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COVID + CX: Closing Call-Centers

COVID + CX: Closing Call-Centers

Over and above the horrific loss of life, the COVID-19 pandemic crisis has many defining features—shelter-in-place, social distancing, closing shops and restaurants. Maybe most surprisingly to the ‘average’ office worker, a sudden transition to remote work and remote education.

In a time when Amazon is Prime and delivery drivers are the new heroes, you would think business would be booming for customer service call-centers. Companies were finally starting to get phone support right, too, layering it with chat support and AI assistants. Call-centers were poised to thrive as an essential part of businesses’ fantastic new remote customer experience. So how come last month (May), PayPal suspended all phone support?], amid a host of other call-center closures?

The Old Call Center is A New Threat

As we all know or have now learned, COVID-19, the potentially fatal respiratory disease, is caused by a virus, SARS/CoV-2: novel Coronavirus, which spreads the slightly more readily from person to person than the common cold, via exhaled “moisture droplets” at close range, or even more readily, via the uncovered wet cough.

Most tellingly for the one-third or more of the US workforce who work in an office: infected droplets build up in closed indoor environments, as unable to disperse as a group of tear-gassed protesters. Six-feet-apart “social-distancing” of our bodies isn’t enough to prevent mass transmission among people who spend their days together in a closed air system - a single pre- or asymptomatic infected person can infect dozens or hundreds. And they have.

Traditional call centers are both closed and crowded. Customer service agents sit right next to each other at cubicles or stalls, talking nonstop, expelling respiratory moisture into a room that may not have adequate ventilation. An entire call center floor can become infected quickly—hence, the move to shut them down. (Although 'closing call centers' is not an entirely plague-related phenomenon.)

WTH, Why Not WFH

Answering phone support should be the ideal job to transition to remote work; after all, you can deliver the same great (or awful) customer experience with an internet-capable computer, a VOIP phone line, and the right software.

WFH (work-from-home) might even be a superior venue for phone support. Creating a good customer experience depends on empathic listening, not geography. Empathic listening means hearing what the customer has to say and then putting yourself in the customer’s shoes, and understanding the feelings the customer may be trying to convey.

Empathic listening is critical to calibrating both the correct course of action and the urgency in response to the customer’s needs. The comfort of home, free from the distractions and pressures of bosses and other coworkers, could be the perfect venue for empathic listening.

Of course, this assumes that the operator either owns an adequate computer, or the call center is in a position to lend or buy them one. Many call centers have made due with antique computers that take up a lot of space and barely suffice for the task of recording customer service records, to say nothing of remote supervision.

The other sad fact is that few call centers have been leaders in showing respect for their CS reps. Industry standard practice is to treat mainline staff like kids in high school detention: unable to act correctly without close, close supervision. These should-be marshallers of company morale and sterling brand ambassadors—the literal 'Voice of the Company' in daily conversation with the Voice of the Customer—are more typically seen as cannon fodder, to absorb and deflect anger, forestalling legal action and insulate upper management from mass complaint. It’s no wonder if sometimes our customer service reps sound lackluster; under this kind of pressure, emulating authentic, 'I-feel-your-pain'-style empathic listening is a tall order.

There is good news, though: the world doesn’t have to be this way, and so it probably won’t be forever. Many companies had begun migrating their CS workforce to WFH even before COVID-19 to save on fixed overhead, improve employee retention, and by and by, indirectly, bob’s-your-uncle: improve the customer experience. (See: Nordstrom, Williams-Sonoma, and Amazon.)

Beyond Phone Support

CS-WFH industry-leaders make it work through means both technical and cultural:

  • remote screen monitoring, call monitoring, and call sharing (well, we can’t expect the leopard to change his spots overnight);
  • cloud-based advanced data analytics of customer engagement and customer experience metrics, confirming that reps are meeting their goals;
  • paying workers fairly, training them properly, and trusting them to do the job their managers trained them to do;
  • continuing to shift from phone support live chat. A study from 2013 showed chat with approaching 2x the satisfaction rate of phone support—73% vs 44%—based on convenience and time saved. Live chat has also been linked to increased sales and decreased costs for the company.

The PayPal shutdown is supposed to be temporary, although, as with many other COVID-induced changes to the business and social fabric, they and their customers may find they don’t actually miss the old way of doing things (If you haven’t tried live chat support yet, it’s really pretty good.)

Feedback, Please. About the opinions in this post, as with almost anything in life, other considered opinions may disagree. If you have your own opinions, ideas, or an amusing, offensive, or simply random comment, by all means, please drop us a line. We'd love to hear from you.

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