COVID's Impact on Customer Care Centers: The Nuances of Outsourcing During a Pandemic

The COVID-19 pandemic has turned many industries upside down. From hospitality to higher education, professionals are scrambling to adjust to the new normal. Customer care centers are among those especially affected. But you need the help. Customer service is becoming more, not less, important. And care centers are still available. You just need to find the right one.

Customer Care Centers

The COVID-19 pandemic has turned many industries upside down. From hospitality to higher education, professionals are scrambling to adjust to the new normal. Customer care centers are among those especially affected.

You know that customer service matters. You understand that outsourcing may be your best choice.

But how does all of that change and adjust, and what does it mean, now that your audiences are in a mindset, unlike anything you’ve experienced?

The answer to that question is not simple. Far from it. It’s a complex process that many professions are trying to figure out.

In customer care and customer service, that’s especially true. According to one study, the percentage of calls classified as ‘difficult’ has doubled in the month since the Pandemic hit in full force. Meanwhile, social distancing has made the traditional customer care center—rows of agents on headsets and computers—completely unsustainable.

But you need the help. Customer service is becoming more, not less, important. And care centers are still available. You just need to find the right one.

Before you think about outsourcing, it pays to understand who you’re outsourcing too. So we’ll start this article with an examination of how COVID-19 is impacting care centers around the globe, before digging into the details of those that continue to succeed and profile the help you need.

How COVID-19 is Impacting Customer Care Centers Around the Globe

It might not quite be the hotel industry, but customer care centers are in trouble.

When most businesses think about care centers, they think of the above – a large hall of cubicles or rows of desks full of agents answering calls.

It’s not difficult to imagine just why that’s a problem. Put simply, these types of in-person settings are impossible to sustain.

A number of other challenges have entered the equation, as well. Queries are more difficult than ever before. Coaching is challenging when it can’t be done in person. And of course, a lack of alternative communication challenges can introduce connectivity and clarity issues that are difficult to overcome.

Take the banking industry as an example. As a result of closing lobbies around the globe, they now face a significant backlog of call volume. Long hold times and disconnects are becoming the norm.

They’re not the only ones. Business Insider reported last month that Amazon’s customer service centers are facing agent shortages and shutdowns.

And then, of course, there’s the challenge of outsourcing in an age when budget shortages are all too common.

An increasing number of industries are trending back towards taking their work in-house to save costs and avoid logistical challenges.  Even as the need for quality customer experiences exists and even increases, budget shortages too often prevent its execution.

7 Characteristics of a Successful Customer Care Center During COVID-19

The above challenges are difficult to master. But they’re far from impossible to overcome.

Customer care centers can still exist. They can even thrive during a pandemic like COVID-19.

To do that, though, they have to offer just the right services and characteristics to optimize customer service and business usability.

1) Natural Scale With Increased Call Volume

Make no mistake: as COVID-19 and its impact on our society increased over the past month, so did the volume of customer calls and tickets.

Exact increases vary by industry. According to one study,

  • Call volume for financial services increased by 45% month-over-month.
  • Telecommunications call volume increased by 21% over the same period.
  • Healthcare calls, especially related to telemedicine and senior care, rose steadily on a weekly basis.
  • Calls to hospitality and travel industries unsurprisingly declined.

Across industries, customer care CRM platform Zendesk saw a 13% increase in tickets related to customer support. Customers are more stressed, more urgent, or just in unusual situations.

Handling that increase is no laughing matter. It requires a customer care partner who can scale naturally as more teams come in.

A single in-house customer service agent can only handle so much. Hiring a call center that can scale its call operations with you can build a crucial satisfaction mechanism and competitive advantage.

2) Cross-Channel Services for Changing Customer Demands

Customers across industries aren’t just more likely to reach out; they’re doing so through different channels.

We’ve mentioned the challenges of live phone calls above, with wait times and dropped call numbers spiking. Zendesk has seen a clear shift as a result:

With wait times to get an agent on the phone skyrocketing at some companies, customers have increasingly turned to the faster and more convenient channels they use to interact with friends and family, like WhatsApp, chat, and social media messaging.

In fact, across these channels, Zendesk saw an increase in total tickets of 41% on WhatsApp, 34% on live web chat, and 31% through direct messages on Facebook or Twitter.

We’ve long written about the importance of social media in customer care. The best efforts are holistic, treating call centers not literally but as care centers that offer multi-channel support.

What had been a best-case scenario in months past is now a must. No matter where customers reach out, you have to be responsive.

3) The Ability to Break Through Connection Barriers

Traditional care centers who are used to crowding agents into a single space have had to undergo a major transition. Remote work has become necessary, but not every center is able to make that transition seamlessly.

The result, too often, results in connection barriers. A study published in the Harvard Business Review found that instances of customers or agents saying “I can’t understand you” increased by 34% in the last few weeks.

