COVID-19 is making clear to US companies and other firms around the world the need for better cost management in the midst of uncertainty. These past few months, we’ve watched contact centers turn to backup plans C and D as work schedules were impacted by stay-at-home orders or their agents’ refusal to go in because of the pandemic. Redundancy strategies today focus mainly on applications and equipment – not personnel – so when the pandemic hit, contact centers were left unshielded from what was to come, especially outsource providers.
For example, in the Philippines, residents were ordered to stay off the roads, forcing many contact center workers to shelter-in-place without access to broadband or equipment to take calls. Those who chose to make the contact center their temporary dwelling did so without the ability to take showers.
And in India, one of the world’s largest tech support resources, high demand for IT outsourcing during the pandemic created mandatory overtime at some centers, which resulted in many managers having to improvise a work-at-home plan to keep workers engaged and connected.
Onshore hasn’t fared much better. While work-at-home strategies have their upsides, US contact centers struggle with providing uninterrupted, “quality” services in the face of longer wait times, stressed workers, and the occasional background noise from pets and children. Sadly, there’s just no guaranteed way a contact center can continue to run at full capacity and provide optimal service while in the midst of a pandemic, natural disaster, or even a war. So how can companies prepare for what might be the new normal of virtual contact support?
Looking ahead, companies with both in-house and outsourced contact centers will need to take full advantage of current technologies that allow them to reduce costs and drive efficiencies but can also handle the critical task of scale mass number of agents with the adroitness of spinning up a server. Tip-toeing into the technological advancements will not be sufficient if you are looking to reduce exposure to the whims of nature or government. It’s time to take a deeper dive into the word of virtual agents.
That said, I acknowledge that virtual agents today aren’t as effective as live representatives and can be expensive during the implementation phase; not to mention the technology does not always match up to the marketing pitch. But the costs will come down over time and as more companies begin to onboard virtual agents, the technology and experience will improve. So how can organizations begin to take advantage of virtual agents today?
First, identify the machine learning and natural language processing features available through your current contact center platform provider. Don’t expect to find immediately out-the-box autonomy capabilities but instead look for features that will get you closer to having common questions and issues handled via boiler plate responses. This will enable you to begin to navigate your contact centers toward automated solutions provided by your current platform provider more seamlessly. This exercise will also give you a good understanding of the capabilities of your platform and whether it will meet future needs.
Second, get feedback from your customers who interact with your automated solutions to find out what they thought of the experience and what they would like to see from future interactions. Many times, technology solutions are created in vacuums between boardrooms and skilled coders and absent any feedback from those that will actually come in contact with it. This mistake could set you back months, if not years, from providing virtual responses that meet and exceed the experiences your customers have come to expect.
Last, add virtual solutions to your long-term strategies and your crisis management/redundancy plans. Chatbots, self-help knowledge databases, and virtual agents need to be ready for go-to when live agents are not available.
As consumers become more comfortable speaking to virtual agents, just as they are with Siri, Alexa, and Google smart apps, these forms of interactions will become a more accepted means for resolving their issues. In the end, the rapid rise of the virtual agent may signal the need for more robust contact center strategies.
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(Jun 9, 2020)