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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Tapping data and insight

Customer data and insight are key vehicles here helping brands better navigate the extra demands on support centres triggered by COVID-19.

“Insights based on interaction analytics can guide to the right support decisions and set up pre-emptive response mechanisms,” Srinivasan says. “For example, if analysis of cross-channel contacts over the last few weeks can lead you to the top questions customers have, that will enable brands to be more proactive about how they address them. They can use insight to formulate proactive outbound messages or leverage in-app messaging to help users with those specific problems.”

For example, Katsabaris notes the importance of listening to customers for major grocery retailers.

“By listening to feedback across different channels, these businesses learnt elderly and at-risk citizens were being severely impacted by low-stocked, overcrowded grocery stores,” she says. “They were able to quickly come up with a solution that showcased their ability to respond quickly and aimed to put their customers first.

“But they also needed to be able to understand how the new solution was being received by customers and keep up with changing customer needs.”

Technology helping here includes AI text capabilities, sentiment and speech analysis. Katsabaris says these capabilities can also help a call centre quickly escalate customer issues and requests that mention COVID-19. She cites certain brands automatically routing refund requests or requests for help to case managers based on such analysis as cases in point.

“This is minimising wait times for customers and also helping to triage the most important cases to special response teams, which helps create a better CX in an otherwise challenging environment,” she says. 

“Being able to prioritise actions not only ensures a stellar customer experience, it also alleviates a lot of admin work for call centre teams. In some industries, this is essential to be able to respond to the most vulnerable customers.”

Likewise, insights gleaned from service and support teams can benefit the rest of the organisation and help you make the right automation decisions, Srinivasan says.

“For example, airlines could realise a large volume of their contacts are ‘cancellations’ and enable a virtual assistant/widget that will only handle cancellations, and do so very effectively,” she says. “It’s not no automation, but automation that is strategic that’s also empathetic and relevant.”   

Bringing in the soft skills

As for pivoting the way call centre and support teams, processes or initiatives operate to cope with the COVID-19 crisis, the advice is largely to ‘get innovative’.

“Every contact centre has had to get more creative in how they manage their available employee pool,” Srinivasan says. “Initiatives for safe transit and safe work premises have made contact centres rethink their travel policies, seating arrangement, and so on. Contact centres have also tried to create common pools of employees and reallocate resources on outbound campaigns to manage inbound volumes and provide basic support.”

When it comes to the priority skills required in a COVID-19 context meanwhile, soft skills such as empathy and kindness are top of the list.

“In most cases, call centres are not really able to resolve customer issues like travel amendments or cancellations, so the ability to build rapport, empathise and be more creative in presenting options is becoming an important skill set,” Srinivasan says.

All of us are dealing with so much negative news every day, coupled with social distancing measures, and it’s taking its toll, Katsabaris notes.  

“A call-centre employee has to deal with that on top of the added pressure of non-stop calls learn during this time is active listening. When agents are listening to their customers’ problems they need to respond with certainty. It helps the person on the other end feel more certain too,” she says.    

“Providing a dynamic call-centre script for agents to use in relation to COVID-19 can also help teams to prioritise the most important requests. It ensures agents capture the right customer feedback needed to be able to triage the critical requests.”  

Harrison advises looking for indicators of vulnerability within customers calling and developing relevant queries either in real time or historically to intervene and support those customers more effectively.

“Sometimes we miss those cues to our detriment,” he says. “It’s particularly critical when it comes to brand association and customers feeling they’ve been connected to with a large organisation going out of their way to connect them to things like support services.

“Even simple things, a bunch of flowers to the old lady that was really upset who is by herself – it’s those gestures that can be a make or break connection moment and are so important.” 

The role of marketing

Then there’s the question of the role marketing leaders can play in supporting their service and support teams. Greater Bank’s marketing automation efforts are a great example of how marketing can complement work done by call centres during this time.

For Srinivasan, marketing leaders are in a good position to champion the channel, customer advocacy and expectation management for the contact centre. “Marketers can also work towards bring contact centre and martech data closer to be able to map end-to-end customer journeys. This will be critical to make insights work for them,” she says.

And this will inform customer experience in a post-COVID-19 world. Katsabaris urges brands to be seen to be acting and responding quickly.  

“Before all of this, there were times the industry seemed to relax about responding to feedback. That’s now changed - brands need to show that they are listening now and acting fast, because the brands who don’t aren’t going to survive,” she adds.   

Related: 4 brand leaders building the bridge between marketing and customer service

Verint Ian Harrison’s checklist of contact centre musts to get through COVID-19

Community engagement for agents is key: Having the ability to stand up some kind of community or crowdsourced resource for all agents is ideal in the transition to remote workforces.

Understand the major call drivers: Run speech analytics to understand what’s going on and what your main call drivers are. What are the things driving the biggest handle call time blowouts? Are there things that are really not value-add the IVR or chat solution is being taken up with?

Embrace analytics: Analyse your performance around productivity and compliance. How do you set the balance between being productive and caring for the vulnerable, while being compliant?

Speech analytics is your friend: Use this to understand conversational trends, and what wording are people using around COVID-19. Verint has issued a lot of query algorithms so our customers can look up various terms and not have to build themselves, so they can tap that library and come quickly up to speed.

Adopt a virtual assistant: These are a way to more rapidly detect lower-priority calls to free up capacity. These are also key to knowledge management more broadly and how to build a knowledge repository fast. These days, it’s reasonable easy to stand up this if you have AI running behind the scene and can interrogate the data.

Quality monitoring is a must: Beyond speech, we do a lot of call quality monitoring. Rather than just analyse queries, we routinely have monitoring software listening and recording calls. We want to make sure quality of agents is measured in the right way. We have people looking at calls so you can set and forget, and focus on empathy, sensitivity, brand engagement and value instead of having to focus on ticking compliance boxes.

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