The Value of Bots in a Post-COVID-19 World
How chatbots & voicebots can optimize costs & improve CX.
I’ve spent over 30 years in the IT and communications industry, with over 20 of those years helping clients deploy and utilize technology solutions. More recently, I have spent the past decade focusing on solving customer experience challenges through the use of technology; however, no amount of technology or modernization could have prepared the world for the COVID-19 pandemic.
Businesses large and small required the help of business process outsourcing (BPO) partners to maintain operations; however even BPOs were not spared either. I had a chance to interview Dave Afdahl, Chief Operating Officer at ibex to discuss how he is dealing with the effects of COVID-19 while continuing operations for their global clients.
JEFF DIXON: Thank you for joining me, Dave. I wanted to discuss the global impact of social distancing related to the contact center, and the impacts to the BPO industry. Can you describe how social distancing has affected global capacity and what some of the ramifications of the pandemic really are?
DAVE AFDAHL: To answer simplistically, whether you are outsourcing your support service or managing it in-house, social distancing has cut businesses prior call center capacity in half - basically half of your average seat utilization.
JEFF: Is this happening on a global basis?
DAVE: Yes, this is happening globally but there are some nuances. We have implemented social distancing proactively, even if it’s not required. While there are still some countries that have not mandated the social distance policy, a vast majority of locations globally have government mandates that are impacting and restricting capacity in some way.
Basically, the effect will vary by location and government mandates.
JEFF: In previous conversations, you’ve mentioned ways to mitigate this shrinkage in capacity. Do you see modifying hours of operations helping or hurting businesses?
DAVE: The trend I’ve noticed with many clients is they are condensing their operation hours in order to respond to long wait times and service level issues. That’s actually counterintuitive for two reasons. First, the longer your hours of operations run is a direct variable into your seat utilization factor. The shorter you run your operations, the more pressure you put on seat utilization percentage and you’re going to lower it without any COVID-19 impact. This becomes really important.
The fallacy that I think a lot of companies have today, and what we’re also hearing from our clients, is they don’t want to open earlier or stay open later because they’re not typically busy within those intervals. But, when I’ve had my clients stop and look at the data, what they notice is they’re busy during every hour that they’re open. And that was especially true during the first 30-60 days of this pandemic. Some clients have stabilized enough now that it may not be true for them anymore.
Therefore, if you open two hours earlier, you are now giving those customers another window to get help, and you’re spreading out your hoop to ultimately help service levels throughout the day. So, once we are able to convince customers to go down that road, it’s actually been more positive to the customer experience.
JEFF: So, shortening the hours actually has a negative effect on service level, more so than clients might think.
DAVE: Correct. We’re also seeing a lot of repeat calls, meaning customers call into the queue, get frustrated while waiting, and eventually call back two or three times that day. That just exacerbates the call volume and service level issues in the current environment.
JEFF: A lot of providers and branded owner/operators have turned to a work from home or remote worker solutions for the pandemic. From a front-line staffing and leadership perspective, what are a couple of things you’ve seen from those moves? Has it affected people’s morale or attitude about the jobs?
DAVE: Working from home was a great stress reliever for agents when it was initially implemented to reduce the density in the call centers. This allowed us to social distance. We were not an at home company prior to COVID-19, but if we wanted to try to maintain our prepandemic headcount, we needed some place to put the other 50% of our staff. Working from home became that solution. What we were seeing globally, especially in countries where COVID-19 was highly active, is that absenteeism started to increase for three reasons:
From that, we saw in-center absenteeism almost double from what our pre-COVID-19 numbers were. But, once we implemented a work at home solution during the first couple of weeks of the pandemic, we saw that absenteeism offset and start to come back into our pre-COVID-19 numbers.
Working from home was a huge stress-relief for employees and it directly improved their view of their job.
JEFF: The option to work at home must have had a positive impact on employee engagement with staff still working in the call center as well.
JEFF: You’re the COO, and you’re also responsible for privacy, PCI, and operating client programs in a safe and secure manner. What causes you the most stress with employees working from home?
DAVE: Frankly, what makes me the most nervous from a work at home perspective is being able to stay vigilant and preventing any data security issues or fraud issues. As you mentioned, we lose a lot of the internal controls that are originally in place within the contact center. Some of our clients, especially ones that are heavy PCI or PII, we don’t have working at home just because of our inability to protect them the same way that we can in the brick and mortar call centers.
Most of the work done at home are things that don’t have direct transactions and that are a little easier to manage. We have worked with certain customers to modify some of their processes and procedures to still allow the employees to work at home and maximize the job functionality that they had before they moved out of the office.
JEFF: Has the ability to support the omni-channel experience changed between employees working at home versus in center?
DAVE: We are still able to support the same channels (email, chat, voice, etc.) at home as we can in the normal contact centers.
