Contact centers are at the frontline of customer experience, and businesses have much to learn from how they operate effectively through a pandemic.

As the COVID-19 pandemic forced offices to close as part of mandatory social distancing measures, many organizations have had to adapt quickly to new ways of working.

Employees have to shift to working from home, businesses have to adopt new ways to serve customers, and IT departments have to update communications infrastructure rapidly to support remote work and address the short- and long-term communications needs of the organization.

Sami Ammous, Vice President for East Asia and the Pacific at Avaya, recently commented: “No matter their employee and customer experience roadmaps, businesses want to reimagine their operations to accelerate innovation, drive new business outcomes, and mitigate risk. This has received elevated priority as those companies adapt to the new reality of COVID-19.”

DigiconAsia sought out insights from him on how organizations, especially contact centers, could adapt to today’s challenging working conditions as they provide experiences that matter to their employees and customers to maintain business continuity in today’s business climate.

How has the COVID-19 pandemic affected contact centers in Asia?

Ammous: The pandemic has forced us into a new normal, disrupting working patterns and reshaping the future of work. The disarray caused by the global crisis forced companies to revisit their technology deployments and understand the importance of communications technology.

On a tactical level, the most immediate impact of the pandemic was the scramble for viable business continuity plans and remote work options. Some contact centers did not have the prerequisite infrastructure or tools to adapt, and those who did, realized that they did not have the processes to manage remote workers.

Accordingly, the first step most contact centers took was to enable remote work by setting up the infrastructure, making sure their agents had access to a stable internet connection and a usable computer, and taking care of monitoring tools. Once that was completed, contact centers started dealing with the coincident shortage of staff and spike in calls. Initially, this was dealt with using some basic self-service, but was eventually managed with advanced automation and cloud deployments.

On a more strategic level, the pandemic forced organizations to rethink the current set up of their contact centers, from the ground up. Customer experience is not simply another box to tick, but is meant to deliver on employee satisfaction through the increase of the value of meaningful work for them. Leading organizations are reorienting their customer-experience efforts to pave the way in helping to build long-lasting emotional connections with the communities they serve.

What are some strategies and technologies that contact centers are adopting to survive and thrive through the pandemic?

Ammous: We are seeing an increasing number of contact centers and organizations rethinking their customer support and customer experience models, as they develop a business continuity plan. Companies reflecting on the lessons learned grasped two important concepts: productivity & automation, and agility.

Automation was initially considered for cost reduction without impacting productivity, to handle the same volume of calls with fewer employees. However, the promise of complete automation was not fulfilled. Automation led to irate customers and agents who still had to do the work. Amid the pandemic, automation was revisited in the hopes that it would help with the strain on operations. We are now seeing automation tools being explored to augment agents, instead of acting as replacements. Tools including agent scripting, voice-bots and mobile self-service, are all helping agents become more efficient.

The use of chatbots and self-service functions, for example, allow customers to get answers for basic questions and FAQs, freeing up human agents to focus on more complex queries.

Moreover, augmenting the intelligence of machines has become key for organizations to drive intelligent self-service across all channels and significantly reduce errors during customer interactions. This can be achieved through giving machines real-time access to knowledge and connecting automated touchpoints to agents which will drive dynamic decisions in real-time.

Automation alone is not sufficient for optimal productivity. We have seen an increase in the testing and deployment of workforce optimization tools such as advanced agent monitoring & recording, and desktop & speech analytics.

These tools allow contact center managers to gain real insights into what is happening in the contact center and answer these questions:

  • Are agents performing?
  • Are the processes efficient?
  • Are customer satisfaction targets being met?

Basically, the intent is to allow supervisors to maintain their ability to, well, supervise.

On the side of agility, we saw a serious reconsideration of cloud technology. The ability to spin up capacity quickly and the ability to use only what is needed compressed the timeline of cloud adoption. That does not mean that the shift to cloud was or will be immediate. Rather, is the urgency accelerated experimenting with hybrid cloud, private cloud, and other cloud models that balance the concepts of agility and speed with security, control, seamless migration, and data sovereignty.

For example, data analytics in a cloud model redirects primary focus from efficiency to a richer understanding of customer needs and a more comprehensive resolution of the problem, through data, which ultimately improves overall customer experience.

Rather on relying on a manager’s assumptions, organizations can rely on data-driven analysis that provides visualization and deep analysis of issues, resolution options and processes.

All the above are key developments and value organizations are beginning to realize through cloud-based solutions.

Please share some key lessons and best practices in automation, employee experience and customer experience that organizations in other industries can glean from contact centers during this time of accelerated transformation.

Ammous: The first lesson hinges on the balance of efficiency & effectiveness. Specifically, around automation, contact centers very quickly learned that using full automation to replace agents may reduce costs but results in more long-term losses in terms of customer satisfaction and missed opportunities. This can be applied to any industry evaluation automation where the outcome must be carefully measured.

The second lesson is the importance of empowering your employees. Superior customer experience is inextricably linked to employee empowerment and intelligent decision-making at the basic level. The view that agents are not isolated islands of customer service, but are part of a larger overall “organization in the service of the customer”, putting cross-departmental and functional collaboration at the center of their jobs, is one that applies readily, even outside the contact center.

The third lesson is that tools matter. Training and well-meaning intentions cannot improve customer service if employees are not equipped with the right tools for their jobs. This could be agents needing scripting and analytics tools, supervisors needing remote management tools or IT directors going the cloud route to improve their agility. Adopting proper tools makes the difference between trying to adapt being successful at adapting to circumstances.

By combining these lessons and implementing a cloud strategy, businesses do away with technology obsolescence and can focus on providing greater employee engagement, a superior customer experience, improve productivity, and ultimately grow the business.

In your opinion, how would the post-pandemic business landscape be like, especially in the way we communicate, collaborate, and design the future workplace?

Ammous: The pandemic has forced businesses to rethink resiliency, customer interactions, and remote working solutions to address current state realities. The most obvious difference we observed has to do with the acceptance of remote work: even countries that have historically frowned upon it, are now adapting it as an acceptable mode of operation. Linked to that is more acceptance of remote everything: remote medicine, remote learning, remote shopping and the list goes on.

This means that what was once considered optional is now mandatory where remote working and customer service tools have taken center stage. A decade ago, the office was important, with a focus on interactive spaces and striking environments. Now the office is empty, and the pressure is on how user-friendly and ready online collaboration tools are. So, the future of the workplace might mean no place at all, where teams collaborate internally and serve customers externally, without the restrictions of physical space.

Naturally, this shift in work patterns will lead to a shift in how technology is adopted and consumed. We are seeing a shift from buying to pay-as-you-consume model, where the focus is more on speed and outcomes rather than owning assets. We will see more focus on speed-to-value and time-to-market as success metrics, instead of the classic ROI.

The final shift in how we work will occur in customer interactions. As the pandemic forces everyone to stay at home and interact online, the focus will be shifted away from showrooms and large headquarters, to differentiation in customer interaction online. A differentiated brand has to rely on creating seamless and painless interactions through customizable customer journeys, AI-on-demand automation and, proactive alerts and services – all areas that land on a contact center and require the collaboration of the entire enterprise to achieve.