2020 Accelerated the Future of Customer Contact

Why 2020 Boosted Contact Centres and Digital and What Happens Next


None of us saw it coming


Everything “Digital” had a major boost in 2020, from lockdowns and the move to working from home. Online shopping, digital entertainment and virtual video conference tools all had dramatic growth. In theory, the growth of digital channels is supposed to come at the cost of contact centres as self service and sales replace “person intensive” calls, emails and chats (the domain of contact centres in our definition). The theory is that if we do more stuff on-line then we are supposed to be using contact centres less.

Our observation is that call centres kicked on last year, rather than declining, despite the growth of digital. There were sectors like air travel and tourism decimated by the pandemic where all parts of business declined but they were the exceptions. Of the contact centres we worked with in 2020 most added rather than reduced staff and many had to deal with huge increases in demand. There are three reasons why this occurred:

  • Contact centres had to pick up the slack from other channels like branches that were unable to operate through lock downs

  • Contact centres became the problem solvers for issues COVID created like signing up for online shopping or understanding how to withdraw super or navigating the mechanisms to get government payments

  • Contact centres are always the help and support channel as customers take up digital channels and processes particularly when those digital channels struggled to meet the demand or were cobbled together quickly in a COVID-19 response.

Digital take up should mean that when things get back to normal demand falls away for contact centres. However, three other significant shifts occurred in contact centre operating models that we think will mean that contact centres will continue on their traditional growth path (5% compound growth a year according Ibisworld). These three shifts of 2020 are that:

I. The move to work from home has liberated contacted centres from past physical constraints and costs

II. Virtualisation of contact centre processes has further changed their effectiveness and economics

III. Home-shoring to escape offshore locations brought work back to on shore contact centres.

In this paper we’ll explore how those shifts will “underwrite” continued growth in contact centres. However, what seemed like temporary changes in 2020 now look like permanent changes that contact centres need to respond to. So, we’ll explore the impact of:

A. Increased complexity that will challenge the models in many contact centres

B. Contact centres as the key source of customers and product insights

C. Contact centres as the glue in an omni-channel world

D. The transformational potential of the “anywhere” contact centre


Three Shifts That Mean Contact Centres at home Will Grow


1. The Liberated Contact Centre

The move to at-home work has been liberating for contact centres. In a physical world many organisations were paying CBD rents to house contact centre staff and forcing them to commute into contact centre locations. Contact centres often struggled to get people for part time shifts when sites were physical because commute times and costs made a short shift or variable shifts unattractive. This also made the work unattractive to those with families or long commutes. In a physical world there were additional costs like security and safety to support 24*7 working.

The move to at-home working changed all that. Work from home took away the office overhead cost, made staff more flexible and has given staff lots more choice. It’s now up to contact centres to exploit these differences (as we write about below). Already we see some business recognising that they have much more flexibility in how they locate and run their contact centres and that is one of the change factors we will cover in more detail.


2. Virtualisation has added even more flexibility

Organisations have had to develop virtual ways of handling all HR practices for call centres including hiring, induction, training and coaching. Most of the management and resourcing processes have gone or are going virtual. Some centres can recruit staff anywhere and train staff anywhere. As more training moves to self-paced and digital formats, centres can also hire staff one at a time rather than in induction batches that were designed to leverage the costs of a trainer. It could mean that Australian centres hire more regional staff, or NZ, or in theory, anywhere.


Many of the related software tools for these virtualised processes are proving more effective than some of the traditional methods that they replaced. For example, online recruitment tools can use AI to analyse resumes and screen more objectively than a human with unconscious biases. They can also screen more applicants faster and cheaper. This is one example of what is now possible. Many of these tools and processes existed before COVID but organisations have been forced to take them up at pace.


3. Home-shoring has reversed the offshoring trend

Some offshored operations in places like the Philippines couldn’t cope with at-home working and were closed or restricted through lockdown periods. Some outsourced companies coped well with the rush to at-home and others didn’t. In some cases, their clients were not willing to have their data and customers handled in unknown and insecure environments. These two factors made some organisations “home shore” work that was previously overseas. Telstra has been a well-documented example.


Other companies have also reconsidered their options now that at-home work has reduced office overheads. Some have decided to bring work back on shore (e.g., Alinta Energy opening a 250-seat site in regional Victoria). Some “home shoring” companies have acknowledged that COVID sped up a process they were considering anyway. We expect this trend to continue because automation will pick up the simple and repeatable work that had been moved to offshore locations. This means that the complex work that remains, will be less well suited to offshore staff who are less familiar with complex products and services.


