How brand support teams can navigate the COVID-19 customer storm

How brands are ensure their contact centre and support staff meet changing customer needs in the current crisis environment

In times of crisis, uncertainty and complexity, we all seek reassurance from the businesses and institutions supporting us. And as the COVID-19 pandemic hit, one channel customers sought such reassurance from is the humble call centre.

Contact centres across industry categories have been experiencing significant spikes in call volumes in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, with influxes of customers phoning in to ask questions and seek information from the businesses operating them. National Australia Bank alone cited more than 200,000 calls coming into its contact centre in the week following declaration of COVID-19 as a pandemic.

“Contact centres find themselves stretched to the max to support requests coming in from multiple channels, specially under the lockdown restrictions in place from local governments. It has been all-hands-on-deck for most of them just to keep the lights on,” Forrester senior analyst, Vasupradha Srinivasan, tells CMO.

And while volumes may flatten slightly as the pandemic peaks globally, there are still plenty of customers asking questions as they navigate the shorter and longer-term implications of the crisis.

“I would think there would be a temporary fall in volumes, but we’re headed towards another massive spike as countries start to loosen the lock down restrictions. Brands will need to prepare for the post-pandemic customer contacts from now,” Srinivasan says.

Qualtrics head of CX solutions and strategy APJ, Vicky Katsabaris, sees the influx of calls and customer requests caused by COVID-19 impacting customer service response time and efficiency across several industries.

“Responsiveness is a non-negotiable for businesses at any time, but it is particularly essential in the current environment,” she says. “The inability to resolve issues, and triage and prioritise calls amid this crisis could negatively impact the customer experience [CX] - and ultimately bottom lines - long-term.” 

Greater Bank: Flexibility through cloud transformation

There’s no doubt being able to transition the call centre firstly to remote working, then build responsiveness to heightened demand, has been vital to brands wanting to retain the trust of customers.

One institution that has transitioned its contact centre relatively painlessly and pivoted focus to changing customer needs is Greater Bank. The Newcastle-based mutual bank now has its contact centre operating out of 41 locations, pivoting several branch sites into call centres and transitioning about half of all support staff to home-based operations within days of restrictions coming into play.

Greater Bank head of marketing and customer experience, Matthew Hingston, says having seen customer calls “going through the roof”, and branch visits reduce, the organisation quickly repurposed eight branches to contact centre spaces. These now account for one-quarter of call centre staff capacity. Another half of support staff are working from their homes, and the final quarter remain in the main call centre.

Such a smooth switch was possible thanks to the decision to invest in cloud-based telephony a couple of years ago. As part of a longer-term digital transformation plan aimed at backing up Greater Bank’s “progressive” brand position, the group on-boarded Genesys Pure Cloud solution to revamp the contact centre.

“We’ve since moved to a new location with cloud telephony and soft phones. This enabled the capability to work from anywhere in the world,” Hingston tells CMO. “Little did we know we’d need to use that in a time of COVID-19 to support our business and customers.

“Because of this, we were able to pivot our contact centre in a matter of days. Since then, we have retrained a quantity of our branch network staff to take and make calls. It was an easy transition in that regard. They already had the face-to-face experience, and product knowledge, they’re now translating that to interactions over the phone.”  

Complementing the frontline changes is marketing’s decision to switch out next-best offers and the marketing automation program from a focus on a sales-driven program to customer care.

“We’re now using that [contact centre] capability to go outbound and call customers in need, especially those who relied on passbooks or were branch dependent,” Hingston explains. About 25,000 of Greater Bank’s total customer base still relies on passbooks, and visits to the branch to get an account balance are still common with a minority.

“We’re using our marketing automation to load these customers into our contact centre to do outbound calling to these customers, checking in and make sure they’re OK, as well as offering them other banking services, such as Internet banking and cards,” he says.

“Last week, we had an 86-year old customer sign up to Internet banking. In this environment, these customers have to look at new ways of banking. If it’s not been offered to them before, they’ve never proactively sought out these technologies and products. Now as such consumers have to, they’re looking for support.

“If we can help by putting content these solutions in front of them, check in how they are doing, and as part of our calls help them access their money, then we’re helping.”

Hingston says ROI in the current context is less about sales or handling times, and more about ensuring people aren’t turned away and Greater Bank can help them in the current context.

“We can afford to not focus too heavily on driving sales,” he says. “It goes back to why we exist: Going beyond any ROI, it’s to treat people fairly and help people. This comes from the CEO down. It’s why we have such a strong customer base, and an NPS of +69.”

Related: 10 ways to smarten up your customer experience

Tools and tech to help

Greater Bank’s cloud-based software platform is one example of the tools capabilities useful in managing the perfect storm of rising service demands with remote access. Collaboration and community platforms are also key in allowing agents to better interact with each other digitally.

“Organisations are trying to shift to technologies that support work from home and collaboration. So solutions like call centre in the cloud and enterprise collaboration are seeing an uptake since this will see sustained application even after we move past the pandemic crisis,” Srinivasan says.

“Both brands and service providers are trying to use technology to ease the pressure on contact centres and to ensure customers don’t abandon calls. Investments towards automation solutions like chatbots and virtual assistants have been fast-tracked in some organisations as well.”

However, chatbots and assistants are often not sophisticated enough to handle the complex nuances of calls largely coming through to modern contact centres as more customers answer basic inquiries through digital self-serve channels. Add in the complexity of COVID-19 terminology and rapidly changing legislative and government responses to the current crisis, and it’s clear these sorts of tools aren’t going to solve the problem, Verint director of customer experience optimisation, Ian Harrison, says.

Harrison has 25 years’ experience leading call centres for organisations such as Commonwealth Bank and now provides business advice to support Verint customers in better designing centres to be more fluid and operationally resilient.

“People have no choice but to turn to them [contact centres]. The concern is as they turn to them in larger volumes, they’ll realise they’re not necessarily be able to do the more complex problem solving,” Harrison says. “The vast majority of chat is fairly transactional and probably doesn’t have the smarts to be really effective in this world.”

Where Harrison hopes chatbots will get to is being an intelligent digital assistant helping agents on the phone, presenting information to them to help them resolve complex queries fast.

“And as the AI [artificial intelligence] platform goes along, it reaches the point where it can handle a lot of queries itself,” he says.

Alongside the very real technical challenges organisations are experiencing transitioning contact centre teams to remote workforces, another issue Harrison sees brands facing is non-traditional customers coming through to call centres.

“If they’re not used to IVR or digital self-service, by the time they get through to the call centre they’re exasperated and desperate. They’re on calls longer, so handling time goes up. It’s a customer base being forced to interact with a channel they’re not proficient in,” he says. 

“And it’s not just transactions being fulfilled either. These are customers at home, they’re self-isolating and want to talk. Suddenly you need to be thinking about putting the needs of the customer first – do I have a vulnerable customer? Do they need additional help? Is there anything else I should be trying to do for them? The challenge is you don’t want call centre agents to say they have to go and take the next call.”

The solution isn’t an easy one, Harrison agrees. “In my previous roles I would have been torn on whose obligation you’re trying to fulfil – the longer you spend with one customer, the less you’re supporting another customer,” he says.

“The call centre has become the voice of the customer inside the organisation to effect closure of a particular issue. And in many cases, the tech isn’t quite there yet to automate the flow through. Someone has to be the voice of the customer and ensure a particular transaction gets completed.

“That’s exacerbated in the current environment as well.”

Up next: The customer data and insight you need to harness; soft skills for coping with customers in the COVID-19 climate, marketing's role plus top tips to managing the contact centre

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