Contact agents’ work is often thought of as synonymous with the physical contact centre. So, when the British government announced a lockdown at the end of March and most businesses had to empty their offices, customer service was instantly disrupted.

The challenges were quickly identified. While most workers already had laptops and access to cloud-based systems – two core requisites for efficient remote work, legacy systems and physical tools still tied them to the office, leaving them incapable of doing their jobs from home. This meant many businesses had to keep staff in the office, which was criticised for a lack of concern for their workers’ health.

As disruption from the pandemic continues, any customer facing organisation has no choice but to address these new challenges head-on. More can be done to make remote working possible, easy, and seamless for contact agents working in a post-pandemic future when working away from the office is expected to become commonplace.

Equipping agents with the right tools

It shouldn’t have come as a surprise when customers turned to their phones to communicate with businesses during lockdown. When people can no longer walk into a physical space and speak to someone in person, they turn to the next most personal form of interaction. Some customer service centres reported an increase of as many as 12,000 incoming calls compared to the same two months in 2019.

Most businesses were unsurprisingly unprepared for this sudden change in consumer behaviour and responded to the challenge in different ways. Scottish firm Ascensos, for example, went on a hiring spree, taking on 60 times more call agents than its normal capacity. Other businesses, like Virgin Media, were so overwhelmed they asked customers not to call at all.

Video-calling apps have also experienced a boom throughout the pandemic, proving to be useful tools for people whose roles include little external phone interaction. However, unfortunately for contact agents, platforms like Zoom, Microsoft Teams, and Google Hangout do not provide the necessary tools for the job. A call centre agent’s challenges are greater than these solutions can deliver on. 

If contact agents are to continue working remotely, as some have been for a long time, they need access to tools that empower and inform them, providing management with full visibility. Call routing, case deflection, call queues, wallboards, listen-in coaching, data syncing of customers, and screen pops are all vital features that agents require access to if they are to continue providing effective customer service over the phone.

It’s deeper than a surface problem

Working remotely presents contact agents with several complex problems that may not be immediately apparent. Phone system configurations, for example, need to be reassessed. When a call needs to be redirected, or a queue builds up, how do call agents have visibility of this? How do they address the problem without the office equipment and tools they’re used to?

There is also the problem presented by the phone itself. When 93 percent of businesses still use desk phones, many customer service agents don’t have access to their usual calling devices from home. This presents the unexpected challenge of which device they use to speak with customers, and subsequently, which number is presented to the customer when they make an outbound call.

Does the agent use their personal mobile? Or does the business shell out and provide them with a work mobile? What happens when the agent’s mobile is out of reach? And what happens when an agent needs help from a colleague and must redirect the call?

These questions lead to further complexities. For one, customer-facing agents shouldn’t use a personal mobile number for work to ensure they remain professional. Equally, if an agent were to use their personal device, that device and associated number become the customer’s direct contact point. So, when that agent is ill or on holiday, the call has nowhere to be routed and the customer is limited to one point of contact that isn’t available.

A company needs to be present for around-the-clock support to make their customers feel valued.

Simplifying remote work

One type of customer service tech presenting flexible workforces with a solution is intelligent voice systems. These are made possible by innovations in cloud, AI, and affordable big data technologies, and were already redefining flexibility and the customer experience before the pandemic even started.

Cloud-supported interfaces have been available for some time, giving call agents the agility to work from anywhere, on whichever device they want. These interfaces use a centralised company number while providing the agent with complete control over devices and availability. If one agent is on a break, even when they are at home, the call will be automatically routed to an alternative agent. The customer data is also automatically shared with the CRM system and available to whichever agent answers the call, so the customer receives an improved, quicker, and more personalised customer experience.

Intelligent voice systems also allow call agents to receive calls on their personal phone, but do so as if it were their work phone, to mitigate the aforementioned challenges. Outgoing calls will display their work number, work calls will be redirected when the agent is unavailable, and calls can be logged in the CRM if needed. This makes both an easier experience for the customer, but also protects the agent’s privacy.

In effect, this technology means there’s minimal difference between the way a traditional call centre operates and how a contact agent works from home. In fact, the service has the power to be more personalised, faster, and more effective.

Effective, efficient, productive

With the right tools, customer service agents have the potential to be as productive and efficient at home as they are in the office, a clear benefit for businesses. And it seems employers are already noticing and benefiting from these advantages.

There are other inadvertent benefits too. For example, hiring pools are widened as organisations no longer have to hire staff from the vicinity of the office. It also improves employees’ quality of life, as childcare and other personal life arrangements will be easier to work around.

So, with the world re-aligning itself during a crisis, companies should reassess their tools. They should question the status quo and explore new areas. Doing this, they may well find that the ‘old way’ of doing things is no longer fit for an environment that requires agility. Businesses may even find new opportunities that exceed previous expectations.

Change is often accompanied by opportunity. This may well be a challenge that improves customer service for us all.

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