Here's How Virtual Contact Centers Can Help Businesses Thrive Post-Pandemic

When COVID-19 hit last year, it took a toll on the economy and disrupted the normal way of life. In a matter of hours and days, businesses had to turn their operations from predominately in person to almost 100 percent remote as we saw cities and countries lock down. According to Statista there was about a 160 percent increase in employees working from home. Naturally, for some, this was easy, but for a majority of others it was uncharted territory.

As customers, employees, and businesses adjusted, there was one thing that they all had in common regardless of industry: Customer service lines were buzzing continuously. Travelers had to cancel reservations, virtual medical appointments were spiking, and shoppers were resorting to digital options, whether for food supplies or overall ecommerce.

Not only were contact center agents flooded with requests, but supervisors and leaders had to navigate the new normal themselves and turn their teams remote. The traditional model of contact centers, with hundreds of employees on the same floor, became a distant memory, and in many cases, it still is. Businesses had to find a way to quickly deploy cloud solutions and empower remote agents, ensuring both a high level of service to their customers and ensuring their agents didn't burn out.

Cut to the present, almost a year from the start of the crisis, and the cloud contact center has proven essential. Even before the pandemic, there was explosive growth in the need for great customer service that is flexible and scalable. Is it just because it's cheaper to operate? No. There are several significant benefits associated with cloud adoption beyond cost.

Not only do cloud contact centers present financial benefits in saved rent and already incurred costs of setup, they allow effective and efficient remote work. As economies gradually recover, and business leaders look at the next 18-24 months, a major decision they will face is which business functions can continue to stay remote and which ones need to move back on site.

A recent report from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology suggests that once businesses invest in the fixed costs of sustainable remote work, they will stick to the new methods. The world will eventually see that hybrid is the way.

Navigating Change and Disruptions Post-COVID

COVID-19 has taught us that business continuity and business resilience need to remain top of mind for executives. This time it was a pandemic, but what about next time? Cloud-based technologies help support business resilience as operations can be scaled outward without letting physical factors hamper business services. With business operations taking place in the cloud, disaster and change management plans are not only more scalable but businesses can benefit from the knowledge and investment in operational resilience that cloud providers are baking into their platforms.

Thanks to the scalable and flexible nature of the cloud, businesses can deploy a new cloud contact center in a matter of days and pay as they go, meaning greater flexibility and management of costs.

Monitoring, Mentoring and Optimizing Remote Agent Performance

Historically, one of the biggest reasons business leaders have been reluctant to allow remote work is the fear of losing control. However, that stigma has largely been lifted during the pandemic. Arguably, it should have evolved prior to this, but the pandemic really shined a light on the art of the possible.

The first element of shifting to successful remote working is finding the right balance between autonomy and supervision. The right cloud contact center solutions should equip supervisors with desktop analytics and recording tools along with real-time dashboards that allow them to monitor activity on the agents' desktop, track employee performance, retain control, ensure quality of customer service, and provide real-time help to the agent as needed. Supervisors should be able to easily jump in to help, reach out to an agent across channels, and use video conferencing tools to help replace the intimacy of in-person, one-on-one and team meetings.

The second element is how agents are empowered at work. Unified communications (UC) integration can allow agents to tap into subject matter experts quickly. Agents gain confidence when they are equipped with the right tools to help them succeed at their jobs, and cloud contact center providers should think about how the extended UC ecosystem can help augment their software.

Another area that has risen to the top of the list is employee and agent well-being. How do leaders ensure their teams are not burning out and are staying motivated when they don't have the in-person camaraderie often associated with the contact center. The feeling of isolation is real. This is why many supervisors are turning to gamification to make the work day more fun, staging competitions and rewarding good performance with virtual and real prizes. Not only does this get agents excited about self-managing their performance, but it does wonders for team building and helps ensure that key topics, such as physical and mental health, are addressed.

At the end of the day, the quality of customer service can make or break your business. Every company can be a service brand with the right blend of people and technology. To ensure top-notch service in highly uncertain times, companies need to offer more frequent training to employees on the frontlines of business operations. Leading cloud contact center solutions offer training to develop a solid foundation for supervisors and agents, helping create a more customer-centric vs. task-centric mindset. Remote training is not only time- and cost-effective, but it allows a wider pool of high-caliber talent.

Empowering the Workforce and the Economy

Most business leaders recognize that technology has evolved to make remote work more viable for a wider variety of positions than ever before. According to Gartner, 81 percent of chief financial officers planned to exceed their contractual obligations to hourly workers during COVID-19.

Leveraging the growing gig economy by offering remote hourly work is an effective way businesses can create cost savings and empower the economy. This will be an important tactic for senior finance leaders looking to minimize severe job cuts and control the downside impact to the workforce. In doing so, companies can gain access to a diverse set of talent across numerous industries, including hospitality, transportation, entertainment, and healthcare. Many of these industries are experiencing job losses at a higher rate due to lockdowns and concerns about exposure to COVID-19.

Last but not the least, there are financial benefits in moving to a virtual contact center, a benefit that can't be ignored in a stressed economy. Cloud eliminates the need for real estate, equipment, and can be an excellent way to achieve significant savings in post pandemic times- especially when business leaders will continue to be faced with tough choices and tight budgets. Moving remote doesn't come without its costs, but over the long term, significant savings could be realized and could be taken as savings or put back into more technology, training, or alternative means to enhance the overall customer service experience.

Before March 2020, business continuity planning wasn't a priority. It was often a check-box exercise, and, as a result, many businesses were caught off guard. Looking forward, companies need to ensure continuous, high-quality and pandemic-proof service to their customers by deploying scalable cloud solutions and increasing access to remote training solutions for customer service agents. As a strategic imperative, business continuity and business resilience need to move from the sidelines to center stage permanently.

Anand Chandrasekaran is executive vice president of product management at Five9.