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May 28th, 2020

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

The global COVID-19 pandemic has caused sizeable disruption to outbound call centers, already challenged by incorrect consumer information, lack of insight into consumer phone behavior, consumers mistrustful of unexpected calls, and carrier blocking and spam-mislabeling. How are outbound call centers responding?

I explored those questions on a recent webinar with our guest Art Schoeller, vice president and principal analyst at Forrester Research, who focuses on contact center applications and delivery and has been supporting outbound call centers at the front lines of this historic time. Our conversation ranged from customers and fraudsters, to agents and operations.

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

How are outbound call center operations impacted by COVID-19?

The initial phase of getting agents working from home has created a crisis-management atmosphere along the entire operational chain of command. Call center agents might not be available to work the same hours at home. Additional staff might need to be hired to compensate, which requires training and then coaching to handle calls with empathy.

That coaching is essential because so many consumers are out of work. Many are in extended discussions about payment negotiation. Some will go into collections.

Done the right way, collections is a negotiation. These calls require an empathetic response from agents who need rigorous quality-assurance support, particularly new hires. The problem is that QA people are returning to the phones to meet demand.

Outbound call center leaders are adjusting their operational models day by day. They’re providing insight, leadership, and direction to respond very quickly to daily fluxes in traffic and staffing. Schoeller hopes that this agility persists as some sense of normalcy returns.

How have different industries been uniquely affected by these challenges?

A number of industries have suffered a severe drop in business. Some are experiencing a traffic upturn at the same time. That is a challenging combination of circumstances.

The travel and hospitality industry is enduring a downturn in traffic and revenue. An initial spike in inbound calls about cancellations and re-bookings was beyond their centers’ capacity. Some companies tried to reschedule reservations before giving refunds, which extended the length of the calls and increased the time some callers had to wait for service. Because the call volume overwhelmed many companies, they had to call many consumers back later. Schoeller points to such a call-back capability as a good way to smooth out traffic peaks.

Industries oriented around payments, such as collections, are seeing a lot of negotiation. The millions of consumers who are newly unemployed are asking for forbearance on their loans. Call wait times can stretch into the hours because of these callers trying to renegotiate their loans.

Being an election year, political campaign calling is also affected. Some states have had to delay their primaries because of COVID-19. Political campaigns have always had special permission to make outbound calls for fundraising. The people who would normally make those calls have to do so from their homes. It is unclear whether they can make those calls at normal volume, and whether people will answer those calls amid all that is going on.

State and local government is serving a huge influx of traffic, largely for unemployment benefits because the associated websites have been overloaded. If a first-call resolution is not possible, then the agency will need to call the citizen back. The citizen might have to wait even longer; a contact call center overloaded with inbound traffic is unlikely to have the resources to make outbound calls.

What actions are outbound call center leaders taking to address these challenges?

This pandemic exceeded risk assessments and calculations across organizations. It has caused a scramble for everybody. If risk assessments are insurance policies, then Schoeller expects the “premiums” will go up to account for more risk.

A number of U.S. organizations are struggling with the amount of capacity that disappeared when offshore call centers had to close to maintain social distancing. Unfortunately, U.S.-based call centers are shut down as well.

“Operations don’t have to come back onshore,” says Schoeller. “They just need to go to the right shore.”

Traditionally, outsourcing organizations—with staffing and capacity in multiple geographies—could support a shift in outsourcing to another geography more capable of having agents work from home. That thinking is appropriate for a natural disaster, which only strikes a single region. COVID-19 is everywhere. Schoeller believes that calling traffic may have to be split between multiple locations. Concentrating calling capacity in locations at high risk of another severe wave of COVID-19 threatens business continuity. Instead of having a simple back-up location, organizations may start to seek multiple options from which to generate outbound traffic.

How has fraud activity been affected by the pandemic?

Recently, two large financial services clients of mine learned that fraudsters were spoofing the institutions’ numbers to make outbound calls. The institutions found out from confused inbound callers, some of whom weren’t customers.

The companies asked us to research the calls. We found that fraudsters were spoofing the institutions’ outbound numbers to initiate some form of fraud. This happened at two unrelated companies at the same time. It is a perfect example of fraud blossoming during chaos, and of the complementary nature of outbound and inbound calling.

Scammers are incredibly flexible and adept. The abundance of technology enables them to call from anywhere on the globe with low-cost voice-over-IP connections, to launch calls at scale, and to spoof caller ID with ease. These people work a big numbers game and need a very low percentage of contacts to succeed.

Unfortunately, outbound dialing operations get caught in the middle. Scammers and robocalls make consumers less inclined to trust and answer unidentified calls. Likewise, carriers are empowered to block and spam-mislabel calls, some of which are coming from legitimate outbound dialers. That adds extra challenge for legitimate organizations that are erroneously being caught up in those nets.

Read: “Why Customers Won’t Take Your Call - How Trusted Call Solutions Drive Better Customer Experiences.”

How can call centers proactively support their customers?

Outbound call centers are focused on establishing their validity, so that callers can trust the calls enough to answer. These operations are ensuring that calling agents are well-trained, for example, to deliver the right opening statement required for the beginning of collections calls. They’re ensuring that the technology launching outbound calls is aligned with the do-not-call registry and TCPA regulations. They’re using technology to monitor agent activity, so QA teams can guide and coach agents to adhere to policies and procedures.

Even though the current iterations of regulations may not seem the most business-friendly, they always started from the right need: to protect the consumer and her privacy. That is true now more than ever, and we’re happy to say that the companies we speak with are upholding their focus on compliance. They’re doing everything they can to be customer-focused and to comply with regulations.

Read: “Transforming the Contact Center to Reach More Customers - How to Optimize Your Dialing Operations While Combating Call Blocking.”

TCPA Emergency Exemption

The many regulations over outbound calling are not going away. No one is suggesting that the TCPA or do-not-call registry be relaxed. However, the FCC moved quickly to exempt contact tracing.

To come out of this pandemic we will need to contact people at a massive scale. Mobile applications from large technology companies could help, but Schoeller thinks that the states will need to place a lot of outbound calls to people who have not opted into a call list, but may have been exposed to COVID-19.

The exemption for the healthcare realm mandates that the content of these calls be tied to contact tracing to qualify for the exemption. The FCC quickly responded to the pandemic by freeing up this very select category of outbound calling. It is a great example of government at work, trying to protect consumers by giving outbound dialers the flexibility that they need.

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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