COVID-19 driving more call centres into the cloud

Johannesburg, 04 Jun 2020
Read time 6min 30sec
Uffe Jes Hansen, VP MEA, SAP Digital Interconnect
Uffe Jes Hansen, VP MEA, SAP Digital Interconnect

As COVID-19 lockdown restrictions are eased and most businesses head back to work, albeit with strict requirements to ensure the ongoing safety of customers and employees, companies face ongoing challenges adapting to what will become the “new normal”, at least for the foreseeable future.

In addition, the “new normal” has still to be determined. Governments around the world, including South Africa, have warned that an unacceptable spike or second wave of infections could result in the re-imposition of the “hard” lockdown restrictions that saw most businesses having to shut their doors and send their employees home.

And even as the economy opens up, many businesses will find that many activities that used to be conducted face-to-face in pre-COVID-19 days will in all likelihood continue virtually, via a contact centre, as customers adapt to – and even prefer – the convenience and social distancing safety this offers.

This, says Uffe Jes Hansen, VP MEA at SAP Digital Interconnect, is accelerating the emerging trend away from traditional, on-premises contact centres towards the virtual contact centres that have been made possible with the growing adoption of cloud computing.

In the initial phases of the COVID-19 lockdown, on-premises contact centres at businesses deemed essential, such as those in the financial services and healthcare sectors, suddenly found themselves overwhelmed, forced to cope with a massive increase in customer calls and queries with a skeleton staff, as agent numbers were reduced to enable social distancing. Non-essential businesses were forced to close their contact centres just as they had to close their doors.

While most customers were prepared to tolerate the resultant slower service levels, their patience is unlikely to last much longer. And social distancing requirements mean that most on-premises contact centres will have to continue operating with fewer agents.

On the other hand, cloud-based, virtual call centres have been able to continue operating as before. Because agents and supervisors access the call centre solution using a Web browser, all they require to continue servicing customers is a stable Internet connection and a laptop. Companies were able to send their agents home – if they weren’t already working remotely – and they could simply carry on as usual, with no interruption in customer service.

“In a world in which everyone has choice in terms of which companies to do business with, as well as how to interact with that business, the ability to deliver consistent, positive customer engagements will increasingly impact customer satisfaction and ultimately, business success,” Hansen says.

This requires a contact centre that not only has sufficient capacity to deal with customer queries speedily, accurately and consistently, but is able to do so via the channel the customer prefers: telephone, e-mail, Web chat, video chat, SMS or a social messaging app such as Facebook Messenger or WhatsApp, as well as effective mobile options for all channels. In addition, self-service options are also becoming increasingly important, although this should be used judiciously.

“Self-service could be the best service experience for customers who require a simple answer and don’t need to talk to a live agent. However, companies should always offer an option for their customers to interact with a live agent. Except for times of the day or week when businesses are generally known to be closed, customers find it pretty unacceptable if they are left ‘trapped’ in a self-service maze with no way of speaking to a human,” he adds.

According to Hansen, omni-channel customer interaction can be a challenge for on-premises systems, which typically evolve into a pieced together environment of point solutions that often don’t work seamlessly together. Adding new communication channels as these evolve, or even introducing self-service options, can be extremely difficult.

Although some companies have no choice but to utilise on-premises contact centres – for example, strict security policies may require the contact centre software be installed behind a firewall – Hansen maintains that cloud-based contact centres deliver all the benefits of an on-premises option, with considerable additional advantages.

“The key advantage of cloud contact centres is the flexibility they provide in terms of where agents are located and the ease with which the latest communications features can be added. In an on-premises solution, a company has to maintain server hardware and software, which will have to be upgraded every time a new messaging app becomes available,” he says.

In addition, because cloud contact centres generally have an intuitive look-and-feel with a familiar, easy-to-use web browser interface, agents do not need much training. Nevertheless, it is still vitally important to equip agents with all the hard and soft skills they need to do their job, as they are the important face of the company. For example, those handling instant messaging chat, SMS and e-mail interactions need to learn how to type succinct sentences, while those handling phone calls should receive speaking skills training as well as how to deal politely with irate customers.

Johnnie Wilkenschildt, Senior Director of Product Management at SAP Digital Interconnect, warns, however, that although a cloud-based contact centre offers many advantages, choosing the wrong solution or service provider could result in a less than satisfactory or even disastrous outcome. He therefore suggests businesses considering going the cloud route ask the following 10 questions of providers they are considering:

  1. How long has your company been providing cloud-based contact centre solutions?
  2. Are your solutions scalable – how difficult is it to scale up or down?
  3. Which communication channels does your solution support?
  4. How flexible is your solution – how difficult (or easy) will it be to add additional communications channels in the future?
  5. Can customers access all the available communication channels from their mobile phones without a deterioration in service quality?
  6. Is the solution modular – are there pre-built modules and/or user interfaces to enable rapid upgrades and expansion of the system?
  7. Can the system be quickly and easily integrated into workforce management, customer relationship management (CRM) and enterprise resource planning (ERP) systems so that agents have the ability to automatically look up a customer account and thus save time and deliver a personalised customer experience?
  8. Does the solution allow for both live-agent and self-service capabilities; and is there a seamless interface between the two so that agents don’t have to ask for information the customer has already provided to the virtual assistant or chatbot?
  9. Does the solution enable your company to balance its internal workload such as blending incoming calls with outbound campaign calls; or routing incoming call or chat requests to those agents best skilled to deal with them?
  10. What tools does the solution have for supervisors and leaders to allow them to, for example, make routing and staffing changes on the fly as well as assist with the coaching and support of members of the agent team?

To learn more about omnichannel cloud contact centres, read SAP Contact Center 365 Delivers Enhanced Customer Service or visit the SAP Digital Interconnect Community. You can also get access to a free trial of SAP Contact Center 365.

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