The impact of the coronavirus pandemic (COVID-19) instantly brought to light the value of remote call center agents for business continuity, risk mitigation and staffing fluctuations.
Communities around the world are shutting down nonessential businesses and sending workers home to shelter in place. Lockdowns and quarantines have already been instituted in the U.S. and globally, effectively depleting call center staff in brick-and-mortar sites.
Companies with in-house call centers and third-party BPO (Business Process Outsourcing) call center vendors have been in full-out crisis management over the past few weeks.
Meanwhile, call centers are struggling to stay on top of the surges in contact volume by deflecting to self-service channels. Or quite simply, not answering calls, chats, emails and other contacts in a speedy and proficient manner — not an ideal solution for anxious consumers and patients seeking the reassurance of a human voice or at the very least a response and resolution.
Shock and Uncertainty – Now What?
A million questions are swirling around the call center industry about the short- and long-term implications of this extraordinary situation in which we find ourselves. While we at CustomerServ do not pretend to have all the answers for you, we are on the frontlines with you, witnessing a seismic change in our industry and doing our best to help make sense of things.
Many of us here at CustomerServ are pioneers in outsourcing with 30+ years of service in this amazing industry. As leaders, we endeavor to recognize patterns before they become trends. We examine the threats, risks and opportunities that will impact call centers, both insourced and outsourced, and share our best practices, strategies and experiences to provide you with the clarity to make informed decisions.
But we never could have imagined an event like COVID-19 forcing the largest, simultaneous, industry-wide mobilization of call center staff in history. There is no way to quantify yet how many call center agents and support staff have been impacted both positively and negatively. In recent weeks, we’ve talked to dozens of client-side leaders who outsource to call center vendors and to execs at outsourcing firms we work with and some that we don’t. Here are a few of the top concerns being discussed right now:
Who are you during a crisis?
You never really get to know someone until something bad happens — and the same holds true for your call center vendor(s). The vendors that have instilled a high level of confidence and reassurance in their clients and employees have been proactive, not reactive, throughout the COVID-19 crisis. Most have conducted themselves with a high degree of integrity, and have not taken advantage of clients by opportunistic price gouging.
The vendors with foresight planned and prepared for a work-at-home shift, while other vendors sat back and waited for their clients to react. All the actions taken by call center vendors in the past few weeks, and through the coming weeks and months will undoubtedly impact the long-term relationships that these vendors have with their clients and their employees.
Is the work-at-home expansion short-term or here to stay?
The consensus among our clients and vendors is that work-at-home will be adopted as a long-term strategy. It is still unclear what percentage of call center staff will remain virtual once the COVID-19 pandemic abates — but for now, most of our clients and vendors have shifted a majority of their business to a remote model.
Unfortunately, quite a few vendors were slow to mobilize, and in some cases, resisted the move to work-at-home. Many outsourcing firms that only operate physical call center sites did not have the platform to provide work-at-home because it was never considered to be part of their service offerings. The COVID-19 pandemic has taught these firms a valuable lesson in crisis management, requiring them to pivot to a remote-agent business model — or quite simply, lose market share and possibly go out of business.
Changes in Business Continuity Planning
Review a typical client-vendor MSA (Master Services Agreement) in the call center industry, and specifically, the section on BCP (Business Continuity Planning) for a global pandemic. You’ll be hard-pressed to find much language specifically covering business planning, liability, risk, or anything for an event that, until now, seemed impossible or at least highly unlikely. Henceforth, we expect contract amendments and changes in MSA language covering that “1%” chance of something disrupting our industry at this magnitude.
Which industries are spiking or declining in call volume?
We can’t cover every single industry impacted, but here are just a few:
- Obviously, hotels, airlines, travel, recreation, vacation, cruises, rideshare companies, etc., are among the hardest hit with a dramatic downturn in business.
- COVID-19 hotlines are popping up everywhere and there has been a surge in call volume related to government services, hospitals, healthcare, pharma, medical services, medical devices and transport.
- Online and IoT delivery services are busy keeping up with demand by hiring more workers. With lockdowns in place, more people are relying on their favorite apps and online delivery services for meal kits, prepared foods, pizza, grocery and other household needs.The Wall Street Journal reports that Amazon has been processing 10%-40% more packages than usual for this time of year.
- Broadband and streaming services — admit it, you’re catching up on those “shows” your friends told you about. Broadband, entertainment and streaming services are seeing an uptick in volume because more people are at home accessing online content, working remotely and looking for ways to entertain themselves while under lockdown.
- Home services businesses have slowed as homeowners cancel appointments for all but the most essential services, such as emergency repairs and DIY (Do-It-Yourself) projects.
- Business services – Again, stating the obvious here, virtual meeting platforms like Zoom and others are spiking and will continue to do so for the foreseeable future.
