When it comes to innovative workplace design, the customer service industry’s staple, the contact center, has not been known for blazing new trails. Long associated with inflexible work schedules and rigid environments, the contact center has been a much-maligned element of the industry. Acknowledging that some employees wanted to work outside the confines of the contact center, many did start allowing employees to work at home.
The real evolution of the contact center, however, is happening right now, as brands and tech companies leverage the gig economy to elevate customer service in a cost-effective manner. The pandemic will only accelerate the reliance on gig customer service: more than half of employees in a recent survey by Pew Research Center said that, given the option, they would want to keep working from home.
Currently, the customer service industry has been leveraging gig customer service in three ways:
- A subset of business process outsourcing (BPO) that relies heavily on gig workers to handle customer service inquiries, a model known to be problematic both for workers and for the brands they serve.
- Crowd-sourced “superfans” who use their personal experience with a brand to respond to customer service inquiries, a model with natural limitations.
- The Human Cloud, an emerging adaptive work model that stands to have a transformative impact on how customer service is delivered.
Traditional Gig Model Customer Service vs. Human Cloud
The BPO Gig Customer Service Model
The BPO customer service model relies largely on outsourced customer service representatives to provide 24/7/365 customer service coverage. This reliance has helped companies achieve scale while providing broader coverage and potentially shorter response times.
Ironically, the outsourced construct of these BPOs does not allow for the flexibility companies and gig workers seek. They rely on scheduling labor much like internal contact centers, prohibiting scalability and requiring long-term contracts that make it challenging for companies to quickly scale up or down based on fluctuations in customer demand in a cost-effective manner. In essence, this construct replicates the confines of an internal contact center model.
Glassdoor ratings will tell you that the desired flexibility does not always extend to the gig workers. Concerns have escalated due to worker complaints related to BPOs that require workers to form their own companies in order to do business with them, requiring them to make costly investments in specific equipment, and dedicating time and attention to training for which they are not paid.
Related Article: Customer Service Friction: A Double-Edged Sword
The Traditional Crowd-Sourced Superfan Model
Superfans are a hard-earned gift to any brand. These passionate brand voices use their social media channels to amplify and advocate for their favorite products and services. Some gig customer service platforms take this fandom to a new level, using superfans as an extension of customer service teams.
While fans can convey brand appreciation and the voice of product experience, there are some distinct limitations. The reliance on tribal power user knowledge is limited by personal preferences and opinions that can become static, leaving some superfans unprepared to adapt when brands rapidly evolve their products and brand messaging.
By its nature, this model pulls from a shallow labor pool, leaving the burden of talent recruiting on the brands themselves. This works for companies that can look to their customer and partner communities that have fans willing to take this gig work on, but if a company doesn’t have that community with deep product and service knowledge, then this approach is a non-starter. And if a company does have a substantial pool of super fans, without a sophisticated unified communications platform it remains a challenge to scale that support, providing 24/7/365 digital coverage that is equal parts knowledgeable and responsive. Such inherent limitations could make it hard for this gig approach to become mainstream, utilized by companies of all sizes.
Related Article: Apple Doesn't Hide Its Customer Community, So Why Do You?
What’s Next: Human Cloud Model
The alternative that’s gaining broad traction and providing a new path forward within the world of customer support is the Human Cloud.
The fastest-growing subset of today’s technology-fueled gig economy, the Human Cloud, is an emerging set of work models that enable work arrangements of various kinds to be established and completed (including payment of workers) entirely through a digital/online platform.
The technology platform is key to the Human Cloud customer service model. The platform allows gig workers to take on digital customer service tickets with machine learning-enabled guidance that’s provided in the moment. Meaning without training, a gig worker can log into the platform and take a ticket from any brand and immediately respond based on the guidance that appears on their screen, whether it’s a question on a return policy, product availability, order status ... you name it. They’ll have the answers needed and they’ll be served up in the brand look and tone.
This technology model makes it easy for both companies and gig workers to really enjoy the flexibility inherent in the system. Companies can ramp up the number of inquiries they share through this technology platform as they see fit and gig workers can log on when and wherever they want, responding to as many customer inquiries as they choose. The pay-per-ticket resolution also supports the scalability of the model.
Within the context of customer service, workers who embrace the Human Cloud model are often highly educated, underemployed talent who can’t hold traditional or even many non-traditional jobs: stay-at-home parents, for example, or people whose partners’ job requires extensive travel. They’re guided on everything from product and service information, to brand voice, by advanced AI and machine learning tools, meaning they need no training. The digital model means that workers need only to connect to the cloud through their computer: no cash outlays for specialized equipment.
There’s an incredible sense of value that a worker gains when they not only have power of choosing where and when to work, but they do so within the context of being on a team that sees them, appreciates them and supports them. Treating them as your own customers is a way to ensure they feel good about their work and your organization.
Related Article: Call Center Employees, The Superheroes of Customer Experience
Considerations When Choosing a Customer Service Model
So, how do you know if your company is better suited to a traditional model vs. a Human Cloud model for your customer service needs? If you have any of these issues, you can best solve them with a Human Cloud customer service agent model.
A remote customer service team that doesn’t feel connected to the business and each other.
Employee experience creates a differentiated brand CX. To flourish with a remote workforce, you have to shift your thinking about your employees. Listening and thinking strategically about what you’re providing them beyond pay will be critical to long-term success, particularly with Gen Z. You can also model how SaaS companies look at daily active users to measure how your employees are engaging with your systems to get a snapshot of what’s adding value to your employees’ experience and what’s not.
When talking with our customer service specialists, we realized the thing they missed the most was talking about the things that feel so natural in-person, but unnatural when you’re working from home. Apps like Slack can feel too formal to solve the watercooler problem. So we pivoted to a community software called Tribe that’s like an internal version of Facebook, where the team can post vacation photos, introduce themselves, ask a question about a work issue, etc. It creates an experience built around a consumption model, whereby the team consumes and participates in the exchange. On a recent 7-day average, 83% of our team engaged in the community.
A long and costly onboarding process.
Traditional contact center onboarding can include up to six to eight weeks of training for new agents. This outdated commitment to upfront training requires quite an investment of human and financial resources when you consider that agent turnover rates can reach well over 50% a year. Providing in-the-moment guidance to your Human Cloud customer service agents not only saves time and money, it’s a tremendous morale booster to have the opportunity to immediately be a productive and money-earning member of a team.
A struggle to scale without creating backlogs.
How does your company manage the seasonal, or even daily, fluctuations in customer service demands? The value of digital CX is that you can meet your customers where they are, but it’s no secret that companies struggle to staff the 24-hour demands, which is where the traditional BPOs have provided relief. But the ability to staff up and down to meet demand fluctuations is well-served with the Human Cloud model. Trying to solve a variable problem with fixed resources, such full time contact center employees or fixed BPO contracts, means the risk of carrying the high fixed costs of underutilized resources. The inherent flexibility of nature of the Human Cloud model gives companies the opportunity to scale their customer service experience as needed, often in partnership with a third-party service provider.
The past year has taught us that successful transformation of customer service will rely on an organization’s ability to be flexible, reliable and scalable. Also, you can’t discount the human connection. Integrating the human touch with these elements might seem impossible but that’s where the Human Cloud factors in, allowing companies to adapt workforce transformation in a sustainable model that gives workers an outlet for their talents and values those talents in a way that a pure-play gig model can’t quite match — and doesn’t even try to.
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