9 minute read
By Mike Bookey
Posted in Customer Engagement
The world of the contact center—like everything else—has changed dramatically over the last year+. The shift to primarily working from home has been well-documented. We are getting closer to emerging from COVID restrictions and getting back to “normal.”
But the question now is: what is normal when it comes to the contact center?
Verint recently conducted some global research to find out. The conclusions, released in February, are based on a survey of more than 2,000 global business leaders across 12 countries on key priorities, trends and challenges associated with customer engagement, COVID-19 pandemic impacts, perceived organizational preparedness, and future plans.
On the heels of massive digital disruption and now, more than a year into the global pandemic, here’s what we learned: Only 50 percent of business leaders say they are well prepared to support customer engagement priorities in the COVID era and beyond—moreover, 82 percent say the challenges of managing customer engagement will only increase in 2021.
And then there’s this: Only 54 percent of leaders consider their organizations well prepared to enable a remote workforce to effectively serve customers.
The research quantifies and illuminates a widening Engagement Capacity Gap brought about by new workforce dynamics, ever-expanding customer engagement channels, and exponentially more consumer interactions—all of which must be managed with limited budget and resources.
Self-service and AI-powered automation are now firmly established as a significant part of a post-COVID contact center and most enterprises’ overall customer service strategy. Even before the pandemic changed the way that contact center teams worked and the way that customers interacted with companies, AI adoption in contact centers across industries was already increasing.
Recent studies show that this adoption rate has been accelerated, and companies that are able to adapt to these changes and embrace automation are in a much better position to thrive in the years to come.
Contact Centers Were Hit Hard
To the surprise of no one, virtually no element of the business world has been spared the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic. It has shaken up the way teams are managed, how products are delivered, and, of course, how a company interacts with its customers. And companies that rely on a traditional contact center model, which many do, were hit especially hard.
Why? Because contact centers are perfect targets for societal disruptions and tend to rely on a large number of workers who are ready to work at all times. Verint has seen how its contact center clients, who were rightly concerned for their agents’ safety, had to adapt on the fly, adjusting their operations so that team members could work from home, cutting the number of agents allowed in their facilities at one time, and looking for new ways to interact with their customers—including through automated technologies.
All this was taking place while many contact centers saw a skyrocketing level of volume.
As the dust begins to settle, we’re starting to see a little less of this uncertainty we’ve been living with. Analysts and industry experts are taking stock of how contact centers have responded and planned during the pandemic—and what might be on the way as 2021 continues.
One interesting snapshot of how enterprises adjusted their contact center operations came from a comprehensive Aberdeen survey of contact center managers in June 2020. These results, titled “The Intelligent Contact Center Survey Findings Overview,” from last summer's survey reflect when companies were adjusting to the effects of the pandemic in real time. These results gave a data-driven look at the effects of the pandemic on contact centers, and confirmed what Verint experts had already seen in the market.
The 300-plus respondents were from a variety of industries, including tech, retail, hospitality, services, and 40 percent of those respondents were from call centers with 200 or more seats. Among other trends, the survey found that contact centers are accelerating the pace of their investments in automation after learning from the pandemic and preparing for the future.
So in short, we knew in the first month of the pandemic that contact centers were certainly not going to return to business as usual, and in the year since that survey, we’ve only seen its findings confirmed.
Accelerating the Trend
Again, the pandemic accelerated an existing trend. Companies were already moving toward automated solutions, but now they’re doubling down on adopting automated solutions—especially digital self-service automation, such as chatbots and intelligent virtual assistants (IVAs). We’ve seen how disruptions, like natural disasters, can severely impact a company’s ability to serve their customers—however, the pandemic was a disruption unlike anything companies had ever seen.
The aforementioned Aberdeen report discusses how AI was implemented during the pandemic. The author found that enterprises were already relying on IVAs to handle customer service needs, but are now seizing upon this technology’s capabilities.
“While call centers have long been a frontier of workplace automation, the pandemic has accelerated the process. Organizations under pressure are more willing to try new tools,” the story states.
The contact centers surveyed by Aberdeen saw the pandemic affect them in different ways. Many saw their bottom line take a hit, with 28 percent of those surveyed saying they saw a “significant drop in revenue” and potential revenue, and had to cut costs and staff as a result. And 27 percent said they were forced to operate without their full workforce.