- Financial Services – With the economic downturn, fintechs, banks, mortgage companies and insurers are dealing with a surge in contact volume.
Impact of the CARES Act and higher unemployment rates
More than 10 million Americans filed jobless claims in March, according to the U.S. Department of Labor data, and economists predict a record 20 million losses for the April report.
Congress recently passed the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act, which provides incentives for employers to retain their workforces and much-needed relief to employees who have been laid off due to the COVID-19 crisis. It’s too early to tell whether displaced call center agents will look for work-at-home jobs with another employer or opt to collect unemployment while they wait to see if their jobs come back.
Are brick-and-mortar call centers still open?
They are, but generally with limited staffing. In the U.S., depending on state government mandates, many call centers supporting those operations deemed to be essential remain open, but the configuration has changed, and social distancing is practiced within the physical site. The same holds true with nearshore and offshore call centers that have remained open. Sites are cleaned and continuously disinfected, and only a limited number of call center staff are permitted inside at a safe distance from one another.
Onsite vs. work-at-home – what’s better?
The decades-long debate and competition between virtual and premise-based call centers has brought many issues to the forefront: Which model is gaining/losing market share, and which one is better for specific types of customer contacts?
Even before COVID-19 swept through the U.S., and the world, work-at-home call center staffing has been steadily rising. The more dynamic brick-and-mortar call center outsourcing vendors already provide work-at-home options to their employees and clients, as a way to enhance their services, attract talent and expand capacity without incurring the capital expense of building additional call center sites.
The growth of work-at-home call center opportunities has been driven mainly by the changing labor market landscape. Call center agents prefer flexible schedules and better work-life balance. Research by Gallup found flexibility to be one of the highest-ranked employee benefits named by millennials — and in fact, many said they would change jobs for the opportunity to work remotely either full-time (47%) or part-time (50%).
Companies that have embraced work-at-home agent programs in their contact center operation report widespread benefits, including:
- Increased employee engagement and retention.
- Access to an expanded talent pool of skilled, high-quality staff.
- Reduced overhead and operating costs.
- Scheduling flexibility.
- Ability to offer extended operating hours.
- Business continuity — a workforce that can quickly scale if needed.
Top Challenges of Call Center Work-at-Home Programs
Recent advancements in cloud-based call center platforms have mitigated concerns around PCI compliance, connectivity, security, quality, training or line-of-sight management issues.And sophisticated training processes help to ensure that even complex customer contacts can be successfully handled with remote agents.
Still, successful work-at-home staffing models require careful planning and experienced managers to ensure that the appropriate processes and protocols are in place, and that remote staff are engaged, productive and able to deliver high-quality customer service.
The following are some of the challenges and concerns that leaders often identify as their main concerns with using work-at-home call center agents:
- Isolation - Agents who work from home often feel socially disconnected in comparison to brick-and-mortar sites where they can interact with others.
- The agent’s investment – What does it cost the agent to work from home? Who pays for their equipment, training and technology?
- Contractors – Some work-at-home vendors hire contractors, not employees. Most leaders we’ve talked to are opposed to this practice due to client restrictions forbidding the use of contractors as call center employees.
- Inadequate home-agent hiring profile and/or failing to screen work-at-home staff for the aptitude to thrive in a remote-work environment.
- Poor or insufficient communication. Effectively managing work-at-home staff requires leadership to check in constantly with agents via email, messaging apps, communication platforms, chat, video and phone.
- Inadequate data security technology or protocols. Humans are the weakest link in cybersecurity. Without proper restrictions, tools and protocols in place, sensitive data can be compromised.
- Insufficient virtual training and coaching programs to ensure that remote agents can maintain and expand their skills and performance.
- Lack of experience managing a virtual environment. The vendor and its leadership team – executive and frontline — have limited experience managing a remote-agent workforce.
Perceptions about work-at-home staffing are rapidly evolving. In past years, remote-agent outsourcing was attached to more transactional customer contacts like basic order processing, and for handling seasonal and holiday spikes. But the trend seems to be shifting toward more complex omnichannel contacts, much like those handled in brick-and-mortar call centers.
Is this a sign that remote-agent staffing might surpass premise-based staffing in the coming years? Or, is it safe to assume that remote staffing combined with premise-based staffing will provide clients and vendors with a winning hybrid combination? Whatever your previous view of remote staffing has been, the COVID-19 pandemic is surely reshaping our industry for the long-term.
In closing, we wish all of you, your families and your employees good health and safety during this difficult time in our lives. We are optimistic about the future and, like you, hope for better days ahead. And no matter what part you play in our industry – everyone deserves a collective thanks for putting the well-being and betterment of people above all else.