Customer Experience in the Covid-Era

Covid hasn’t upended CX paradigms, but it is shortening organizations’ innovation horizons and underscoring the importance of emotional intelligence in contact centers.

A catchphrase you hear a lot in these Covid days is ‘new normal.’ One could make a good argument, though, that a new normal doesn’t exist — that ‘normal’ seems to change every day.

For many businesses, the steady drumbeat of strategic planning and slow and ongoing evolution has had to give way to turn-on-a-dime adaptation. Technology and process innovation timelines, developed on assumptions of predictability over the long run, have accelerated.

What does it mean for contact centers?

Covid has changed the rules for customer engagement, and you’d be hard-pressed to find any CX touchpoint in any industry immune to Covid’s impact. The contact center is perhaps the most important, given that a customer calling, emailing or chatting with an agent enters the encounter already at a CX deficit. They’ve likely tried all self-service options available and failed; they’re frustrated. At that stage, the agent becomes an inflection point in the customer’s relationship with the organization and its brand.

It’s always been that way, you say. Right, but now, in addition to the customer frustrations agents typically confront, they’re much more likely to be engaging someone stressed from who-knows-what Covid-related burden. It might be a parent isolated in a nursing home, a child that hasn’t gone to school in a year, a lost job or a wasted trip to a closed store. Stress, minor nuisance and profound loss have been constants in everyone’s daily life — customers and agents.

Recognizing this over-heated environment, forward-leaning organizations are deploying technology, process and people-innovations today to lower temperatures at the contact center, and they’re not sticking to a long-term innovation timeline created pre-Covid.

Among many strategies, organizations are seeking to protect the CX at the contact center by improving customer self-service and staffing for emotional intelligence.

Self-Service

With so much Covid-driven unpredictability, there’s really no such thing as the status quo — from one week or even one day to the next. It’s more important than ever, from both the perspective of agents and customers, for organizations to empower customers with access to the most current information and with the ability to self-support.

That means keeping website pages updated with the latest operating hours, policy changes, FAQs and any other information directly impacting your customers’ experience. It also means leveraging an IVR platform or bot to guide customers through a personalized self-service journey.

Matt Dixon, noted customer experience expert, co-author of The Effortless Experience and frequent contributor to the Harvard Business Review, points out that customers want to self-serve. “They want to be in control and you want them to keep using your digital channels… Simple communication that customers can easily understand themselves will help them stick to your self-serve channels.”

If customers can find answers to basic questions themselves, they won’t have to call an agent. For their part, agents won’t be bombarded with the same questions over and over again. Proactively keeping customers informed and empowered removes a huge potential source of frustration on both sides of a contact center engagement.

Now is the time to leverage interaction analytics software to identify those commonly asked questions, access objective insights into customer sentiment and understand what’s actually happening on calls. And, assuming you have an interaction analytics suite, now is the time to examine whether you’re using it in a way that helps you solve some of the issues arising from Covid.

Many businesses probably have had self-service enablement and improvement somewhere on their 2 or 3-year innovation horizons. Covid, though, has put a spotlight on the immediate need for robust self-service capabilities.

Supporting work-from-home agents and an emotionally intelligent contact center

Economic, personal and emotional tensions are rising as Covid grinds on. Never has the need for agents with emotional intelligence been more acute. Earlier in the pandemic, empathy and commiseration came naturally to agents and customers alike. Many call centers saw that reflected in their CSAT metrics, but it’s unrealistic to expect it would be sustainable for too long. Nearly a year later, we have to acknowledge a level of empathy fatigue and recognize that agents aren’t immune to the stress we all experience. Their status quo has been rocked too.

Questions about how best to connect with your agents, most of whom are now working remotely, to nurture a culture of empathy, are many. Are you staffing agents with the right skill-sets? What kind of onboarding assessments can you do if you can’t meet the potential hire in-person? Is it realistic to expect agents hired when emotional intelligence wasn’t emphasized to suddenly become empathetic? Can that personality trait be taught? Are your processes and technologies up to the task of keeping remote agents engaged and performing well?

Agents generally prefer to work from home. In fact, according to a recent ICMI benchmark study on agent experience, work-from-home contact center agents are 57% more likely to recommend their employer than those working out of a physical call center, and retention rates for work-from-home agents are 80% better.

However, working remotely comes at a cost to connection and collaboration that only a physical workplace can provide. Contact centers need to set clear communication standards and keep knowledge bases updated. Regular one-on-one coaching sessions are a must, and it’s more important than ever to overcommunicate and set clear SOPs for your agents when they need questions answered. Also, since remote agents are entirely reliant on online collaboration tools, it’s essential to make sure those tools are adequately staffed with people who can address agent questions in a timely fashion; after all, a customer’s waiting for the answer too.

The Covid-driven move to remote work is also accelerating investment in the cloud and the staffing agility it provides. Companies with plans to transition to the cloud over the next couple of years are moving much more quickly because it allows them more flexibility to staff where and when they need it promptly.

What customers want from their experience with a contact center remains unchanged; they still expect to accomplish a desired result with minimal difficulty. However, the environment within which that experience is delivered has undergone a significant — and perhaps permanent — transformation. We’re operating in an altered world, pushing the pace of innovation. It’s time to accelerate.