that the retention rate for at-home agents is 80 percent, up significantly from the 25 percent for agents who work in an office. More autonomy over their schedules, the absence of a commute, and the ability to work from anywhere were the top reasons cited.
And most of these employee perks benefit employers, too. Not only can companies hire workers from anywhere (assuming they follow the wage laws in their localities), but they can also substantially grow their businesses without additional costs.”We were thinking about opening up another center to scale up, but now we’re thinking we might not have to add that real estate,” Neblett says.
Plus, there’s a global impact too. Support.com, for example, employs agents from all over the world, including the Philippines and India. Employees in the Philippines have to leave their families and travel to contact centers in Manila, where most of them are located. “You have a whole generation of workers moving far away from home and into the city to find work because that’s where the jobs are,” Rosenzweig explains. Similarly, in India, many employees tend to be men because the commutes to centrally located contact centers are so dangerous that women don’t feel comfortable attempting them. “With a remote model, [women] can work without having to leave their homes if they don’t want to.“
But for remote work to work, enabling employees with technology is absolutely crucial. Not only can artificial intelligence help with quality control by applying natural language processing to transcripts from customer conversations, but it can also add a powerful layer of sentiment analysis to customer or employee surveys when it’s built into enterprise feedback management technology. And in a remote environment, where supervisors can’t always see for themselves how employees are feeling or how customer interactions are going, AI-based sentiment analysis can provide an important glimpse into employee morale, customer stress levels, and other factors.
What’s more, as part of learning management platforms, artificial intelligence can serve as a recommendation engine to serve up learning content tailored to individual employees’ needs. This, too, becomes increasingly important when contact centers operate remotely and employees don’t get consistent, face-to-face contact with their managers or mentors. In short, technology, especially when powered by artificial intelligence, can be game-changing as contact centers navigate their future, in and out of a physical office.
THE NEXT NORMAL WILL BLEND OLD AND NEW
If 2020 was a fast plunge into the unknown, then 2021 will be a slow, carefully executed transition into the next normal. For many contact centers, that’ll likely be a combination of the old and new. In fact, more than 53 percent report that their workers want a blend of work from home and office, according to consulting firm Red Recruitment.
“We’ll likely adopt a hybrid model, where some employees rotate in and out of the office while others continue to work from home,” Neblett says.”We’re still very much figuring out what operations will look like because there’s a lot of uncertainty.”
What is certain, however, is that it will be impossible to go back entirely, as though remote contact centers never happened. There’s just too much opportunity that’s been unlocked. “We’ve definitely seen the potential that’s possible with a remote contact center, and we certainly see it being a piece of the future,” Netblett says.