During the past two years contact centres have changed at an incredible rate thanks in a large part to businesses moving to the cloud, accelerated by the coronavirus pandemic. One of the most obvious developments, says Gary Bennett, VP UKI/MEA/Northern Europe at Enghouse Interactive, was the shift of office-based agents working remotely from home.
Prior to the arrival of Covid-19, just 3.8% of the UK’s 812,000 call centre workers were based at home, according to research group ContactBabel. That all changed when the government introduced sweeping lockdown restrictions in March 2020. By November 2020, homeworking was almost twice as common among call centre staff as the general workforce, with around three quarters of 139,000 agents surveyed saying they were home-based. That’s no mean feat for an industry historically lacking the natural set-up and capability for remote working.
Homeworking looks set to remain, according to The 2021 Contact Centre People Engagement Survey, where just four out of 107 call centres and managers anticipated a full return to the office and it seems certain that hybrid models of working are here to stay.
The cloud will come of age
We expect to see the cloud to continue to mature, bringing more benefits to customer-facing businesses, as contact centres adopt hybrid working. No doubt this will open up new opportunities and challenges forcing contact centres to adapt quickly.
They will be able to do this more readily now that more applications are available in the cloud, as it is possible to deliver a joined-up customer experience whether the agent is working from a call centre or from home.
To do that well, forward thinking contact centres will require optimised processes and systems that integrate with each other, so that the customer and the agent follow a pathway that feels instinctive. However, there is still much to be done as a lot of companies rushed their cloud migration back in 2020, in their effort to ensure business continuity. Looking ahead we anticipate contact centres to continue their efforts to integrate systems to ensure network security and a good customer experience.
Agents working remotely would have faced challenges where their home network may not have been as slick as the office set-up. So, we are now increasingly seeing businesses investing in taking steps to ensure their systems are working just as smoothly as if they were in the office.
The future of the contact centre is omnichannel
Nowadays, companies need to be able to interact with customers on an expanding number of contact channels, from video calls and email, to chat, social media and of course the phone. At the same time, they need to deliver a joined-up experience, no matter how customers make contact.
Omnichannel contact centres are growing because customers want to interact with organisations in various ways. A customer will pick a method of contacting the company in a way that suits them best at the time. However, they will expect to be able to switch seamlessly to other channels during the course of the interaction. This can be illustrated where a video call is used to show a faulty product, while email delivers a written audit-trail, and the telephone brings personal, conversational help.
One way to help deliver an efficient, high-quality omnichannel service is for businesses to implement Microsoft Teams. With this they can easily deliver greater collaboration, communication and agility to their internal stakeholders as well as customers across multiple channels.
Automated artificial intelligence-powered customer services
Artificial intelligence (AI) capabilities available to contact centres have grown significantly in recent years, as has the sophistication of what’s possible in terms of AI-driven customer service. We expect to see the ramping-up of AI capability, such as with chatbot functionality, which is accelerating all the time.
Natural language understanding and natural language processing capabilities are increasing too. These technologies can process and understand not just words and phrases but also context and sentiment, which means the number of problems they solve will continue to increase, as will the accuracy with which they can be resolved.
Clearly, the ability to push a lot of the routine, high-volume, low value interactions to AI and robots is growing all the time. At the same time, chatbots and virtual assistants are becoming more sophisticated in their ability to understand customer intentions, and also as the capability of AI increases, to solve more complicated customer problems and queries.
Contact centres still need competent agents to handle complicated, awkward and emotional matters, but for the most routine of interactions and even those involving some level of complexity, we will see a growing move to AI-enabled bots and automation.
Businesses need to pay more attention to shifting to cloud and hybrid working
Hybrid working offers many efficiency and productivity gains, by reducing the amount of office space they require while being able to operate more flexibly. For example, they can use remote workers to meet peaks in demand or provide out of hours cover. This may have been uneconomic to do if these agents had to go into the contact centre itself. Remote working also increases access to talent. Staff can be based anywhere, meaning companies can employ those who either may not have been able or willing to come to the office for traditional shifts.
During the first lockdown, businesses quickly appreciated the differences between managing a workforce at a call centre and managing one remotely. Agents are expressing a diversity of need for flexible working. For instance, those bringing up young children would look for shifts to fit round the school day and enable them to work from home, while younger workers may have a preference to work from an office because they want interaction with colleagues.
To manage staff in this contrasting environment will increasingly require firms to introduce new kinds of workforce management and optimisation. Up until now, most tools have been capable of this, although they were engineered with the idea of people sitting next to each other in an office.
Nowadays, businesses need software and processes more suited to the hybrid environment that support flexible working and are able to track, measure and reward good performance. For the most part, businesses are not quite there yet, as there can be connectivity issues between different systems and the way software works. However, beyond that, there are much bigger gaps in corporate policy, processes and culture to contend with, so we are seeing a lot of businesses having to play catch up with the shift in technological and working pattern.
One thing for sure, the contact centre continues to play a strategically important role for businesses as customer channels proliferate. Having successfully addressed the operational changes required to operate during the pandemic, contact centres now have their sights firmly set on the future, which will be challenging but one that offers a whole range of exciting possibilities.
The author is Gary Bennett, VP UKI/MEA/Northern Europe, Enghouse Interactive.
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