2020 has been a year of unparalleled upheaval and disruption, due to COVID-19. The impacts have been far-reaching, with companies’ ability to deliver customer experience severely challenged – exactly when consumers required greater reassurance and support.

How has the industry coped and what are the trends to watch for the future? The latest Contact Babel 2020-21 Customer Experience Decision-Makers’ Guide, sponsored by Enghouse Interactive, delivers crucial insights for everyone in the industry. Based on research carried out between May-July 2020 with B2C/B2B CX/customer service professionals and consumers, it highlights the impact of COVID-19 and wider themes in the sector. This blog, the first in a series of two, will focus on the pandemic and how it has transformed customer experience in two key ways.

1. The pandemic has put unprecedented strain on CX

COVID-19 impacted CX in two main ways. Firstly, customer demand for information and reassurance increased across many industries, with queries often becoming much more complex and time-consuming to answer. Over half (51%) of B2C companies reported call volumes as becoming challenging or severe, rising to 75% in the retail sector.

As the situation and guidance has changed, so have the questions that consumers want answering. Take supermarket shopping. While at the beginning of lockdown consumers doing their first food shop online may have had queries about product availability or booking a delivery slot, as they returned to stores their questions have changed, for example, to focus more on safety precautions and social distancing.

Secondly, the ability of organisations to respond was hampered by internal factors around areas such as budgets, staffing and technology. With many organisations furloughing staff and other employees shielding, 33% of companies said decreased headcount caused severe or challenging problems, with 30% highlighting lower budgets as a major issue.

On the positive side, only 18% of respondents said that the pandemic had caused major problems for their CX, although 47% reported minor problems. Essentially, these organisations have been able to just about manage, often by providing a lower level of service or focusing on specific channels. While this may have been acceptable during the early days of the pandemic and lockdown, it is not a long term solution – as a respondent commented, “As the pandemic becomes assimilated into normal life, consumer expectations of service have now reverted to pre-COVID levels.”

2. An overnight switch to remote working

In 2019 Contact Babel’s research found that 26% of UK contact centres surveyed had some sort of homeworking capability, but that only 3.8% of agents were actually based at home. Overnight lockdowns have turned this picture on its head. A survey by Channel Doctors showed that 84% of contact centres had moved to being majority home-based, with only 13% still mainly based within a physical contact centre.

While remote working was forced on most departments in an organisation, supporting the shift within contact centres proved particularly difficult for some companies. They had to switch from single, large offices with hundreds of staff to a workforce that was dispersed to their homes, with employees potentially struggling to find the space to operate effectively.

Larger contact centres were the most affected on the infrastructure side – 45% reported challenging or severe issues with their remote working technology, compared to just 19% of their peers with under 50 seats. In many cases IT departments were unprepared for the change, for example leading to channels such as voice being switched off and all service provided digitally through email and social media.

Nearly a quarter (24%) of all contact centres listed managing remote workers as a major problem, although on the positive side some respondents reported lower absenteeism rates from homeworking staff, while employees also benefited from not having to commute to a physical contact centre.

Technology was central to whether contact centres were able to seamlessly embrace remote working, with those already using cloud-based solutions finding the process much simpler for managers and staff than those reliant on on-premise infrastructure. Moving forward, such legacy technology is seen as a significant problem by 41% of respondents, holding back their ability to deliver customer experience. In fact, many worried that the workarounds put in place to enable home working “are now starting to creak”, leading to longer-term issues.

Customer service has always been the frontline between consumers and organisations, with the success of customer experience vital to building satisfaction, loyalty and long-term revenues. As the Contact Babel UK Customer Experience Decision-Makers’ Guide 2020-21 highlights, the pandemic has had a transformative impact on the industry – and only those organisations with the right technology, processes and resources in place have been able to deliver the reassurance and high levels of service that consumers required. To find out more download the full guide here.

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