2020 the year that changed customer service and the customer experience forever

2020: The Year that Changed Customer Service and the Customer Experience, Forever

The global coronavirus pandemic was the story of 2020. The public health crisis dramatically changed human behavior, redefining the relationship between businesses and their customers.

From Fortune 500 companies to small businesses to nonprofits, public-facing organizations faced a daunting task. They had to address the urgent needs of their customers, all while providing a safe work environment for their employees and agents. In most instances, customer service and support leaders were asked to steer this project. This required a major overhaul of their contact-center operations.

In 2020, contact centers around the world tore up their customer service scripts. Agents were not only dealing with new issues related to the pandemic, but they were doing so from their own homes as organizations abandoned their traditional office spaces for a work-from-home model. To help manage the sharp increase in customer interactions due to COVID-19, companies of all sizes turned to the latest customer experience (CX) technologies. Thousands of contact centers adopted new platforms, and even more fast-tracked their move to the cloud.Agent working from home

As we reflect on the past year, we are proud of our efforts to assist customers new and old. NICE inContact took immediate action on the product side with the release of CXone@home, which helped thousands of organizations quickly transition their contact center agents to remote working in the early days of the lockdown. We also spent significant time working with our users to better understand the new customer journey. We have shared our findings along the way, offering thought leadership that hopefully informed customer experience decisionmakers.

Here’s a roundup of our top insights and recommendations as contact centers look to capture the lessons of 2020 to inform a more digitally agile foundation for the year to come:

Building a sustainable strategy for remote agents

At the outset of the COVID-19 pandemic, business continuity was the challenge of the day: Continuity for customers who still wanted and needed to engage with their favorite businesses, and also continuity for employees who were asked to maintain their level of productivity. Unfortunately, most organizations did not have a plan in place for such a crisis, so customer service and support leaders had to create contingencies on the fly. Many decided to virtualize their contact centers, having their agents provide service from the safety of their own homes.

NICE inContact is not a stranger to remote work. Many organizations used CXone prior to the pandemic to enable their agents to work from home. We have seen what works and what doesn’t. Our own Chris Bauserman, vice president, Segment and Product Marketing, built a strategy for remote agents that incorporated the best practices. First, contact center leaders need to do an audit.

“In the short-term, as the number of remote agents grow, now is the best time to conduct an audit to see where there are gaps in performance metrics between remote and in-center staff,” Chris writes. “Have scores dropped or even increased? Identifying those differentials provides an important basis for maintaining an experience standard, regardless of where agents are located.”

Coaching and collaboration is also key. Platforms like CXone can help with that.

“Modern cloud customer experience platforms approach coaching and collaboration from a location-agnostic perspective,” Chris writes. “In many ways, they’re designed to replicate the in-person experience as closely as possible through high-quality omnichannel functionality. That way, agents can have open, honest and productive discussions with their teams. From interaction analysis to 1:1 video, there are safeguards installed in order to ensure that agent development is a constant.”

You can read more about a sustainable strategy for remote agents here in Contact Center Pipeline.

Cutting contact center costs in COVID-19

Many businesses made drastic changes to their operations knowing that the economic downturn had hurt their financial outlook. While customer service is sometimes a victim of cost-saving measures, most forward-thinking companies realized that their contact centers had become more than a necessity.

Cost savings in the contact center

The C-suite’s renewed interest in customer service did not mean carte blanche for contact center spending. Many contact centers had to juggle growing customer demand in the near-term while ensuring costs did not balloon in the long-term. Gayathri Krishnamurthy, NICE inContact product marketing director, noted in CustomerThink that there is not a cookie-cutter approach for every organization that has to cut costs. Nevertheless, there is one thing business leaders should keep in mind when it comes to contact center investments.

“Cloud-based platforms do not just improve finances by increasing efficiency and optimizing workload management,” writes Gayathri Krishnamurthy. “It also eliminates costs around maintenance, upgrades, redundancy and scale, reducing costs dramatically when it comes to implementation and integration. A recent Forrester study found the economic impact of investing in cloud technologies quantifies benefits not just in terms of high TCO but long-term ROI and rapid paybacks.”

You can read more about cost-saving measures here in CustomerThink.

Cloud helped small businesses connect amid COVID-19

Small and mid-size businesses bore the brunt of the COVID-19 crisis, as many were forced to temporarily shutter after public officials implement stay-at-home orders. Nevertheless, many companies with smaller contact centers were able to withstand the early onslaught of the virus by having their agents plug in at home. From early spring to the dead of winter, businesses leveraged the cloud to replicate the pre-2020 agent experience at home.

