COVID-19 Knocked Out Call Centers, and the Changes Will Linger

Traditional call centers are often in huge office buildings filled with hundreds, sometimes thousands, of employees sitting three feet away from one another while they answer your calls on antiquated telephony systems. From a health and safety point of view, this model has become unreliable for businesses and scary for agents. In one South Korean call center, 44 percent of workers on the same floor tested positive for COVID-19.

And with hold times stretching into hours and isolation measures stretching into months, the poor experiences they provide for customers who need to make financial transactions, change travel plans, or buy essential items is untenable. While the technology to reinvent decades-old contact centers has been around for years, conventional wisdom was that companies could afford to let these dinosaurs take time to evolve. COVID-19 had other plans.

COVID-19 has caused rapid transformations in how we do business. Companies that made immediate changes to their contact centers as short-term responses to the pandemic are now looking to reinvent their customer care services for the long term. Telecom giant Optus, for example, reported that its work-from-home measures, initiated to keep employees safe while serving customers during the COVID-19 pandemic, would become permanent.

While at first glance, Optus' decision might appear to be a radical reaction to a new threat, the truth is that it's a rapid deployment of existing plans. Optus' vice president of customer care, Mark Baylis, made this clear when announcing the new, permanent work-from-home policy in The Australian Financial Review: "[The lockdown] has really enabled us to accelerate some of the programs that we had in our plan over the next one to three years and put them in place right now." Coronavirus didn't invent the remote contact center; it simply catalyzed its evolution.

More companies with significant contact center operations are likely to follow Optus' lead and implement plans within months, not years. There will be a massive drive to eliminate the risk of the main points of customer contact going offline during pandemics or other catastrophes. According to Baylis, "Many of those ways of working we'll be putting into place coming out of this situation because we think they are better"

Remote contact centers are now, in fact, better than their in-person factory-model ancestors thanks to a few key prerequisite conditions coming true: consumers embracing messaging conversations over voice calls, employees becoming as productive at home or moreso than they were in the office, and businesses seeing significant cost-savings from messaging operations versus voice.

The worldwide impact of messaging-powered remote contact centers will be enormous and enormously beneficial. From the consumer point of view, why call when you can text? Why wait on hold for hours when you can send and receive messages at your convenience?

From the employee point of view, being able to work at home safely is just the start. Contact centers employ millions of people around the world. At many companies, the pool of contact center employees is actually larger than the corporate office staff, whether they're based domestically or in international hubs like the Philippines, whose 1 million contact center employees recently surpassed India's employee base in the field. Eliminating the daily commute and reaping the other benefits of work-from-home operations will have a profound impact on millions of workers and their families worldwide.

Before striking out on his own, Michael Cullen wrote a letter to the higher-ups at Kroger, the traditional grocery store chain where he was employed: "Can you imagine how the public would respond to a store of this kind? Nobody in the world ever did this before. Nobody ever flew the Atlantic either until Lindbergh did it." Cullen recognized that the opportunity before him—presented by an ongoing crisis—would change how we do business every day. It would do right by his customers, his employees, and his bottom line. Right now is a new moment of opportunity: don't reopen your contact center; evolve it instead.

Manlio Carrelli is executive vice president of the Enterprise Business Group at LivePerson, a provider of conversational solutions.