tools of the trade for remote customer call center: laptop, headphones with attached microphone
PHOTO: Petr Macháček

Companies with better employee engagement enjoy stronger business success and deliver significantly superior customer experience, says McKinsey. When developing and implementing strategies for remarkable customer care, it is crucial that companies don’t neglect the impact of the employee experience.

Yet a 2019 Gallup survey on US employee engagement found only 35% of workers were “highly involved in, enthusiastic about and committed to their work and workplace,” marking an all-time high this century. More than half of employees (52%) were considered “not engaged” and doing the minimum while looking for other opportunities. Within the contact center industry, notorious for rigid adherence to rules, employee engagement has been trending fairly flat the last few years, with attrition rates for US contact centers hovering somewhere between 30% and 45%.

Before COVID-19 hit, we were faced with a tight employment market, with many industries slowly moving toward a more distributed and virtual workforce for both resource effectiveness and improved work-life balance for team members.

Contact centers were also beginning to address chronic high agent attrition through more compassionate policies, such as more favorable scheduling and career development opportunities, and new technologies offering increased self-management and greater flexibility. My firm did a cross-industry survey of a thousand US employees in late 2019 and found that nearly two-thirds were willing to use a virtual or digital assistant to help them self-manage tasks and deadlines.

The COVID-19 pandemic has accelerated this shift to remote working, offering more flexibility as managers, employees and customers realize they can continue operations with less impact to productivity and business output than feared. There is now a push towards loosening the rules a bit to give agents more flexibility — not only in their schedules but also in their key performance indicators and their coaching and training. For a traditionalist industry like the contact center space, this represents a huge change.

Embracing Change Is Hard, Even When Technology Is Ready

Few employees are as regulated as those in contact centers. Agents are held to tight schedules, told when they’re allowed bathroom breaks and are largely beholden to strict processes and scripts. Most contact center employees don’t have the flexibility to leave work even a half-hour early to handle critical personal errands or fulfill family obligations. Many quit as a result.

When I discuss these types of workforce issues with organizations, they get nervous because they're used to standard workplace behaviors and embrace the reasons for those rules. But even before the outbreak of the virus, forward-looking companies were seriously considering the need for change. In that same survey from last year, we found almost half of US employers said they planned to increase employee training budgets to address the changing nature of jobs due to artificial intelligence (AI) and automation.

As 2020 progresses, companies will direct efforts to deploying technology that can improve the contact center employee experience. While employees work across global offices or remotely from home, they must have tools and resources that enable them to contribute immediately, regardless of experience level, and continuously improve with personalized training plans. PwC found that 74% of employees are ready to learn new skills or retrain to remain employable in the future. Businesses will also increasingly integrate AI and machine learning through assistive bots, better knowledge experiences and gamification techniques.

Related Article: What Happens When Customer Support Works From Home?

Automation for Improving Employee Efficiency and Reducing Friction

As Forrester Research recently noted, one of the expected long-term impacts of COVID-19 is that businesses will increasingly turn to automation to alleviate disruptions to supply and production capabilities. Within the customer support industry, businesses have needed to keep their basic operations functioning as they were forced to quickly relocate and outfit contact center agents at home or temporary sites offering adequate physical distancing. With a higher volume of interactions but fewer agents to field them in the short-term, businesses might be setting up their own employees to fail if they put full responsibility for business continuity on their contact center workforce.

In moments of crisis, consumers want both understanding and speed from customer support employees. But it’s incredibly difficult for contact center agents to focus on connecting with people and working deeply on complex issues when they’re bombarded with manual, repetitive tasks that impact concentration. Creating speed by removing friction in business processes through automation lets employees focus on understanding complex issues so they can reach resolution.

Automation can prevent a tidal wave of interactions that should be self-serviced, and safeguard customers from frustrating moments of being “on hold" for simple tasks. Automation also lets employees adapt to the most critical needs of a business, and not just the low-level, high-volume ones — which is more rewarding for the employee.

Related Article: How Automation Can Future-Proof Enterprises Against Major Disruption

Reducing Stress for Employees and Customers Alike

In the months to come, businesses will put more focus on empathy and interpersonal communication to make interactions more pleasant for jittery customers and less stressful for employees. But providing great experiences for customers first means creating the bandwidth so employees can truly focus on their most critical issues. If they are more engaged in positive outcomes for customers, they’ll also feel more engaged with the business as a whole.

The rising use of AI for decision support, automation, and employee-assistive bots for customer service will continue to grow. While adoption of these technologies for employee engagement has been slow to date, COVID-19 will speed change here, too. Providing innovative tools with intuitive interfaces, as well as personalized training and adequate coaching and mentoring, may finally help reduce stagnant contact center attrition rates.