Four Trends that will impact Contact Centres in the Foreseeable Future

1. Increased complexity that will challenge the models in many contact centres

2020 gave a huge boost to the take up of digital solutions from online shopping to digital entertainment. Global on-line spending increased 16% in 2020 while most economies shrank. In addition, customers are using self-service apps and websites more than they were. As take up of digital solutions increases, the simpler transactions and basic enquiries move out of manned channels like branches and contact centres. Volumes of contacts fall as shown.

Increased digital transaction create some additional work for contact centres in areas such as technical support and trouble shooting. These enquiries are less frequent but often complex and time consuming. The net impact is that the complexity of work in contact centres increases as volumes fall, as the diagram shows. For example, customers don’t ask their bank for their balance as frequently but instead they query individual transactions that they can see on-line in near real time. These subtle changes cause longer queries as the contact centre staff need to do more research to help the customer understand where the debit came from or why the transaction timing didn’t match the customer’s memory of events.


These trends suggest that contact centres will need operating models designed to handle greater complexity. That could mean a combination of changes such as:

  • Hire better qualified staff

  • Provide more training

  • Improve access to knowledge and expertise

  • Provide more support

  • Tier the work so that complex calls land or are transferred to “experts” in a second or third tier

As customers take up mobile apps and on-line portals, contact centre staff need training on what the app and portal can and can’t do and how they work. In some cases, they may need access to a tier of staff who can answer hard technical questions on things like operating model and mobile compatibility to the app. Customers will also call about the hard stuff like whether a transaction went through or not or what errors messages mean. That is all more complex work.


In summary, while the digital trend will drive out some work, contacts centres will need operating models that can cope with the increased complexity of the work that remains.


2. Contact centres as the key source of customers and product insights

Contact centres have become the crutch that customers use to help them with all products, channels and services calls or web chat. Therefore the “demand” that occurs in contact centres, provides key insights into how the rest of the business is performing as we wrote about in “The Best Service is No Service”. Customers call because things don’t work, are confusing or take too long. Every contact can be seen as a form of insight into what isn’t working well in the business. Companies need to be able to tap into what their customers are telling them to drive improvements. Contact centres can therefore become “insight centres”.


Many contact centres do report lots of things about the contacts they handle. Nearly all report how quickly contacts were answered, how long they took and whether the agent complied with certain processes (aka contact quality). Many centres run post contact surveys that ask customers how well the query was handled and if it was resolved. All those measures deal with “how we handled the request”. More fundamental insights that get missed are about why the contact occurred and what that means about the product and service like:

  • Why did the contact occur?

  • What was it that the customer didn’t like or didn’t understand about the product or service?

  • Was this problem resolved?

  • Was it a one off or one of many?

  • Was it a repeat request?

  • Who owns those reasons in the business?

  • Can the business fix the root cause that led to the call or pre-empt these calls?

  • What else did the customer tell us that may be useful?

The data and speech analytics tools make it easier to gather those insights continuously and without troubling staff or customers. Furthermore, these automated tools can mine every contact rather than use samples. Analytics, tailored correctly, can even provide a quality score on all contacts rather than a small sample. If the analytics are trained on what to look for, they can also assess the customers’ sentiment. Well organised analytic data can link to other critical data like the value of the customer, related costs and purchase and attrition behaviours.


This is harder than it sounds because you have to “teach the machine” how to classify contacts and what to look for. For example, it’s a fine line between having too few contact reasons that are uninformative and too many leading to analysis paralysis (which of 1000 contact reasons should you tackle first?). Tracked the right way, analytics can provide crucial insights on how customers are interacting with all the products and services and then this continuous analysis can be used to measure improvements. We even advocate turning off some surveys and focusing on “What Our Customers Are Saying” (aka WOCAS) using these automated mechanisms supplemented by what front line staff can capture and relay.


In summary contact centres should be seen as the eyes and ears of many business to help them drive continuous improvement.


