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Contact centers weather pandemic, but are very different now

As customer service leaders dig out from the pandemic, Great Resignation and Great Relocation, they must deal with growing volume while competing for agents.

ORLANDO, Fla. -- The pandemic, mass relocation and Great Resignation of employees the last two and a half years affected most workplaces. Few were as rapidly deconstructed as contact centers, which prior to 2020 consisted of hundreds of people working long shifts in tight quarters.

Now, most contact centers are fully or at least partially remote, and that is likely permanent. Staffing shortages are endemic, and some customer service leaders will hire agents from anywhere in the United States.

Contact center leaders told their tales of survival during the last two and a half years here at this week's ICMI Contact Center Expo, while also sharing the technology and workforce management strategies that have worked to keep their operations rolling during difficult circumstances.

"We're here together in the midst of a time when connections are being severed, in general. Loyalty is really hard to come by right now. Loyalty in all forms," said Nate Brown, consultant and co-founder of CX Accelerator. "Our superpower as CX professionals really is connections. It's bringing people together. It's creating loyalty for our people that we care about in the house -- in the contact center -- and then extending that gift of loyalty ... into the relationship that we have with our customers."

Nate Brown on stage at ICMI Contact Center Expo
Colorful CX consultant and ICMI Contact Center Expo favorite son Nate Brown emceed the opening keynotes of this week's event.

Tech, creative ideas support remote work pivot

While contact centers made their shift to remote work in different ways, all of them had the same software and hardware problems to solve, which involved giving agents access to cloud applications and the gear to conduct audio and, in some cases, video calls. Some companies provided systems and accessories that enabled work from an agent's personal laptop. Others provisioned agents with laptops.

The latter was the case with Amica Mutual Insurance Company, whose agents split their work between home and the contact center. The company wanted agents to have access to the same tools and workspaces wherever they worked, said Eric Mackowitz, assistant vice president of service operations.

Amica, based in Lincoln, R.I., eventually settled on two days at home, three days in the office for agents after a period of 100% remote work. Insurance customer service can be intense, as it often involves helping people with claims during the worst times of their lives, such as an auto accident, home loss, death of a loved one or enduring a natural disaster.

"We were able to get through it, but it certainly wasn't ideal," Mackowitz said. "We still feel that having the team together in the office is very important, to maintain our culture and to support new hires."

Shifting to a hybrid model has cut down on overall agent absences and has kept the company's contact center running on snow days, Mackowitz said. Previously, that wasn't always possible.

It takes creativity to solve some of the contact center staffing problems. Consultant Laura Grimes came up with a successful idea for a client that had trouble filling universally unpopular split shifts -- four hours in the morning and four in the evening -- as she drove by golf courses on the way to work: Pay greens fees for agents who liked to golf in the afternoon, and rename the split shift "the golf shift."

"If you would ask agents, 'Who wants to work a split shift?' Nobody would raise their hand," said Brenda Kross, experience delivery manager at Intuit, who attended a class Grimes taught at the conference and recounted the anecdote. "Nobody wants to do that. But if you said, 'Who wants to work a golfing schedule?' What a way to frame it. I thought that was genius."

Contact center IT needs evolve

In the remote and hybrid work era, agent training becomes a new and difficult issue to solve for contact centers. Agents need to learn not only customer problems and how to solve them, but also how to use a complicated application stack and communications tools to do that work.

Furthermore, remote collaboration tools are needed to support agent work and measurement tools to track agent performance. Also needed are conversational analysis tools to find out what problems customers call in to solve, and to disseminate the most effective solutions to them, said Michael Pace, vice president of global member services and operations at Virgin Pulse, an employee wellness platform.

In late 2019, Virgin Pulse had begun its changeover to Serenova, a contact center as a service (CCaaS) that AV hardware and software company Lifesize acquired in March 2020. That was fortunate, Pace said, because like everyone else, Virgin Pulse had to go fully remote immediately, and Lifesize had the technology to accomplish that. In another stroke of good fortune, Pace had decided right before the pandemic to convert all training to a virtual learning platform, having determined that the traditional contact center classroom model was obsolete.

We've caught people having two jobs at the same time, and somebody decided they were going to work from the nail salon. ... But frankly, I think we did really well.
Michael PaceVice president of global member services and operations, Virgin Pulse

Its roughly 200 agents were based primarily in Providence, R.I.; Dallas; and Tuzla, Bosnia and Herzegovina. Additional outsourced agents were hired during demand spikes. Agents remain in Tuzla, but are now spread across the United States, as Virgin Pulse expanded its net to land new employees to replace those who had left and keep costs down as the cost of local employees rose by 50% for some roles.

Managing a remote workforce has come with a few bumps in the road. Pace said his team has dealt with issues he'd never seen before with in-person agents.

"We've caught people having two jobs at the same time," Pace said, "and somebody decided they were going to work from the nail salon and take calls. Those are the new problems that you find from a management standpoint. But frankly, I think we did really well."

Pace also led the expansion of Virgin Pulse's FAQ list on its Zendesk knowledge base from about 360 questions to more than 2,000. This self-service initiative has saved a lot of work for agents. Before the expansion of the online content, about one person used the FAQ list for every one call to the contact center; now the ratio is 3 to 1.

While the technology has been a major enabler of Virgin Pulse's contact center continuity, Pace said he worries about costs as he adds more and more cloud tools to support operations. Hiring employees where the cost of living is lower than its main offices does reduce costs, compared with previously paying for food and power at now-empty contact center sites. But the software subscriptions are starting to add up when taking into consideration all the training, collaboration, workforce management, knowledge base, conversational analytics, CCaaS, measurement tools and more.

"I don't want to get to $1,000 per person, per month just to have them in the seat before actually paying them, right?" Pace said. "How that gets solved in the future will be interesting."

Preserving culture is key to success

Hiring remote contact center agents creates a new -- and difficult -- problem to solve: engaging remote employees. Training employees, maintaining a customer-first mentality and building a team environment where agents support each other is not so simple when agents are far-flung and working at home. That, and fending off quiet quitting.

It takes video channels such as Slack and Zoom and CCaaS-native applications to support remote agents, answer their questions, address their concerns and make them feel like part of the team. More than that, it takes rethinking a contact center's culture and upgrading it, said Murphy Fraser, senior consultant at Avtex.

Things that worked for years at a company's in-person contact center might not work now, and leadership needs to recognize what traditions and hidebound processes need to be let go in order to maintain quality service among the workforce.

"Think about how we are using the change to hybrid [work] as a really critical moment of reflection to [see] the culture we want to carry with us," Fraser said. "In my experience, many clients have said that really shed some light on some things that we didn't love and don't want to carry forward. It can be hard to admit that and to have honest conversations with our employees about what has changed -- and what's not working in this new environment."

The bottom line is, remote work is now hard-wired into contact center culture. ICMI surveys show that 73% of agents want to continue to work from home, said ICMI co-founder and senior advisor Brad Cleveland.

Agents have proven that they will quit, move or both if their employers won't accommodate their needs, Intuit's Kross added.

Contact centers that attempt to return to 100% in-person work will lose agents, especially those with good experience, in an era when they're hard to replace.

"They can vote with their feet if we try to force something," Cleveland said.

Don Fluckinger covers enterprise content management, CRM, marketing automation, e-commerce, customer service and enabling technologies for TechTarget Editorial.

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