Scale the Success of Virtual Customer Engagement During COVID for Future Growth


COVID-19 has been a wake-up call for many organizations, testing the resilience of their supply chains, retail practices, and, most important, their ability to serve customers as many countries went into some form of lockdown. While each industry had and continues to have its unique challenges, public, private, and government enterprises alike all faced challenges regarding their customer contact centers. This was primarily driven by the fact that the volume of calls was multiplying while organizations themselves were ill-equipped to service customers at scale while working from home.

Some organizations, however, were able to rapidly adapt their workforce practices and customer engagement methods to successfully support their customers. They focused on cloud infrastructure, adopting artificial intelligence-powered solutions, and evolving workforce practices and mindsets. Some made these critical changes in as little as three months. Under normal circumstances, these changes could have taken three to four years to complete.

Moving forward into a post-COVID-19 era, organizations that have adapted successfully now have the opportunity to build on top of this foundation to accelerate the benefits gained and position themselves for greater growth. So what should leaders do to scale the successes and invest in long-term virtual experiences for sales and service.

Double down on cloud-based customer engagement technologies.

In pre-COVID days, setting up a typical contact center would require six to nine months. But during COVID, there was no luxury of time, especially as more people started working from home.

However, many public-sector organizations, such as the state of New Mexico, were able to stand up remote contact centers within a week by leveraging cloud-based capabilities linked to their existing interactive voice response (IVR) systems. The cloud-based infrastructure allowed them to scale overnight, enabling employees to handle customer contacts from home without massive changes to their existing solutions.

Moving forward, it is important that cloud-based contact centers accelerate the integration and enablement of other channels within this cloud architecture. The volume of customer data will only increase, and to better serve them with the right solutions and seamless engagements, it'll become more important to have a unified multichannel approach for agents and a true omnichannel experience to customers.

Use AI-powered solutions to address customer needs.

Inbound contact volume for most organizations was so high, even before COVID-19, that even with remote contact centers, the wait time could be hours. To solve for this, successful organizations rapidly adopted AI-powered capabilities to communicate with customers.

For example, Accenture helped the Texas Workforce Commission launch an AI-powered virtual assistant chatbot to help answer Texans' questions about the unemployment insurance process. The chatbot has helped relieve pressure on the TWC website and call centers. To give a sense of the scale, the AI virtual assistant handles 80 types of questions and can support 20,000 concurrent users.

AI solutions also helped companies manage safe in-person visits from professionals of cable, telecom, and utility companies, where such visits were necessary. For example, Accenture and our partners ContactEngine and Techsee leveraged proactive conversational AI to confirm with customers that the home was safe for visit or to reschedule the visit without putting additional pressure on the contact center. Where in-home visits were not possible, due to a medical situation or other constraint, customers still were able to receive assistance through computer vision AI-powered video tools coupled with human assistance.

These capabilities also allow contact centers to seamlessly pivot from care to growth by engaging prospects in a proactive and comprehensive manner. Imagine an AI-powered digital assistant embedded in a banner ad or on a store's homepage offering personalized advice during different stages of the buying process, and then handing it off to remote sales team in the contact center. In fact, some companies have already started investing in these journeys. Moving forward, it's important that businesses strategically consider and prioritize AI use cases that can reuse these existing capabilities to maximize their potential and provide even more relevant products and services.

Continue to evolve workforce practices and mindsets to meet customer demands.

Successful organizations quickly pivoted their massive workforces in response to the changing economy during COVID. State and local governments rapidly changed the required processes for filing taxes, small claims, unemployment claims, and other services. Many companies that faced retail store closures but saw their sales volume reach new highs through online channels adjusted their workforces to meet customers in the growing channels. For example, Verizon redeployed its retail employees to provide customer care and telesales from home. Similarly, during the travel and spending slowdown, American Express moved hundreds of salespeople to credit and collections.

This rapid shift meant that employees in new customer service roles needed additional support beyond the normal training. In addition, there was a need to better match customers' stated needs with the right experts to ensure customers would continue to use those channels beyond COVID.

XSell technologies, in partnership with Accenture, is leveraging our AI CoBot capability to help remote workers perform their roles more efficiently and provide on-demand access to experts for customers who are not yet comfortable going into brick-and-mortar locations. Customers choose the expert with whom they would like to connect based on area of expertise or skill set, such as a home renovation expert or medical professional, and that agent is equipped with AI in real time to efficiently provide the help customers need. Companies such as GoHealth Urgent Care witnessed significant benefits from this capability when COVID drove significant spikes in inquiries and visits.

As our research shows, the behavioral shift to online/virtual engagements during COVID will have a permanent impact. And this phenomenon resembles what companies faced a couple of decades ago when brick-and-mortar was supplemented with digital—and now the digital presence is all that remains. The key question then becomes whether organizations are ready to capitalize on rapidly changing consumer behaviors and invest in the right infrastructure, technologies, and workforces to continue scaling growth.

A new normal is quickly approaching. Are you ready?

John Bolze leads Accenture's practice that delivers new customer experiences powered by AI. He has decades of experience driving digital transformation programs for Fortune 500 clients, resulting in industry disruptive outcomes.

Sharad Sachdev is a leader in the Applied Intelligence practice at Accenture, with deep expertise in AI-powered Customer Engagement, in addition to broader focus on enterprise-wide adoption of AI across industries including insurance, communications, travel and health.