Contact Centers

Photo: Berkeley Communications

The Contact Center Evolution Will be Remote

The pandemic has thrown nearly every industry into a state of rapid-fire transformation, and that includes contact centers. Chances are, nearly everyone reading this has reached a contact center and talked to an agent; during the pandemic, agents have become a direct and human — and welcome — point of contact. And if you’re an employee at a contact center, you’re likely experiencing a whole different way of working right now, on the virtual front lines, in some cases, and I have to say this directly: thank you for being there.  

Nearly overnight, as we launched into lockdown and work-from-home orders, the on-site call center had to be replaced by remote locations with agents and managers working from their homes. Given the high-touch, fast-moving, highly managed nature of call center work, would such a shift be successful? Given the traditional model of a call center workspace, would it work for agents to operate from home? 

According to a new report by Calabrio in collaboration with Ravel Research, the answer to both questions is yes. The just-released study surveyed contact center managers from a broad range of industries, in both the U.S and U.K., to find out what major changes the pandemic has caused for contact centers. Among the factors investigated: how the pandemic has created changing customer expectations, how it changes the dynamic of employee management, how viable remote working is for contact centers, and how business intelligence plays a role in customer-centricity, innovation and operations. 

Such are the issues we all need to focus on as we collectively make the leap from the way we used to work to the way we work now — and beyond. And the study found that overall, the shift to remote working has been good — it’s had a positive impact on engagement, performance and results among agents, as managers note. What’s so compelling to me is that this new, transformed landscape wasn’t hard to navigate at all. In fact, it’s made the job easier and the experience better for call center agents and managers in no less than five key areas:

 1. Remote Improves Performance and Satisfaction

It’s worth noting that pre-pandemic, some contact centers already had a remote component: 36% of contact centers had at least half of their employees working remotely. But with the onset of the pandemic, that number soared, with 89% of contact centers having at least 50% of their employees working remotely. While the shift was triggered by necessity, there has been a groundswell of approval on the part of agents. Necessity triggered the shift, but once agents settle into their remote roles, what’s clear is that many see it as an advantage. Call center managers believe 72% of agents are happy working remotely. 

As far as the positive impact on productivity, again, the numbers are in remote’s favor: 73% of managers surveyed express satisfaction with the productivity of employees now working remotely, and 85% are satisfied with employee productivity on account of flexible hours. Moreover, this is not just a passing fad: the adjustment is expected to stick. Citing remote’s benefits for employee satisfaction, service flexibility, and overall employee performance, 72% of managers say a remote environment is likely to continue in the long-term. It’s a clear sign that to many in this workforce, the changes were not only welcome, they may have been overdue. That’s a relief considering that across the country, reopening plans aren’t exactly going as, well, planned. We may have to shutter those back-to-the-workplace goals in favor of maintaining remote arrangements for everyone’s safety. The good news is that in terms of contact centers, that should not have a negative impact on how well agents are doing, or how they feel about their jobs.

2. An Emphasis on New Skills 

For countless employees, shifting to remote (as well as to flexible schedules) has also shifted the emphasis to new skills; the same is true for contact center agents. Managers in the study report that 49% of their employees are better at self-management, 42% have improved their problem-solving abilities, and 42% are better at both technology set-up and security awareness. 

Being a contact center agent has always required excellent soft skills — ask an agent what he or she thinks and I’d bet the answer is that these are hard-won, carefully developed, and endlessly practiced; they’re not really “soft” at all. But now add these three critical skills to the toolbox of abilities — soft or not — that call center agents need, such as clear communication, empathy, patience, attention to detail, and the ability to maintain a positive attitude, and you have the new paradigm for recruiting. It’s not just about being able to ‘give good phone,’ as they used to say, but now also about being able to stay on track no matter where an agent is working from. And again, this reflects the overall trend in remote working: we’re all learning how to balance, integrate, and think on our feet in a new context. The difference is that we don’t always have a customer on the other line, with urgency, possibly stress, and an increased need for our empathy, responsiveness and great service. 

 3. Evolved Training and Coaching

The Calabrio/Ravel survey also reveals that while training and coaching have been able to continue without too much interruption, there will be a greater need to develop new methods and leverage the shift to a virtual workspace. As their top three training resources, managers name video calls and web conferencing (53%); live online training classes (44%); and recorded online training classes (35%). More than half of managers anticipate that moving forward, they will inevitably be able to do less in-person, one-on-one training. 

