The changing face of contact centres

Covid-19 has had a huge impact on the contact centre industry, with the pandemic pushing many businesses to move to the cloud. Most notably, this has led to more agents than ever being able to work from home

According to research group ContactBabel, only 3.8 per cent of workers in UK call centres were based at home. But this shot-up when the government introduced lockdown restrictions in March 2020 and eight months later around three quarters of agents surveyed said they are now home-based.

It seems likely that hybrid models of working are here to stay as indicated by The 2021 Contact Centre People Engagement Survey, which showed that only four out of 107 call centres and managers anticipated a full return to the office.

It’s the age of the cloud

Over the coming years, we expect to see the cloud to continue to mature, bringing a wealth of benefits to customer-facing businesses as they adopt hybrid working. But they will have to adapt quickly to make the most of the new opportunities.

This can be more readily achieved now that more applications are available in the cloud, as it is possible to deliver a joined-up customer experience regardless of whether the agent is working from a call centre or from home.

Forward thinking contact centres will require optimised processes and systems in place that integrate with each other, so the customer and agent follow a pathway that feels instinctive. However, there is still much to be done as many companies rushed their cloud migration in 2020, when they tried to ensure business continuity. We anticipate contact centres will continue in their efforts to integrate systems to achieve network security as well as good customer experience.

Home-based agents would have faced challenges where their home network may not have been as slick as the office set-up. But now we are increasingly seeing businesses taking steps to ensure their systems are working just as smoothly as if they were in the office.

The omnichannel contact centre

Today companies need to be able to interact with customers on numerous contact channels, ranging from video calls, emails and phone calls, to chat and social media. No matter how customers make contact, these channels need to deliver a consistent, joined-up experience.

Omnichannel contact centres are growing because customers want to interact with organisations in ways that suits them with the ability to switch seamlessly to other channels during the course of the interaction. For example, where a video call is used to show a faulty product, an email delivers a written audit-trail, and a phone call brings personal, conversational help.

A way of helping to offer a high-quality omnichannel service is for call centres to use Microsoft Teams. With this, they can easily deliver greater collaboration, communication and agility to their internal stakeholders as well as customers across several channels.

Customer service powered by AI

The number of artificial intelligence (AI) processes has grown significantly in recent years, as has the sophistication of what’s possible in terms of AI-driven customer service. Indeed, capability,   is increasing all the time, for example AI is enabling chatbots to achieve more by improving their functionality.

Natural language understanding and natural language processing capabilities are constantly developing 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.

The ability to push routine, high-volume, low value interactions to AI and robots is growing all the time. Simultaneously, chatbots and virtual assistants are becoming more sophisticated in their ability to understand customer intentions and solve more complicated customer problems and queries.

While contact centres will still need competent agents to handle complicated, awkward and emotional matters, nevertheless we will see a growing move to AI-enabled bots and automation.

The shifting to cloud and hybrid working

Hybrid working offers many benefits in terms of efficiency and productivity gains such as reducing the amount of office space required while being able to operate more flexibly. Remote working also increases access to talent as agents 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 soon realised the differences between managing a workforce in a call centre and managing one remotely. In addition, agents have been asking for flexible working for a variety of reasons. For instance, parents with young children would look for shifts to fit round the school day enabling them to work from home, while younger workers may prefer to have the interaction with colleagues working in an office.

Firms will increasingly be required to introduce new kinds of workforce management and optimisation. Most tools have been capable of this, although they were designed with a view of people working in an office.

It’s clear that call centres now require software and processes more suited to a flexible, hybrid way of working, which can track, measure and reward good performance. In general, businesses are not there yet, because often there are connectivity issues between different systems and the way software works. There are also much bigger gaps in corporate policy, processes and culture to contend with, where call centres are having to play catch up with the change in technology and working patterns.

However, one thing is certain and that is contact centres will continue to play a strategically important role for businesses as the number of communication channels increases. Having overcome the operational difficulties of the pandemic, they are in a good position to set their sights firmly on the future. While it will be challenging, it will be a future full of exciting possibilities.

About the Author

Gary Bennett is VP UKI/MEA/Northern Europe at Enghouse Interactive.

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