3. Contact centres as the glue in an omni-channel world

Contact centres have a key role to play in getting customers to take up new channels and use them effectively. The reality is some customers:

  • Don’t know what solutions are out there for their use

  • Don’t trust the automation

  • Are fearful of technology

  • Have tried and failed

  • Think it isn’t for them

The contact centre has a critical role in addressing each of those problems. So, contact centres should:

  • Educate the customer on what is available through digital

  • Guide the customer to the right channel for their problem

  • Train or hand hold customers to use the digital solutions where they need that level of support (we call it “do it with me”)

  • Sell the solutions and handle objections

  • Capture feedback on what is and isn’t working for customers in new forms of automation like apps and chat bots

None of that happens by accident. Many contact centre staff fear that digital solutions will cannibalise their jobs and this fear needs to be overcome. It is also common that staff haven’t seen the app or ever logged on to the customer portal because they aren’t customers of that company. So, the correct omni channel “behaviours” in contact centres must be designed into the way front line staff handle customers. One solution is process or interaction guides which define when and how agents should promote solutions. They can also define when staff should guide the customer through a digital process (“let me show you how to do that now”). It also means working out when a contact centre agent should “jump” channels e.g., turn a chat into a phone call or when they should use another channel e.g. “Let me text you a link to that page now”.


A true “omni channel” experience is when the front-line staff know how to use and exploit all the other channels in a seamless way. In our experience this only happens with well thought through design and with well aligned measurement and training.


In summary, the contact centre must be the glue, the sales force and the training team for a range of channel solutions. Contact centres need to embrace omni channel opportunities, not fear them.


4. The transformational potential of the “anywhere” contact centre

In several papers last year, we discussed the potential of at-home working to be a form of transformation (see New Game, New Rules: re-thinking at home work and New Models for the new World – A Once in a lifetime opportunity for change)

Many organisations are still trying to play catch up by building out basic capabilities to do things virtually. For example, most companies are still “training in batches” using a trainer and video conference rather than a classroom. They moved the physical to the virtual but didn’t change much along the way.


A true digital induction might include:

  • more video content than reading,

  • digital management of the inductee’s progress,

  • video conferencing with a trainer,

  • recorded calls and interactions to listen to,

  • mechanisms that let staff observe an experienced agent handle calls,

  • interactive self-paced learning,

  • immersive scenarios and

  • capability testing.

That’s a lot of development work so we’re not surprised that it hasn’t happened much! Large organisations have the capability and scale to create that and then leverage it across many recruits.


Companies are taking advantage of the anywhere contact centre. Many are reconsidering their physical footprints and locations of operations. The implications of virtualized operations are about more than where staff are located. They can have an impact on every aspect of the operating model (and we think about operating models using six dimensions: Processes, Resourcing, Incentives, Structure, Management and Technology). Example questions (and this is just a subset) to consider include:

Processes:

  • How do processes need to change to support a virtual workforce and customer base?

  • How can we exploit omni channel capabilities?

Resourcing:

  • What type of skills can we now hire given the change of work and location?

  • Can we hire different staff with skills or capabilities we couldn’t access previously?

  • How can we improve virtual recruiting?

  • How can we induct virtually?

  • What support do staff need in a virtual world?

  • How can our resource plans and shifts models change?

  • Can we alter our full/time part time staff mix in a virtual world?

Incentives

  • How do we measure differently to make home working work effective?

  • How much more trust or control do we need in a virtual environment?

Structure

  • How does our team model alter in a virtual world and what makes teams effective?

  • What will make people feel part of a team?

  • Do new pools of talent change the way we structure work?

  • How can we match the process to the capabilities of the team?

Manage

  • How do we manage people through the day in a virtual model?

  • How do we communicate within and across teams through the day?

  • How do we observe our teams and their behaviour so we can coach in a virtual world?

Technology

  • How can we use our technology better or differently in these environments?

  • What tools are we missing?

  • How can technology bridge the virtual gaps (e.g., team and messaging tools)?

  • How can technology augment our processes?

The risk as we see it, is that organisations shoehorn their old “in the office” models into these new ways of working. It’s a great chance to take stock, re-assess and redesign. If anything, there are risks in doing things the old way for a new world as they will probably be less effective. Virtual classrooms are harder to learn in than real ones. It’s a very different experience to join a new employer and never leave home.

In summary, the new world of part in-office and at-home work has great potential to improve the way things work but there is a lot to consider.

Summary

In this paper, we hope we have painted a picture of the great potential for contact centres moving forward. Whilst some companies will want to return to the office and the old way of doing things, we urge everyone to consider the opportunities that the pandemic unlocked. We hope some of these ideas will help and are happy to explore them further.

For more information email us at info@limebridge.com.au or call 03 9499 3550 or 0438652396.

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