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March 19, 2020updated 20 Mar 2020 8:53am

Customer Service Amid a Pandemic: The Good, Bad and the Ugly

Ongoing automation efforts have softened the blow for many businesses

By claudia glover

Ten years ago, a pandemic triggering enforced remote working could have caused outright chaos in one of the UK’s most crucial sectors: customer support.

With businesses — from banks to travel firms — depending on large, densely populated call centres to support customers, preventing COVID-19 outbreaks has required fast action and a shift (globally, not just locally) to dispersed alternatives.

It is not proving a seamless transition: outsourced call centres in the Philippines have been closed, staff numbers are down at many call centres and companies like hardware and software giant Acer have admitted services are disrupted as a result.

But thanks to virtual desktops, cloud-based communications infrastructure, SIP trunking (internet-based voice calls) and improved software, for many the transition has been impressively smooth, even has demand for customer service has soared.

(Customer service staff, like those in many other sectors, are meanwhile having to grapple with unique sets of demands, whether that is newly staggered shifts, wrangling childcare whilst dealing with customers, and more: no technology is a panacea).

“Customers are  experiencing heavy losses, up to 97 percent in daily sales revenue in some cases…”

Companies working on the vendor sector paint a picture of some turmoil: Ross Fobian, CEO and co-founder at ResponseTap, a call intelligence specialist, told Computer Business Review: “In a typical month, we process just over two million phone calls.

“In the past couple of weeks, the coronavirus has had a massive impact, particularly in the travel sector; some of our customers are seeing an increase of over 1,000 percent in inbound calls. “But these customers are also experiencing heavy losses.

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“These are up to 97 percent in daily sales revenue in some cases.”

His company’s software helps by letting users prioritise precious sales calls amongst the thousands of service calls, as well as tracking customer journeys prior to the calls in a bid to work out the key areas in which a business can respond to reduce call volume.

Fast Action in China

China’s Hainan Airlines, which operates 1,800 domestic and international routes, was among the earliest reacting. It scrambled to set up new systems to let a large workforce continue customer support operations remotely.

Call centre staff are now are accessing business applications remotely using US vendor Avaya‘s remote Teamviewer solutions, with all customer calls routed to staf mobiles or landlines.

Working with a local Systems Integrator, Avaya told Computer Business Review that it was able to get the airline’s entire customer service workforce set up remotely in five days.

“This involved installing a large number of agents’ remote computer operating systems, configuration of soft phones, quality inspection, installing screen recording software, business software, testing, and fixing any issues.”

Automation Had Already Taken Some of the Sting Out of the Tail

Valur Svansson, principal consultant customer ops and CX transformation at call centre technology specialist IPI told Computer Business Review that chatbots, RPA and rapidly updated automated queuing have helped to manage customer expectations if staff numbers are depleted due to sickness and “allow agents more time on the phone with customers with an in-depth problem, as the automated processes have resolved part, if not all, of many customer queries.”

Svansson also noted that in this current crisis IPI is “advising our call centre clients to use cloud -based applications where possible, to facilitate remote working so customer-facing agents can still access essential systems, like ID&V (Identity and verification), and sustain an efficient customer experience – even when working from home.

He added: “In the same vein, having a cloud-based workforce management system in place that lets businesses keep track of their dispersed customer service representatives or make staffing changes, is essential to upholding smooth operations.”

Gov’t Flexibility Pays Off

A spokesperson for HMRC (Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs) told Computer Business Review that: “Many HMRC staff are already able to work flexibly or from home, and we have widespread use of Microsoft Teams so people can conduct meetings remotely.”

“We have detailed business continuity plans in place, which include people working in alternative locations if necessary”.

(HMRC earlier rolled out innovations including voice ID: a system that takes voice recordings from those who call the tax credits and self-assessment helplines to create a voiceprint to identify callers in the future, allowing their calls to be handled faster. It initially fell foul of the ICO for this, but has since proved GDPR compliance).

See also: “Voice ID? We’re Keeping It” Vows HMRC, Dodging Fine for GDPR Breach

James McCall, of GTT, a Tier 1 IP networks provider, emphasised the role of SIP trunking in facilitating the rapid shift to remote customer services. (SIP trunks route voice calls over the Internet, meaning users don’t have to maintain two separate networks, one for data and another one for phone calls.)

He said: “Making the move to SIP trunking solutions can allow call centre employees to remain connected and bring a number of advantages to businesses. For example, organisations can save on costs by consolidating IT efficiencies that offer both data and voice with a single provider.”

“As businesses find themselves having to adjust to new and unexpected circumstances, speed and efficiency is of the utmost importance. SIP trunking can be delivered with full resiliency, to ensure a highly reliable service. With SIP trunk groups delivered over data connections, businesses do not need a separate line for voice services. The same connection for internet access and SIP trunking can be used and the new SIP trunk group can be activated really quickly. Under 48 hours on existing data connections.”

A Virus May End Up Triggering Investment in Automation

Earlier this month a survey by the UK Contact Centre Forum concluded that the “traditional contact centre” would be a distant memory within 10 years, with just 3.2 percent of those surveyed saying they believe their current customer contact operation will look like a ‘traditional contact centre’ by 2029.

Some 72 percent of respondents believed that customers won’t have to identify themselves when making contact because organisations will already know who they are; 82 percent thought that most simple customer queries will be handled by self-service and chatbots by 2029 and over half anticipated that “customer emotion analysis will be commonly used to manage customer queries more effectively.”

Companies grappling with soaring customer service demands but fragmented workforces facing challenging work environments may now be looking more closely at how they can modernise their customer service and call centre strategies.

See also: Bank of America Chatbot Hits 10 Million Users, Serves Hundreds of Millions of Client Requests

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