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Managing Contact Centers Through the COVID-19 Pandemic

Managing Contact Centers Through the COVID-19 Pandemic

This is DMG’s second column on the COVID-19 pandemic. The first one is available here. DMG is not providing medical or legal advice; all medical questions should be referred to your doctor and legal issues addressed to your lawyers. Here is the link to the US CDC site with information regarding this virus:

https://www.cdc.gov/coronavirus/2019-ncov/faq.html.

The COVID-19 pandemic is front of mind for all of us, as it’s next to impossible to avoid hearing and reading about the Coronavirus and the impact of this disease on the stock markets and economies around the world. A great deal of the concern is due to the lack of knowledge about it, vaccine to prevent it and medicine to cure it or lessen its impact. Conspiracists are saying that the virus escaped from a chemical lab in Wuhan, Hubei Province, China, while the CDC is stating that this virus probably originated in bats. 

Anyone who has gone to a grocery store or Costco in the past 2 weeks in New York and New Jersey has found empty shelves, and this is likely the case in other states like Washington and countries like Australia, where the COVID-19 has started to spread. First, people bought out anti-viral wipes and hand sanitizers, and now they are buying up non-perishable food and other basics like toilet paper and bottled water. Some of this behavior is due to a concern about being quarantined for 14 days, and other aspects of it are attributable to “our primitive ‘fight or flight’ response that prepares us to take action against a threat. These responses are reflexive and become less rational the more fearful we become. Unfamiliar threats leave us acting in seemingly irrational ways that we hope will give us a sense of control and secure our basic needs”, noted Abby Sarett-Cooper, MA, LPC, a Montclair, NJ-based Licensed Professional Counselor. Given the lack of information about COVID-19 and its impact on adults who are 60 and older and anyone with a compromised or weakened immune system, much of the concern is understandable. 

Employees, particularly those who are paid an hourly wage when they show up and are not paid at all when they don’t, which is the case for many contact center agents, are facing a tough decision. As it is, many contact center employees are paid little more than the minimum wage and struggle to make ends meet. Now, this group of employees must decide if they are going to put themselves at risk by going to work or if they will stay away from their crowded office for anywhere from 2 to an unknown number of weeks and confront a financial crisis. Adding to their challenge are school closings, which are forcing parents of young children to stay home and care for their kids or pay childcare providers, if they can find them. (The US government has approved a multi-billion dollar package to assist citizens in need of financial aid due to COVID-19.)

Companies are facing a different set of challenges – they depend on contact center employees to respond to inquiries from their customers. In times of trouble, which is the case today, it’s typical for customers to reach out more frequently to the companies with whom they conduct business, particularly healthcare organizations, insurance companies and financial services organizations. Agents are not typically considered essential workers but are sometimes one of the only group of employees that is required to come into the office, even when most other functions are told to stay home.  

Although it’s not fair and never has been, contact center agents have grown accustomed to these situations during bad weather and government holidays, but it’s a totally different issue when they may be putting their lives at risk by coming into their office. (Contact centers are typically crowded work areas where headsets, desks, keyboards and screens are shared by agents on different shifts.) It’s time for all of this to change, as it’s clear that contact center agents are essential to the success of their organizations and should be paid commensurate with the work they perform. This is an important issue but not the primary topic of this column.

COVID-19 is making clear to companies throughout the US and many countries around the world of the importance of having a business continuity plan that allows their agents to work from home. Work-at-home (WAH) has been a topic entertained by the contact center world for the past 15 years. While there are some well-publicized examples of companies that use WAH contact center employees, few organizations have more than a couple of agents, and next to no supervisory or management resources, who work from their home offices. Clearly, using WAH employees would be the safest way to staff contact centers during this pandemic if companies were properly set up to handle this scenario, but if they are not, starting a WAH program will be tough but not impossible to accomplish. 

Here are a few suggestions for handling this situation:

  1. Bring together a group of effective contact center leaders and empower them to make the necessary decisions and investments; speed is essential. 
  2. Establish formal lines of communication with employees and customers. Communicate accurately and frequently so that all employees know what is happening and what is expected of them. This is necessary so that agents know what to communicate to your customers. And do communicate to your customers so they know that your organization is doing everything it can to be there for them while keeping employees safe and healthy. 
  3. Do not require contact center agents to come into the office if other “non-essential” employees are not required to do so. And if people are required to report to the office, arrange for them to avoid public transportation (and minimally to travel in at non-busy times), and adhere to CDC guidelines for cleanliness and social distancing.
  4. Encourage employees who are sick or have a fever to stay at home. This is always a best practice, but with COVID-19 it can save lives. (This may mean that your company will have to pay agents for staying away from the office.)
  5. If you do not already have a cloud-based back-up contact center infrastructure solution (automatic call distributor (ACD)) with the necessary carrier services already in place and the ability to securely access customer information, reach out to a couple of the more than 100 contact-center-as-a-service (CCaaS) vendors and ask them to help you quickly. It’s about getting the basics in place so that agents and supervisors can help your customers while working from home, not about doing everything perfectly. But do not compromise on customer security or privacy. 
  6. As things are getting set up, work with your unified communications (UC) provider to route calls to agent cell phones so they can work from home. (While it’s best for agents to have secure access to their customer relationship management (CRM) and other operating systems, DMG has found that agents will likely be able to address close to 50% of inquiries, depending on the vertical, without having to access customer records, at least at the beginning. Over time, customers will become more demanding and will not accept being asked to call back or follow up at a later time.)
  7. Configure and deliver secure PCs, headsets and other tools to employees who are going to work from home. 
  8. As necessary, conduct video-based training sessions with employees who are working from home.
  9. If you have interaction (speech and text) analytics or your CCaaS provider offers this capability, use it to gain an understanding of what is happening with customers throughout your enterprise.

“In times of crisis, it’s important for agents to feel that management cares about them and is taking their individual needs into consideration,” said Ms. Sarrett-Cooper. 

These are just a few of the practices that can keep your employees safe and reassured, and help your organization be responsive to customers during the pandemic, if you do not yet have a BC plan in place. Clearly, using a CCaaS solution and having a WAH program are necessary, but all is not lost if you don’t. It may take a little time to get things going, but it’s important to make the necessary investments so your contact center staff can remain physically and mentally healthy while providing the best possible service to your customers. And once the pandemic is over, dedicate the time to developing an effective BC plan for your future.

DMG Consulting LLC is a leading independent research, advisory and consulting firm specializing in unified communications, contact centers, back-office and real-time analytics. Learn more at www.dmgconsult.com.