The call center industry was significantly challenged by the COVID-19 pandemic. Not only was there an increase in calls due to more customers using digital as their primary way of interacting with a company, but there was a significant increase in the rate of difficult calls and the need to escalate them.

According to a 2020 study by Harvard Business Review, during the pandemic difficult calls increased by 50 percent overall. Adding to the increase in difficult calls and call volume, customer service employees were further challenged by being asked to work in a variety of remote and hybrid working environments. To confirm the challenging environment, 75% of respondents said customer service has gotten worse during the pandemic, while a whopping 55% of callers did not get their issues resolved, said a survey by NBC and Telemundo.

Lucky for the call center technology is evolving quickly to address many of these challenges, and can be deployed to address many of the top concerns call centers not only faced in the past, but will face well into 2022 and beyond.

Challenge #1:Reducing Call Wait Times

Prior to the pandemic, consumers were already moving towards digital as their primary way of interacting with a company. The pandemic only served to push this trend forward by years in a matter of months, as most consumers are now on a digital-first positioning for how they interact with brands. When customers went digital, invariably the call volume in call centers went up as people were confused navigating this new normal. And as difficult calls increased, so did the need for escalations to elevate their issues. This need to do manual escalations slowed down call centers and increased call wait times.

The Solution? Many companies have adopted callbacks as a way to mitigate call times. Callback scheduling has been pretty popular with customers, with customer service guru Shep Hyken finding that 63% of customers prefer callbacks over waiting on hold. "One of the worst friction points in a customer service experience is when a customer is put on hold," said Hyken in his blog post.

Shep recommends that you first, let the customers know how long they have to wait on hold, then giving them the option to call back, and even better, giving the customer the ability to choose when they will be called back.

Related Article: What Does Proactive Customer Service Mean for Brands?

Challenge #2: Continuing Remote Operations

During the pandemic, companies saw hold times increase by 34% and escalations rise by 68%, according to the Harvard Business Review. There have been many calls over the past year announcing, what seems to be every 2-3 months, the swift end of the pandemic and a return to normal for virus-weary consumers. Regardless of the eternal optimism of pundits and political leaders, remote work as a method for dealing with future instability and unpredictability of the modern world will continue to grow in importance. There are many more emerging threats to global stability beyond pandemics, such as extreme weather, political instability, and economic disparity. Remote operations allow companies to be prepared for the unexpected, giving them more flexible staffing models.

Call centers should be looking towards a cloud-based infrastructure so they can pivot and scale where and when needed as situations arise.

Related Article: How Customer Data Platforms Can Benefit the Call Center

Learning Opportunities

Challenge #3: Agent Recruitment and Retention

Employee attrition tops the list for call center challenges heading into 2022. Employees are leaving jobs in record numbers since the advent of the pandemic, with 3.5 million employees leaving their jobs voluntarily since January 2019, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. Call centers in particular have been affected by this trend, with turnover in the call center industry averaging between 30 to 45 percent, according to Quality Assurance and Training Connection. When you lose an employee, you lose all the knowledge, experience and lots of money it took to train and support that employee. Hiring new employees is not cheap. Glassdoor estimates it costs $4,000 to hire a new employee. Even worse, when you do hire someone, it can take up to 8 months to get them up to speed to be fully productive, said Hireology.

Call centers can leverage virtual AI-powered agents called chatbots that can help handle extra demand without engaging a live customer service rep. Chatbots do not leave for new jobs, have high-success rates and can run 24 hours per day. They only need to be trained once, and can shorten calls with fewer errors since they are AI-assisted. Employees can be encouraged to stay though a variety of methods for increasing retention. Offering recognition and rewards, along with more competitive pay and benefits will help to improve tenure.

Challenge #4: Low Customer Satisfaction

The ability to keep customer happy has been even more challenged due to the pandemic. Many customers are using digital primarily for the first time, and are using digital channels to tap into customer support services, as well as the more traditional phone call route. Shep Hyken remarked, "Our customer experience research finds that 41% of customers prefer digital first and the phone second. That number increases year after year. Customers prefer a self-service solution on the internet over calling a company, being put on hold, potentially repeating their story, and more. Easy is better, therefore, in many instances, digital is better."

And when customers aren't happy, that can hurt your bottom line. When customers do not get their issue dealt with the first time, it's a snowball effect that impacts future calls. 30% of content centers call volume are callbacks from previous, unresolved issues, said SQM.

An effective tool to deal with customer issues before they escalate to a live person is interactive voice response (IVR) software. This allows you to deliver a more personal experience to customers right off the bat, and ensure they are routed to the right agent based on a customers needs.

Looking Forward

Many of the call centers traditional issues, much of which were accelerated and amplified due to the COVID-19 pandemic, can be addressed with advanced technology solutions that are quickly becoming standard-issue for all call centers. A cloud-based infrastructure enables your customer service reps to work anywhere that conditions dictate, while advanced AI-assisted technology like chatbots and intelligent call routing can supplement your live team to ensure they can focus on the more pressing customer issues.

Finally, it always pays to use more traditional methods like awards and more competitive pay to keep your attrition rate as low as possible.