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Tips for call center crisis management amid coronavirus pandemic

Call centers can receive an influx of calls from customers during times of crisis, such as the COVID-19 pandemic. Here are some steps businesses can take handle the call volume.

Call centers are people-centric organizations that consistently face challenges regarding staff attendance. As a result, call center leadership continually deals with a form of crisis management due to not having enough staff to handle incoming phone calls. The source of the challenge may be a result of lower-than-expected staffing levels or higher-than-expected call volume.

With effects of the coronavirus being felt worldwide, senior leaders within businesses are asking how call centers can support their customers with the ever-increasing risk of higher absenteeism along with higher-than-projected call volumes.

Crisis management is something that call centers deal with on a daily basis, but with the concern over the coronavirus and related effects to call center staff and customers, it has become a more line-of-sight issue.

The crisis management steps that call centers must take are best practices that should already exist, but with this renewed focus, organizations have discovered that many of them are not in place. These practices should focus on both external customers and employees.

Focus on external customers

A number of industries are greatly affected by the coronavirus -- including airlines, hospitality, healthcare and emergency services -- but any industry or business can be affected by a crisis, and all call centers need to have plans in place to address customer inquiries. Some key practices include:

  • Provide liberal credit/change policies. Callers may request changes to travel plans as a result of cancellation of conferences, change in vacation plans, etc. Allow customers to cancel or change tickets with no financial loss or change fee.
  • Empower agents. Callers may request other types of items -- such as expedited shipment, etc. -- that may be outside of established practices. Give agents the ability to satisfy customer demands if they are calling as a result of being affected by a crisis.
  • Use automated callbacks. Callers may experience long call queues in times of crisis. If available, organizations should use automated callback technology to dial customers back when an agent becomes available while keeping their place in queue.
  • Use upfront messaging. Callers may have similar or repetitive questions. Implement upfront messaging to answer recurring questions without the caller having to speak with an agent.
  • Improve self-service. Callers may have questions that businesses can resolve via self-service options such as FAQs and interactive voice response. Communicate current self-service capabilities to customers and continue to expand those options. Even if it does not address the current situation, it will be beneficial in the future.

Focus on employees

Any industry or business can be affected by a crisis, and all call centers need to have plans in place to address customer inquiries.

When a health crisis is afoot, businesses need to ensure that employees are working in the safest environment possible, and that when agents don't feel well, they stay home. Some key practices include:

  • Don't share headsets. Call center employees often share headsets when agents escalate calls to supervisors. Call centers should stop this practice and provide each employee with their own device.
  • Provide sanitizers and wipes. Germs are prevalent in call centers, whether they are at workstations, common areas, etc. Sanitizers and wipes should be available so employees can maintain clean work areas and minimize the risk of passing germs.
  • Suspend perfect attendance programs. Perfect attendance programs reward agents for coming to work, regardless of how they feel. Call centers should eliminate this type of program, and employees who are not feeling well should stay home. Moreover, businesses must adjust attendance policies to account for any mandatory absenteeism.
  • Use remote workers. Remote workers provide tremendous flexibility in enabling employees to perform their work function without going to the office. If the capability exists, use remote workers, allowing agents to work from home. If this is not available, implement technology that can support remote workers in the event of a future crisis.
  • Provide incentives for employees to avoid mass transit if they use it. Some geographic areas may encourage people to not use public transportation. Organizations affected by this situation should provide incentives -- such as gas coupons -- to encourage individuals to avoid public transportation.

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