Companies dial up virtual contact centres

Published on the 01/04/2020 | Written by Heather Wright

WFH Call centres

But there are challenges to navigate first…

If you’ve made a call to a contact centre in the past week, chances are good you’ve noticed there’s a difference in those calls. It’s there in the tinny echo, the rustling background noise – sometimes punctuated by barking dogs or even a child’s cry.

Welcome to the contact centre in the time of Covid-19.

The uncertain times, rapid changes to airline schedules and increasing Covid-19 restrictions, have seen a spike in calls to many contact centres in recent weeks.

“Many agents may never return to the bricks-and-mortar centre… and that’s not a bad thing.”

Figures from customer service software company Zendesk showed a 20 percent increase year on year in global tickets for the week to March 22 as companies and governments around the world saw ‘significant’ spikes n requests for support. Topping the list for spikes in support requests over the past three weeks were remote conferencing and learning (up 216 percent), airlines (199 percent) and grocery brands (39 percent).

And, with New Zealand in level four lockdown and Australians being urged to stay home, there’s been a mass exodus of contact centre agents from bricks and mortar contact centres to the home environment.

But while some companies such as IAG and Suncorp already had thousands of contact centres working from home, the 2018 Australian Contact Centre Benchmark Report showed just 16 percent of Australian contact centres offered WFH. That’s a figure B2B matching platform Matchboard says is much lower than seen in comparable markets.

It’s also a figure that in a state of rapid change.

Sharon Melamed, Matchboard founder, says the past month has brought unprecedented change – in both speed and scale – for the contact centre market across Australia and New Zealand. Alongside the mass relocation of staff to home environments there’s also a large ‘labour exchange’ underway as bleeding industries, such as travel and leisure, cut staff and others, such as Government, health and food supply ramp up.

While companies with contact centre platforms in the cloud were best positioned to make a quick transition to work from home, cloud services providers such as Amazon Web Services offer virtual call centres which can be spun up in a day, providing full, enterprise scale call centre capabilities out to home based agents.

Getting the technology in place, however, is only part of the solution. Companies must also grapple with configuring workflow systems for call routing to ensure the right calls are delivered to the right agents.

Add in the issue of background noise and the rapid deployment of virtual call centres isn’t quite as easy as it sounds.

Despite that, Melamed says her company – where contact centre outsourcing and software solutions are the most popular category – is seeing increased interest in spinning up virtual contact centres.

“A contact centre can be virtualised in hours or days, depending on the complexity and scale, not to mention employees’ home internet bandwidth.

“Technology and outsourcing vendors are working overtime to bring on as many clients as quickly as possible.”

But as with any rushed implementation, there’s a strain being put on experienced resources and a greater chance of bugs and imperfections without the luxury of rigorous testing.

Data security too, is under the spotlight, and is a challenge that needs to be carefully addressed, Melamed says.

“Data security for remote workers means ensuring secure network access, no access to home printers, and disabling of the cut and paste function outside of the secure network,” she says.

PCI software which enables customers to enter credit card details using their phone keypad rather than reading out the information to an agent is also best practice.

Background noise, too, is a consideration for companies moving to WFH, particularly with other members of the household likely to also be home.

“To overcome this, and to avoid customers waiting in long call queues, businesses are encouraging consumers to adopt digital channels to communicate,” Melamed says. “This includes email, chat (web or in-app) and self-service.

“Chatbots can play an important role here in answering basic inquiries and triaging and routing requests to the right resources.”

Globally, reports suggest some companies have been turning to AI-powered contact centre messaging in order to deal with an influx of calls.

“Covid is a wakeup call to all those in companies who have not invested in technology such as cloud systems, chatbots and AI,” Melamed says.

“Automation and AI can be incredibly helpful in triaging customer contacts and even answering basic questions, taking a load off an overloaded human contact centre.”

Tim Sheedy, principal advisor at analyst firm Ecosystm, says companies should also be considering the quality of their knowledge management system.

“We’ve seen contact centres falling over because of the volume of calls coming through, but they’re also falling over because it’s taking agents so long to get answers to questions.”

The current environment is also seeing contact centre work being pulled back from international destinations such as the Philippines.

Kiwi telco Spark is among those who have made big changes. In mid-March it announced it had temporarily closed its customer care centres in Manila, following an ‘enhanced quarantine’ being put in place across the Philippines. Calls are now being directed to New Zealand-based customer care agents.

Melamed says she expects to see a realignment in location strategy post-Covid, as companies look to mitigate risk in future.

“There will be less reliance on a single offshore destination. For example, a business that had its contact centres concentrated in the Philippines might split up the work with one or two other countries, such as Fiji and South Africa. And there will be more reliance on an onshore presence, whether that’s at home agents or in a physical contact centre.”

She’s also positive about companies being forced to embrace a home working contact centre model.

“Those that were sceptical of it in the past will see how it can work now and in the future. Many agents may never return to the bricks-and-mortar centre where they were once based, and that’s not a bad thing.”


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