That leads to escalations, which ballooned by 68% in the same study.

Once again, it’s important to understand that this is not an impossible problem to solve. A few solutions can position care centers well to counteract that trend:

  • Successful work from home and remote work environments that were established long before they became necessary.
  • High-quality equipment and phone/internet connections that allow agents to stay consistent and reliable when speaking with customers.
  • Native speakers as call center agents, who are more likely to talk through connection barriers as a result.

Call centers with these characteristics are prepared. They know what challenges may wait, and are easily able to respond accordingly.

4) Accountability for Increasingly Difficult Calls

Let’s address the elephant in the room: calls and service tickets have become a lot more difficult in recent weeks.

We already mentioned the fact that according to one data analysis, the number of calls deemed ‘difficult’ has doubled since the COVID-19 outbreak. That, in turn, dramatically increased anxiety and stress levels during the average call, reducing the chance of successful resolution.

Looking for another explanation for that 68% increase in escalation? There it is.

The reasons for the increased difficulty are simple: financial hardships followed with a high degree of uncertainty and challenges in mental health.

That part is unavoidable. What’s manageable is the ability to find a partner who has the systems and agents necessary to counteract and combat that trend.

It starts with accountability. The right care center for this time has a performance reporting mechanism in place that allows you to understand exactly what’s happening on the other end of the line. That leads to recommended shifts and adjustments to improve the customer experience.

Another crucial component: training. Well-trained agents will not need to escalate difficult calls but can resolve them at first touch. That’s the goal of every customer care endeavor.

5) Infrastructure to Account for Social Distancing Needs

Infrastructure is absolutely vital in the customer experience flow. Anything from a reliable connection (as mentioned above) to data transfers needs to be seamless in order to avoid delays and anger customers.

As with so much else mentioned in this article, that infrastructure is being challenged by the Coronavirus. The good news: it doesn’t have to be.

Customer care centers thrive when they operate in business as usual mode. So what if that business as usual mode already allowed for the current, unique situation?

That’s where we get into the nuances of a distributed business process outsourcing partner.

Modern call centers don’t have to be all in one place. In fact, more often than not, they’re far from it.

Imagine a partner that has built its entire infrastructure on remote work. Then imagine the degree to which that partner would thrive right now when everything has to be remote.

Agents need to be able to work from their own homes. Trainings need to happen remotely. Onboarding and data transfer needs cannot be remote.

That’s the kind of call center you should look for now. It allows you to not just become more flexible, but also account for the current social distancing guidelines that might stretch months into the future.

6) Language Skills to Reduce Customer Frustration

We mentioned the importance of native language agents who know the customer language, as well as the customer, does above. But it’s worth breaking out the importance of language nuances in more detail.

When customers are more frustrated, they’re more likely to lash out. Language becomes a core component of keeping the conversation level and productive.

Start with the importance of directional language:

Directional language is consistently driving engagement across the board in service emails, banners, and announcements. This means your teams need to be very explicit and instructive in the language used across channels. This impacts performance of a message more than any other component of the message. 

That lesson is important in the language that agents use. Even a term like social distancing, which we ourselves used above, is less clear than the direction to stay inside and limit your trips to stores.

The most important lesson: speak your customers’ language at all times. Use the words they’re familiar with and make sure that you always remain clear.

7) Consistent Coaching and Training to Adjust to Fluid Situations

Finally, we get to coaching and training. It’s a vital part of the equation when it comes to call center outsourcing for a wide range of reasons:

  • Onboarding new agents, which you’ll need if you want to scale customer support with increased call volumes.
  • Continuing education for existing agents, building expertise in aspects like language and reporting.
  • Education about time-sensitive content. If your company has an important change in business processes due to COVID-19, you need to know the agents working on your behalf know about it.

That coaching mechanism needs to be routine. Don’t work with an outsourced partner who only now emphasizes coaching, or doesn’t know how to port training capabilities to a digital environment.

Instead, make sure that it’s always been part of the equation. The more natural coaching becomes to both agents and supervisors, the better prepared the customer care center is to meet the fluid situations and changing demands of the COVID-19 economy.

Finding a Customer Care Center to Prioritize Audience Needs

Combine all of the above, and a clear picture emerges. The modern customer care center, prepared for anything the virus throws at it, has to be completely unlike the traditional model.

A proven emphasis on remote work is vital. So is an established training program, as well as the ability to support your multi-channel customer care strategy.

Native speakers and a technology environment to account for work from home situations matter, and of course, the ability to handle difficult calls without immediate escalation should be a given.

That’s not easy to find. In fact, the lack of these factors is why so many customer care centers are struggling.

But, as we’ve emphasized throughout, difficult is far from impossible. You just have to know where to look.

You don’t just need customer care. You need a customer care center that is ready to support your needs and maximize your opportunity. Once you’ve found that, your business has the ability to thrive in terms of customer experience even during challenging times like this.