Those are significant challenges for the contact centers. But some of the respondents had a different struggle—they were dealing with an increase in traffic. Some 24 percent said they had an increase in traffic in the first months of the pandemic, and 29 percent said that their contact center was either “business as usual” or an uptick in calls that overwhelmed the contact centers, many of which were already working without their typical full workforce.
At Verint, we’ve seen how contact centers have used AI and machine learning-powered solutions such as Adaptive Fraud, IVAs, Communities, Knowledge Management, Speech Analytics, and others to navigate through this pandemic. When the virus first arrived in the United States, we were able to help our clients quickly adjust.
For example, Amtrak, an American transportation giant, was faced with a mountain of challenges as their services were severely impacted by local and regional policies and closures. They had been inundated with questions from customers who needed to know about how train service had been affected and what other changes would take place going forward. We updated their IVA, “Julie,” so it could tackle Coronavirus related questions and get people the information they needed.
The Post-COVID Customer
We’ve looked at how customer service had to adapt and evolve during the pandemic, but what about the customers themselves? How were their behaviors, expectations, and needs changed over the past year+, a time during which their daily lives and purchasing patterns were also severely disrupted?
From Verint’s Engagement Capacity Gap Study, we found that organizations are acutely aware that one of their most significant challenges going forward is to adjust to changes. In fact, of the business leaders we surveyed, a staggering 94 percent said they were concerned about how to understand—and ultimately act upon—rapidly changing customer behaviors.
These business leaders know that consumers are more online than ever, and they’re expanding their ecommerce behaviors. In fact, one recent report predicted that the number of ecommerce users around the world is expected to grow by 400 million in 2021. That figure backs up the second-leading concern from business leaders in the Verint survey: 88 percent said they were concerned about how to handle the influx in online customer interactions.
Another seismic shift we’ve seen from customers is their rapid adoption of telemedicine. While only 11 percent of patients reported using telemedicine in 2019, 46 percent of those polled in 2020 were now using video, phone, or chat in lieu of a physical visit with a physician, according to the American Medical Association.
These are just a couple examples of how consumers are altering their behavior, and contact centers need to be aware of these changes. It’s increasingly likely that consumers will continue to become comfortable with buying more and different items online—which means more need for customer service to help navigate problems with these products—and address issues such as warranties, maintenance, enrollment issues, and more, depending on the industry, all of which can be handled by an IVA.
Contact centers are preparing for this shift by modernizing their call deflection strategies. For example, let’s take an exercise equipment company that’s selling more online than ever. They can use a digital IVA on their site to catch their customer before he or she is forced to stumble through their website. Verint’s natural language understanding library powers the IVA, allowing it to answer their questions, while our conversational insights understand the customers’ evolving needs and prepare the contact center for continuous improvement.
The Next Normal: Growing Back with Automation First
While the effects of the pandemic will be felt for some time, contact centers are implementing changes as a result of the challenges they encountered over the past year-plus. The challenges they’ve faced—and overcome—have prepared them for better results and efficiency going forward.
Verint’s Engagement Capacity Gap Study found that contact center managers have either already implemented, or are going to implement AI and machine learning technologies for their customer engagement. About 78 percent of those polled said that they have a “moderate-to-high” investment in AI.
“Investments in workforce management; compliance, security, and fraud solutions; intelligent assistants and chatbots; voice of customer and customer experience management platforms, and knowledge management tools—these will be the kinds of technologies that will help close the Engagement Capacity Gap,” stated the report.
There’s also the question of the future of the brick-and-mortar contact center. Having agents work from home has led to more questions around the future of often costly offices and other facilities. More contact centers will leverage technologies, such as Verint’s Work From Home Virtual Assistant and Intelligent Agent Assist, to make it easier for employees to remain remote while being supported with around-the-clock intelligence.
Automate Today, Be Better Prepared for Tomorrow
At Verint, we’ve been helping contact centers succeed during difficult times for decades now. Our automated solutions provide the innovation and expertise that not only save companies time and money, but also better prepare them for disruptions.
Now, we certainly hope we don’t see a disruption like this pandemic any time again soon, but there will be other disruptions in the future that lead to perhaps a flood of unexpected volume to your contact center. We can count on that.
By including automation, especially AI and machine-learning powered self-service solutions such as an IVA in your customer service strategy, your customers can get the service they need without long hold times or navigating frustrating online menus—especially if those customers are experiencing a stressful time brought on by, say, a natural disaster.
As we’ve pointed out here, one way to build the successful contact center of the future is to consider implementing automated self-service today—there’s no reason to wait.
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