Prior to starting Topbox, our executive team leads outsourced contact center operations for dozens of global brands, managing nearly 50,000 agents across more than a dozen countries. We have decades of contact center operations experience and wanted to share a few thoughts about how to optimize your operations while facing this unprecedented time.
To get through this unprecedented crisis, we wanted to share a few thoughts that may assist businesses of all sizes including consideration of staffing issues (both in your brick-and-mortar and call center locations), call deflection, alternative contact strategies, and web optimization.
Physical Presence Shifting to Digital
Many retailers, restaurants, and other non-critical brick-and-mortar locations are suspending or curtailing operations. Additionally, many employers are shifting to work from home strategies. As this happens, customer buying patterns are shifting from foot traffic to web traffic.
Does your web presence have known ‘speed bumps’ that interfere with the smooth transition of physical-to-web transactions? If you aren’t sure, start looking for friction points in your customer feedback channels. That includes paying close attention to the unsolicited feedback that comes through your chat, email and phone channels. Remember that customers who are on your website often default to using chat for immediate support, rather than shifting to phone.
As web traffic increases, one of the first issues that you’ll run into is contact center absenteeism. Feedback from our network indicates that US-based contact centers are experiencing 35-50% or more staff absenteeism. In the Philippines, where virtually all employees rely on public transit, mass transit has been closed and checkpoints instituted. Absenteeism is 30% or more currently and may grow significantly over the coming days/weeks.
Most contact centers plan their staffing needs based on a queueing model called Erlang-C. This model determines the number of agents that are required to handle an anticipated number of contacts (i.e. calls, chats, emails, etc.) of a predetermined length within a specified amount of time. When the volume of contacts increases, the amount of time that a customer must wait for increases. When staffing falls below the planned levels, the wait times also increase. As wait times increase, handle times (the amount of time the customer is connected to the agent) also increases. The linear increase in handle time and staffing shortfalls leads to an exponential increase in wait times.
Even if staff levels were exactly as planned, call volumes are going to increase as more traffic hits company websites and customers have questions. Normally some of these questions would be addressed in stores. The increase in contact volume will drive increased wait times, which drives increased handle times, which leads to increased wait times – and customer frustration. It’s a circular function – and one that can be fixed if appropriate actions are taken to break the cycle. Since ‘increased staffing’ isn’t one of the possible fixes – at least at this point in the pandemic – we need other solutions.
As more customers visit your website and staffing levels fall due to absenteeism (either your own staff calling out sick or your outsourcer being unable to staff their centers), you need to aggressively work on servicing your customers’ needs WITHOUT resorting to phone calls. We’ve seen some companies recommending that customers call to inquire about store hours, rescheduling deliveries, or to cancel orders. These well-intentioned messages, often from your CEO, are driving up contact center call volumes and exacerbating the customer experience (frustration) problem. They also prevent other customers from placing orders.
To avoid overloading your contact center, consider changing your messaging. If you plan to send “from the CEO” messages to your customers, have your CEO suggest that they 1) use your FAQ page on your website for most support issues – and provide the URL in the message, or 2) contact you via chat or email for additional support. We would strongly recommend that you DO NOT include your contact center phone number in that message.
To make this work, your Customer Support team needs to craft a comprehensive list of your top contact reasons and succinct answers to each question, then get that up on your website ASAP. This will be a living document that will likely need to be updated daily or even multiple times per day. Assign an owner and make this their full-time job until you have your contact volumes under control.
Once the FAQ list is published, change your IVR message to encourage all callers to visit the FAQs rather than waiting to speak to an agent. Make the URL easy to remember – i.e. help.twitter.com, linkedin.com/help. Put a banner message at the top of your website with a “For help with any of your questions, please visit our FAQ page before calling”.
Alternative Contact Strategies
Sometimes a customer needs immediate assistance. For example, when having difficulty placing an order. At other times, the support doesn’t have to occur at the same time as the customer has the inquiry. Think of these as synchronous and asynchronous contacts.
Phone calls and chats need to be answered NOW. If you don’t respond to that inquiry the customer is going to evaporate and may go to one of your competitors. Phone calls are a 1:1 relationship of agent to caller. Chats are a one-to-many relationship. Assume you need 100 phone agents to answer 1000 calls, each call averaging 6 minutes in length, all with a within a 30-minute interval. For that same volume (1000 chats) you might only need 70 (or fewer) chat agents.
How? In some cases, chat duration can be much lower than calls, but it is typically 1.5 to 3x longer than a comparable phone call. However, it is possible for an agent to support two to three customers simultaneously. Even with longer contact duration, the ‘speed of answer’ (initial response) to the customer’s first message helps to ‘engage’ with customers faster – thus improving customer experience. We’ve successfully run large-scale chat operations with 2:1 customer-to-agent ratios with exceptional customer satisfaction results. Once you get to 3:1 ratios (or even higher), satisfaction starts to dip – but in extraordinary times, such as these, even slower service with rapid initial engagement may be enough to retain your customer when synchronous conversations are required.
But what if your customers don’t need an answer RIGHT NOW? Push them to your FAQs, leverage your user groups or forums, consider directing to social media sites (that you curate), or direct them to email you – and set expectations around when they can expect a response to their email. The same queuing rules that apply to phone calls and chats also apply to email support. Once the email team is overwhelmed the response times will rapidly inflate. Be conservative in setting your response time estimates and be ready to adjust as needed.
One important item to note is that if you do push customers to social channels, you should be listening to those channels too. Ensure you are monitoring the topics that are discussed on social in the same way you monitor topics that come in through your phone, chat and email channels, then update your website FAQs, agent training and curated social responses to have a consistent message. Asking customers to contact your stores, then having your store personnel direct customers back to the corporate contact center is a CX killer.
A pebble in your shoe is an annoyance. A pebble in your shoe at Mile 2 of a marathon is a deal-breaker. If you know about issues on your website – cart issues, poor product descriptions that lead to confusion, known checkout inconveniences – those are going to turn into deal-breakers for your business really quickly.
Issues arising upstream of your contact center will roll downhill in the form of calls, chats and emails. We started our analytics business for that very reason. And those additional contacts will lead to all the issues described above only making things worse. Think about it this way: An ‘order’ call that normally takes 6 minutes can easily become 8 or 9 minutes when that customer takes extra time to TELL YOU about the website issues they experienced.
Leverage your analytics tools to help identify those website issues that are leading to calls, chats and other forms of contact. Put every effort into fixing those ‘pebble-sized’ issues immediately before you reach Mile 2 of this marathon. Your storefront operations may be closed down for 8 weeks or more. Your web presence has to work flawlessly – and you should be actively listening for those comments and critiques that customers are mentioning when/if they call, chat, post to Reddit or Facebook, email or respond to surveys.
You may not be an expert on Payment Card Industry (PCI) data security requirements, but virus or no virus, capturing credit card data over chat and email is inadvisable (and likely a violation of PCI). For that reason alone, you should think about restructuring your IVR and web messaging to direct order-placing customers to your website first, phone lines second – and send all other customer inquiries to your chat, email, FAQ and other forums. This will ensure continuity of revenue for your business.
Collectively we will work through the challenges that COVID-19 is inflicting on society and the whole world. Please keep each other safe by practicing social distancing, washing your hands, and making wise decisions for yourself and everyone around you.
Many people are without a social safety net. Do what you can to support food pantries, the disadvantaged and disabled during this time. We are all in this together, probably like no time in our collective history.