JEFF: How does the work performance in the contact centers compare with that of those who work at home?
DAVE: Great question. We’ve obviously tracked performance in both the call centers and the working from home group to make sure there isn’t any degradation. Performance has been very comparable between the two. From absenteeism to customer satisfaction, and even NPS, there isn’t an inherent disadvantage with employees working from home. Historically, there’s often been an impact on overall efficiency and production for some agents at home, but thankfully, we have not seen that show up in our data up to this point. However, we were also very clear with our employees that working at home is a privilege and that they needed to maintain certain levels of performance to remain in our work at home model.
To mitigate this, we would take a look at an agent’s home internet. For example, we’ve switched from wireless to wired connections to increase the stability. What we wanted to eliminate the internet blips on WiFi that may cause a call to drop or something that would negatively impact customer experience. So far, our performance isn’t very different between those working in the contact center and those that are working from home.
JEFF: That’s great news! We’ve spent most of our time talking about the generic effects of social distancing in the contact center, but what about the types of clients that traditionally go through a holiday increase period? What should these clients be focused on with 45-50% of their employee capacity evaporating due to social distancing?
DAVE: Capacity is the one thing that keeps me up at night from a regular call center operations perspective right now. We typically flex up in October, November, and December for holiday customers. The reality is that if you need 200 additional seats immediately, you’ll need to figure out how to manufacture that capacity.
To do this, you have three options:
In the case of holiday-only increases, where you only need it for a three month seasonal spike, it doesn’t always make the most sense to go out and build something completely new unless you believe that you’ll be able to maintain some portion of those additional holiday agents into a steady state operation with your client.
If you have a short-term need, and don’t have heavy PCI or HIPPA requirements, working from home becomes the best option for the holiday influx. Another tough part about the holiday season, aside from the physical capacity, will be the ability to plan appropriately and recruit the best available talent that could work from home.
JEFF: What has been your experience with virtual training programs during COVID-19 and has it been effective? What are some ways it has worked?
DAVE: First off, let me touch on the recruiting and hiring process. Lucky for us, we have not seen any negative impact in our ability to hire or recruit in any of our operational geographies. Actually, we’ve had an easier time recruiting, especially working from home. That could also be due to the high unemployment rates and that working from home is very appealing to many of the displaced workers due to COVID-19. Call center jobs might look a little sexier than previously noted, especially in the U.S.
From a recruiting perspective, offshore hiring has gone well for us. We’ve virtualized the hiring process, including the interviews with both recruiting and operations hiring managers. The one thing that is not fully virtualized is some of the prerequisite minimum skills testing, the language testing (Versant, and other things of a specific skills nature. Typically, we need them to come on site to do those things. Not everybody has a computer at home to test in a different way.
We’re getting creative to reinvent parts of our business in the virtual world with regard to virtual training. We actually launched virtual training as a pilot early on during the pandemic so that we could work through a couple of the nuances and get something fully tested and set up prior to the seasonal influx.
We have created virtual pilots for a major overnight delivery company, a Tier 1 Telco, a large retail membership club, and two global e-commerce giants. All these virtual programs have gone extremely well and all the training was completed with graduation rates equal to or better than within the contact center, prior to the COVID-19 crisis.
Social distancing will also impact your training room capacity. Traditional in-person class sizes are cut in half, meaning you now need two classes versus one, which will logistically occupy twice as many training rooms and double the number of required trainers. This will be a huge impact to the speed of holiday ramps, especially for accounts that have 4-5 week training cycles.
JEFF: That’s an excellent way of looking at it. I have one final question: In general, how do you think clients should rethink their deployment of technology (IVR, BOTs, self-service applications, etc.) to help offset peak holiday volumes given reduced capacity?
DAVE: If you can take a call or problem that is normally solved by an agent and have it solved in the IVR instead, you’re going to reduce your overall call volume. This will potentially help solve your overall needs and therefore reduce the production seats required for the holiday influx in this COVID-19 environment. The impact of social distancing on the seat utilization, is obviously what’s driving a big portion of the cost increase for the vendors. Outside of IVRs, there are some other ancillary situations to build in cost efficiencies and it is important for vendors and customers to work together to focus on these opportunities.
So right now, we’ve seen cost increase exponentially as part of the COVID environment however we've still been able to manage within our current budgets. Across the board, cleaning costs have gone up, and in some geos, you've got door to door shuttle cost as you take people back and forth to work, depending on the local situations with public transportation. Whether you are operating an in-house call center or outsourcing, cost increases are a reality and probably something that everyone will experience, especially if the COVID pandemic continues into the foreseeable future.
JEFF: It really sounds like having a close relationship between client and vendor and working together is of paramount importance right now. Working together on these types of solutions are in the best interests of all.
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