At the end of January 2020, 5% of the UK population worked from home with some kind of formal agreement to do so.

At the end of March that had risen to 60% and would probably be considerably higher if the technology was in place to enable more people to work remotely. Platforms like Zoom, Google Hangouts and Teams have exploded. Within a week Zoom jumped from 2 million to over 100 million and growing.

As we entered lock down NHS England estimated that if they could move just 5% of GP appointments away from in-person, and onto a virtual platform, it would save 30,000 physical meetings a day – protecting medical staff and patients alike from risk of infection.

In addition, digital allows more flexibility in the system, increasing the capacity and reducing the disruption to normal life caused by a visit to a practice. Basic admin like sick notes and medical certificates have been automated via the 111 call service, and over 250,000 calls taken out of the system in the first ten days by the provision of online information and chat bots to reduce pressure on the agents. The Department for Work and Pensions, usually has 55,000 calls a week. This has rocketed to 1.8 million calls in the week March 23-27 and 2.2 million calls were made on March 30 alone.

But while there have been notable success stories, it would be untrue to say that the industry was ready to go home and go online. There were huge problems initially as organisations were overwhelmed with the change in context as well as the volume of calls. The double impact of overseas call centres closing, and the need to socially isolate UK populations proved hugely problematic. Working from home has several hurdles – how do you monitor quality without visibility, how do you address security concerns about customer information, and how do you maintain staff well-being? And that’s before you factor in staff absence, home schooling and caring duties that the pandemic has presented.

The crisis has given us permission to innovate. The truth is, the pandemic has simply accelerated trends that most of us were expecting to emerge, slowly over the coming decade. Instead they happened seemingly overnight. Where organisations are responding well, they are deploying not one solution but a myriad – and learning fast.

Firstly AI. While some commentators have asked if the growth of conversational AI will see the end of the call centre, what is becoming clear is that it is part of a wider expanse in the ways of delivering service rather than replacing it. A simpe analogy might be to eat a salad you need a knife and a fork – having a great knife doesn’t mean the fork becomes redundant.

Conversational AI is a first line of defence. It is a rapidly deployed solution that allows you to scale fast and ensure business as usual levels of service around the FAQs. It can ensure that you can reprioritize and focus customer support for the most vulnerable so that the most critical needs are addressed first, with non-critical contacts deflected to digital and self-serve.

Plus used well it can also provide insight into the most common topics, allowing you to iterate quickly based on customer needs and publish better informed content externally.

There has never been a better time for companies to take full advantage of their data to predict the changing needs of customers and the internal workforce. Using this data to inform and shape processes, workflows and products and create a better customer experience is central to meeting customer needs.

Even the traditional forecasting of call volume can be enhanced by referring to contextual data. Customer demographic and geographic data; Government announcements; the impact on customers from company or competitor actions; behavioural trends from Covid-19 in other geographies; crowdsourced data direct from agents and publicly available data. This information can be harnessed to prepare the operations teams, and to help serve up the most relevant information for the agent during a call. For most of us this will be operational innovation and it will be at the heart of what effective customer experience looks like.

But AI and analytics are only part of the solution. Customers want to speak to a real person in times of crisis, when their question is more likely to be urgent and complex. Providing compassionate customer service will have a disproportionate uptick in the likelihood that the concern will be resolved first time resulting in far higher customer loyalty post crisis. This new normal provides organisations the opportunity to look for new sources of talent – provide flexible working patterns, recruit from alumni, partner with clients to provide specialists and so forth. For example, both BT and Manchester Police are using retired staff to provide complex and specialist call handling – from home. As we become more sophisticated in our systems, it will also be possible to deploy more and more of the one to many approach – one employee skilled and equipped to deal with multiple enquiries, supported by the right AI, the right insight and the right technology.

Next - managing remote workforces. It is key that you don’t simply send your teams home with a laptop and headphones and expect service to be maintained. It is imperative that you adopt new ways of working, rapidly adapting your infrastructure, management systems and processes to support an effective remote workforce and culture. Collaboration tools, shared desktops, directional language software – are vital weapons in your armoury. 

Robust technology is at the heart of this, with investment in connectivity, secure laptops and software licensing to enable remote working. Security of customer information through “zero trust” monitoring systems will also be required to allow customers to be sure of the safety of their information. And as we all experienced at the start of the lockdown, networks and platforms are playing catch up as much as there rest of us. There will be system failures – explain the issue, apologise, fit it fast, learn the lessons.

One key challenges of this new working environment is to protect the well-being of your team, as much as it is serve your customers well. Tools often used to monitor performance can be repurposed to manage workforce – voice recognition software that recognises stress levels, that  can harvest common words and then feeds into wider communication channels, that observes unhealthy working patterns (taking call after call without appropriate breaks) all help keep a watchful and supportive eye on your teams, and provide the coaching needed to build new ways of working together even when we are apart. 

2020 has forced us all into new ways of working, teaching, living even. But far from being the death knell for call centres – the current crisis offers us a real opportunity to innovate at speed and find new routes to offer our customers (and theirs) exactly what they need. We have the imperative. We have the ideas.

What we need is the courage.

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