From a talent development perspective, this is an immense possibility — to harness the remote environment to bring new modes of training and coaching to contact center hires. Virtual Reality could provide new hires with an experiential and impactful way to learn. Digital resources, such as mock scenarios that reflect larger social and behavioral changes, and other “walk in their shoes” approaches may help to mitigate concerns such as unconscious bias or help raise the threshold in terms of patience. By carefully crafting these to begin with, employees have a holistic but modern tool at their disposal. Another option: on-demand and self-service modules, speaking to people’s need for greater flexibility.  

4. Quality Evaluations and Predictive Analytics

Working in a vacuum is a common lament for remote employees. But there are certainly ways to counteract that sense of isolation — and an opportunity to increase feedback and coaching with digital tools. To improve brand impact and with a sense of increased customer urgency (a byproduct of life during a pandemic), managers have ramped up evaluations. According to the study: 1 in 3 contact centers have increased the number of quality evaluations of customer interactions. And while it’s true that evaluations can be a thorn in a manager’s side if done entirely manually, in this case managers are getting smart, leveraging digital tools to ease the heavier load. 44% of managers are using predictive analytics and/or automated quality monitoring. These tools are boosting their effectiveness when it comes to agent coaching, speeding up the process and promoting responsiveness in real time. Being able to spot key trends for the full 100% of interactions means that manual evaluations can be far more targeted. And managers are freed from the traditional reliance of “walking the floor” in favor of a smoother and more fluid agent development process.  

Is this the wave of the future? Managers’ responses on this may be an indication: only 30% think quality evaluations will be the same as they were before and 27% believe they will be doing more evaluations. Yet clearly, some are more forward-thinking than others: 20% believe they will be seeing more automated quality monitoring, and 19% say they will be using more analytics. What this speaks to, from my perspective, is that these tools are on the horizon for some, and already in use for others. And instead of seeing tools like automation or predictive analytics as a norm, managers may see it as a stopgap, envisioning a point when things get “back to normal,” and they can go back to how they conducted evaluations before. That may indicate a gap in perception: these are the same managers who believe remote contact centers will continue into the future; and sentiment around predictive analytics and automation will likely grow. We’ll see how this plays out.

5. New Technologies Offer New Opportunities

The new technologies coming to contact centers are having a profound impact on employee as well as manager experience, and offering new opportunities for support as well as growth. The old adage: If you build it, they will come, applies to a call center — and as we’ve seen as we pivot to remote, instead of agents and managers coming to a physical workspace, now remote innovations are coming to them. The survey asked its respondents: How have your contact center’s investments changed in the following areas, because of the pandemic? Not surprisingly, the biggest investments are in remote working solutions (65%); video conferencing tools (62%); and then, expanded channels for customer communication (52%). All are helping to modernize the manager and agent experience. And it may or may not be a kind of workplace irony to have a human call agent aided by a chatbot or virtual assistance, but these are not as high on the list. 

What is markedly on the rise is business intelligence (BI). A full 90% of respondents say they are maintaining or increasing their investment in BI solutions. And contact managers expect a higher demand for contact analytics to come from every department. We’re going to see call centers increasingly rely on data and more accurate reporting to better assess performance and set strategy — yet another sign that digital tools are leading the evolution. For a remote workforce, BI knits together people, interactions and operations in real time, allowing for a far greater sense of the big picture, elevated flexibility when it comes to key questions asked, and an increased sense of connection between individual effort and overall results.

None of these developments are going to take the place of human connection, however. The rationale behind grabbing the brass ring of better and better technologies is as a means to improve the interactions between agents and customers — by enabling agents to better do their job, from training to maintaining their performance. That includes the interactive dashboards being used by some call centers to provide agents with real-time data on how they’re doing. Designed to answer the questions an individual agent might ask, these provide a graphic as well as numeric scoreboard they can continue to monitor to track their own improvements. 

Self-accountability and a sense of personal stake in excellence may turn out to be our best asset of all. For agents and managers in call centers, these traits are clearly driving the evolution as much as any external forces — and pointing to an overall growth in workplace culture we may not have expected, but as the Calabrio/Ravel survey shows, it’s happening right now.

To find out more, download the study.

This post is sponsored by Calabrio.