This was a big move for smaller contact centers, which traditionally are more reliant on hardware housed in physical contact centers. Some small and mid-sized businesses found a quick fix in browser-based contact center applications that allowed agents to perform their duties from their personal computers. But setting up an agent portal at home fell short of a panacea. As Mark Ungerman, NICE inContact product marketing director, pointed out in Smart Customer Service, contact center managers still required feedback and reporting.

“After transitioning to work from home, managers must find a way to keep a healthy pulse on their operations, which presents obvious challenges when everyone is fully remote,” Mark writes. “Even the most intuitive interfaces that simplify the agent experience cannot eliminate the need for managerial oversight.”

Mark continues: “Software can empower managers to maintain their supervision over agents through quality management tools to listen in on live calls remotely, monitor performance, and rollout spot training when necessary, as they would when working shoulder to shoulder.”

You can read more about how the cloud helped smaller contact centers here in Smart Customer Service

Reopening plans must look forward, not to the past

It was a long year, but the end of the pandemic is in sight. As the economy reopens, businesses that are returning to offices will need to develop a plan to accommodate new working conditions.

In ICMI, Chris offered a few things for contact centers to keep in mind in 2021, including hybrid staff models.

“While some contact centers may evaluate the benefits of permanently keeping staff at home, the likelihood is that the majority will opt for a hybrid model,” Chris writes. “Depending on the size and unique needs of your contact center, this could take shape in a number of ways - including rotating agents in and out to reduce office congestion or designating some agents as remote versus in-person.”

New normal workplace

Policies in contact center will also likely change, as businesses should think about discouraging handshakes and keeping internal meetings and training sessions virtual. Despite these modifications, contact center leaders must keep the human touch in mind when it comes to their interaction with customers.

“As agents begin to return to the office and reclaim a sense of normalcy, it’s an opportunity for them to take the lessons they learned through the early phases of the pandemic to translate into striving to provide a more human touch to CX,” Chris writes. “For example, as agents and customers have navigated the pandemic, they’ve seen firsthand just how far empathy and other soft skills can go. Problem solving and communication are now skills every agent must excel in to succeed to meet customer needs.”

You can read more about reopening plans for contact centers here in ICMI.

How to bolster customer experiences with business agility

NICE inContact CEO Paul Jarman repeatedly emphasized the need for agility in 2020, something he advanced in his column for the Forbes Technology Council.

Paul explains why:

“Agility and continuous improvement have long been defining attributes of successful businesses. Typically powered by the immediate access of data, organizations can quickly identify, understand and act upon opportunities and challenges in near-real time. In today's world of constantly shifting customer expectations, that agility is vital for achieving consistent, sustainable growth. In the wake of global disruption stemming from the Covid-19 pandemic, these attributes have also proved to be an effective facilitator of organizational continuity.”

Paul offers several pointers to make contact centers more agile, including understanding and eliminating variables, addressing unexpected needs of customers, and rethinking what success looks like.

“As businesses look to increase their agility, it isn't just a matter of changing process but measuring how those processes are working,” Paul writes. “They need to be able to deploy new capabilities to cater to different measurement systems on the fly — for example, increasing agent chat capabilities as a result of spikes in chat usage among customers.”

You can read more about how to bolster customer experiences with business agility here in Forbes.

Thinking differently about digital in your contact center

Digital transformation did not start in 2020. Many companies enjoyed the perks of digital technologies before the coronavirus pandemic. Consumers, meanwhile, have been ahead of the curve, favoring new tools like social media to communicate with the world around them.Omnichannel platform

One way contact centers dealt with the influx of traffic in 2020 was through omnichannel functionality. Chris summed up the value of digital channels in an excellent piece in Contact Center Pipeline.

“Digital plays an important role in streamlining and optimizing customer experiences, particularly among those on the lower end of the complexity spectrum,” Chris writes. “Chatbots, for example, can automate up to 50% of customer interactions across chat and messaging, quickly and effortlessly delivering the right information without any hassle.

He continues: “Furthermore, a cohesive digital-first omnichannel ecosystem allows for the simple transfer of data and context as customers move along the CX journey. Contact centers need to eliminate headaches, and this is an important step in achieving that.”

The need for a seamless customer experience will exist once COVID-19 fades away. More and more customers are inclined to switch to a competitor if they have a poor experience marred by long queues and unanswered questions.

“Chat, text and social media enable contact centers of all sizes to maintain consistent, exceptional outcomes for customers,” Chris concluded.

You can read more about the ideal digital approach here in Contact Center Pipeline.

Evolving contact centers

Everything changed in 2020. But for contact centers, it wasn’t just temporary modifications. The pandemic required a complete reappraisal of contact center operations, which are likely to soon settle into business as usual processes. The adjustments made by customer service leaders will have a lasting effect on the customer experience. In that sense, businesses should not look at 2020 as a year of transformation. It was an evolution.