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April 20th, 2020

Guest speaker Art Schoeller - Inbound Call Center Responses to COVID-19

How are call centers across the U.S. shifting their operations and strategies in response to the coronavirus pandemic? On April 6, I explored that question with Art Schoeller, vice president and principal analyst at Forrester Research, who focuses on contact center applications and delivery and has been at the front lines of this dramatic shift.

Our conversation ranged from customers and fraudsters, to agents and operations. Here are my favorite quotes from that discussion (edited for brevity and clarity):

  • “None of us grew up wanting to be in customer service or contact centers. But what I find enormously consistent is that in people's DNA, we have this ‘helping gene.’ I am working with so many Forrester customers who want to get help so that they can help their customers.”
  • “This is an opportunity for the brand to shine. Brand performance happens through agents, so take care of them.”
  • “In the ‘new normal’ I envision, we are still working from home and the economy hasn’t fully recovered, but we’re back to some flavor of business-as-usual. It’s still an uncertain environment.”
  • “Scammers are going to do everything they can to burrow into the call queue and come through with a false identity, or socially engineer personally identifiable information out of the agent, to then go market it somewhere else.”

This post summarizes the highlights. Listen to the full 30-minute conversation here.

Callers’ Needs and Call Volumes Vary Wildly by Industry

Swings in volume. Unpredictability. Diverse concerns from customers. All industries have been impacted by the pandemic, with several extreme outliers.

Travel and hospitality—including cruise lines, airlines, and hotels—served a surge of calls related to cancellations and questions about refunds and re-scheduling bookings. That volume has declined precipitously with the need for social distancing. Now they must manage lay-offs and plan for re-hiring when business returns.

Wealth management companies and retail banks have sustained a rise in call volume due to the stock market’s volatility and the consumer liquidity crisis, respectively. Even though wealth management tends to be a one-to-one relationship, retail banks have had to move staff across functions to serve the influx of callers. There is an incredible level of traffic around renegotiation of payment terms, from mortgages to water bills.

Historically, Neustar Inbound Authentication technology observes the highest volume of calls during tax season. As the date to file taxes was delayed 90 days, Neustar expects financial services call centers will experience the seasonal flurry of calls in May and June.

Insurers are seeing standard or even diminished volumes because social distancing has put a pause on regular doctor visits, but healthcare providers are being buried by an amazing volume of questions. Likewise, state and local governments are seeing dramatic spikes. One client told Schoeller that they’d helped New York State’s call centers scale from 400 seats to 9,000.

That’s representative of Schoeller’s experience right now. “[They’re] doing amazing things right now. I've been in this industry over 30 years,” he said. “I think it's pretty consistent that none of us grew up wanting to be in customer service or contact centers. But what I find enormously consistent is that in people's DNA, we have this ‘helping gene.’ I am working with so many Forrester customers who want to get help so that they can help their customers.”

Call Centers Rise to the Challenge

While call centers strive to serve the spike in call volume, they also must manage how social distancing impacts their workforce. By the millions, agents have moved their work home. Their partners and children have, too. That pressures workforce managers to become more agile and flexible with scheduling and training agents to meet new needs such as payment renegotiation. Managers are scrambling to balance customers’ needs with agents’ capabilities, both "moving targets" in this environment. The role of self-service tools such as websites, mobile apps, and chat is more important than ever.

The issue of business continuity is most visible with the closure of offshore call centers. Businesses that had solely sourced call centers from one geography face a real problem. Those that are multi-sourced are racing to staff up quickly in geographies that are less affected.

Millions of Agents’ Lives Disrupted

Some call centers are still operating. Agents coming in may need the job, but they may be fearful. Address their fears, Schoeller recommended. Communicate the strategies and tactics employed to keep agents safe. “Don't reuse headsets,” says Schoeller. “Just period, end of story. Do not do that.”

Those agents who are newly working from home may be navigating a distracting environment. A partner may also be working from home. Children add a whole new level of complexity. It’s an unprecedented environment, but it’s one that customers understand. They’re working from home, too.

Supervisors can still quality assure, monitor calls, and coach agents working from home. Checking in with home agents is a best practice anyway, but the communication must be ratcheted up.

Fraudsters Thrive on Stressed Agents

There are winners, losers and, profiteers in any big crisis, says Schoeller. Scammers are going to take advantage. They’ll endeavor to insert themselves into the call queue with a false identity, or socially engineer agents to surrender personally identifying information (PII). In this stressful time, agents’ guards against these attempts may not be as well attuned. The potential risk is especially pronounced in industries whose operations rest on sensitive PII, financial data, or financial assets.

Fraudsters seek to exploit agents’ “helping gene”—their natural desire to help callers. By putting agents under stress, fraudsters try to get agents to be too helpful and forego some of the compliance processes for identifying callers. That makes it easier for fraudsters skilled at social engineering.

A “New Normal” Is Coming

Right now, call centers are in a big scramble. Schoeller envisions a “new normal” where agents are still working from home and the economy hasn’t fully recovered, but business has returned to a semblance of normalcy. This uncertain environment will demand incredible agility. Workforce managers will have to match traffic spikes with agent resources. Customers will have to become flexible, too, and use self-service tools they may have avoided in the past.

When the pandemic subsides, lessons about workforce agility and leveraging self-service tools could become the norm. There's potential for a permanent transition to work-from-home across the industry, even in companies that have historically resisted the idea. Schoeller expects more organizations will internalize greater readiness to apply the right tools to prevent fraud.

We’re in an environment that elicits fear, says Schoeller. We’re drawn down the path of ‘fight or flight.’ Now more than ever, workforces must manage their stress so that they can help customers who are also under stress. When it comes to customer service that escalates to an agent, this is an opportunity for the brand to shine. Brand performance happens through those agents, so take care of them.

This post summarizes the highlights of my conversation with Art Schoeller. The 30-minute conversation goes into greater detail. Listen now.

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