How COVID-19 is accelerating remote working and automation in the call center industry

Profile picture for user jbowles By Jerry Bowles August 3, 2020
Summary:
The death of call centers is greatly exaggerated.  But they are changing.

business call center
(via Pixabay)

It's still too early to write the history of the 2020 pandemic but it is likely that this will be remembered as a time when, for many people, the workplace changed forever. Enterprises suddenly got more serious about digital transformation.  Automation took on a new and urgent appeal.  Remote working and work-from-home became viable alternatives. Cloud-computing became attractive to those who eschewed it in the past. Every marketing person's new favorite word became "resilience." 

One of the most heavily impacted areas has been customer contact centers which have seen a sudden and dramatic shift toward remote working at the same time many companies are dealing with a big increase in number of customer calls.  Oracle, alone, sent more than 100,000 customer service agents home to work.  Although most companies already had a work-from-home component in their call centers, they viewed it as supplemental to their core strategy.  Now, more and more, WFH is emerging as the road to the new normal.  

The central question, of course, is how can companies be assured that the quality of their customer service interactions will not suffer from such widely decentralized responses.  

I spoke with Alok Kulkarni, CEO, Chairman and Co-founder of Cyara, a company whose Automated CX Assurance Platform allows enterprises to continuously test contact center apps that are running on or migrating to the cloud as part of a broader enterprise digital transformation that focuses on CX:

The pandemic has become an accelerant for moving work in mass to homes. In the process, it is changing the perception of what kind of work people can do from home as well as the quality of work performed at home.

For many organizations, enabling agents and supervisors to work from home (WFH) is the best or only option during the current pandemic. This is where cloud-based solutions make a big difference. While many premises-based contact centers make it possible for agents to work remotely, the processes are much faster and easier with a cloud service.  Premises-based solutions may not offer all of functionality for WFH agents, and it's generally more costly to have remote agents using landline telephones. 

The really big advantage is that with CCaaS (Contact Center as a Service), agents and supervisors have access to all of the system's features and capabilities from any location, including omnichannel capabilities, analytics, monitoring, quality and performance management, workforce management and optimization, and more. The cloud also makes it easier to add capabilities such as artificial intelligence (AI) and bots to assist agents and automate customer interactions.

Once based almost entirely in call centers, customer service is now a multichannel and omnichannel customer experience (CX) approach, with cloud-based communications, well-designed interactive voice response (IVR), and powerful reporting capabilities thanks to artificial intelligence (AI), chatbots, natural language processing (NLP), and other technologies. 

Tremendous advances in AI and natural-language processing has dramatically improved on older automated call systems.  The new generation of voice-based agents and chatbots are easier to build, quicker to deploy, and more likely to be able to provide the answer the customer needs without human intervention.

The goal of the systems is to have virtual agents answer as many queries as possible before any calls are handed over to humans. This reduces the burden on call centers and the wait times for users. Those advances are here to stay but does that mean humans will disappear from the call center?  Kulkarni said:

Many simple informational calls can be handled by automated tools but there are lots of reasons why the human voice is unlikely to disappear entirely anytime soon.  Voice calls are typically higher-value interactions. Customers pick up the phone when they truly need to connect--when it's an urgent issue or a complex one.  By making the contact center an integral component of your digital transformation, you can ensure that you're saving your live-agent calls for where they matter most--touch points where they can customize interactions, drive sales and build customer loyalty. 

Even when a customer engages with your brand in a digital channel, in my experience, they often escalate or combine their online interaction with a phone call. These combined digital and voice interactions have become second nature for your customers. When they reach out to your contact center, it may be because they are dealing with anxiety or confusion--or because they're simply not finding the information they need in your digital channels. When a customer wants someone to walk them through their issue, voice calls become an intrinsic part of the customer's omnichannel experience. 

Cyara was formed in Melbourne, Australia in 2006  when Kulkarni was a solutions architect at Genesys working on a state-of-the art speech recognition system for a large government agency. He knew he needed to test this new system to make sure it could withstand an onslaught of incoming calls. But there was no solution that could reliably replicate high volumes of customer interactions. That's when the idea for Cyara was born. Since those days, Alok and co-founders Bonny Malik and Luan Tran have built the world's leading CX Assurance platform. 

More than 300 top brands use Cyara to automate and accelerate testing of the customer experience (CX), by enabling organizations to define customer scenarios that are verified and tested by Cyara's automated bots.  The process tests the network, applications, and even back-end data systems that power those interactions and identify any performance issues and provide details that facilitate troubleshooting and root-cause analysis. The result, Kulkarni said, is better CX with less effort, cost, time, and risk.

My take

One of the many long-lasting effects of COVID-19 is that it has made companies of all sizes focus on transforming their core business processes and entertain new ways of doing business.  Transformations that might have taken years in "normal" times now happen in months. The most visible example of this is the race among major  pharmaceutical companies to develop a COVID-19 vaccine in less than half the time that previous vaccines have taken.  Less dramatic transformations are taking place every day in enterprises around the world.   

Because of the pandemic, many companies have discovered that a good work-from-home platform enables work at equal or even better quality than work traditionally conducted in the office. This is especially true of call center and customer service work  but there will be other industries where WFH becomes the norm also. 

If there is a "good" for businesses to come from the pandemic it may be the freedom to reimagine the workplace and to develop a more flexible model of working environments for the future.