March 27, 2020

Call Centers Brace for COVID-19 Volume: How Language Can Help

Executive summary

Leaders have an opportunity to preserve the digital self-service progress made in the past decade but they have to act fast before COVID-19-related service costs spiral out of control.

Whether you are the CMO of a health insurance payer, head of cards for a bank, or a customer service leader for a telco, the explosion in call center volume and related costs due to the explosion in call volumes from COVID-19 are impacting your business. Most of the digital adoption and self-service gains of the last few years threaten to be erased, forcing companies to rethink how they can control service costs while still delivering great customer experience — with no end in sight to the crisis.

The challenges facing call centers now

Most companies have invested a tremendous amount of time, money, and effort creating effective digital services and reducing call center costs over the last several years. There’s a good reason for that: Having a great digital experience and adoption of that experience is what keeps people using digital channels, from websites to mobile apps, and not picking up the phone to call an agent. Call centers should expect not only call volume to grow, but also call complexity to increase. Consumers will be calling in for more varied, involved and complex issues. 

Banks will feel the impact acutely

Banks are going to see increased call volume related to state-sanctioned mortgage payment relief programs (such as the 90-day forbearance program promoted by the State of California). These types of calls are going to be longer than average length, will likely not be resolved quickly or in a single call, and will likely flow into contact centers in an extremely “peaky” manner.  

Impact on call center metrics

Call center KPIs are already eroding. Here are likely impacts on key metrics:

  • Average Handle Time (AHT) will rise above the average 3-6 minute range for most contact centers to closer to 10+ minutes.  
  • First Call Resolution (FCR) rates will also fall as multi-step workflows force contact center agents to defer full completion of transactions and consumers inevitably call back to understand where their requests stand in the queue.  
  • Average Queue/Hold Times (AQT) will also increase as much of the expected increase in volume will occur during a very concentrated window of time during the acute phase of the crisis or as policy changes are announced.  
  • Customer Experience (CX) may further erode in the contact center, as new processes to handle quickly-implemented policies lead to new workflows and groups to manage these policies. Frontline contact center agents will need to act as call routers to more specialized groups. 
  • Transfer Rates (TR) will also rise with the typical cascade effect of longer Average Hold Times and longer Average Handle Times. 
  • Abandonment Rate (AR) will also rise as queue times increase. Target abandonment rates will likely rise from a target 2-5% to over 10%. 

Impact of social distancing and virtual teams on call centers

These pressures will be exacerbated as call centers are forced to work virtually because of social distancing mandates. Processes requiring more in-person management to be effective will be strained.  Fortunately, virtual call centers and their associated management practices are well understood with many enterprises now having a significant body of experience with the decentralized contact center model. 

Options to address virtual team issues

  1. Make sure to update the IVR and use clear and direct language to help with call routing.  Do not be afraid to use the IVR announcement function to deal with the high volume issues of the day. 
  2. Lean into your contact centers Quality Assurance (QA) toolkit. Most contact center platforms have recording and review capabilities. Use those to make sure agents are staying on script and delivering consistent and predictable messaging.
  3. Leverage those same contact center tools to do keyword traces. Many executives may not realize that their contact center tools can do “keyword” searches of the spoken word among thousands or millions of recorded calls. These tools can help you understand what your customers are calling about and how those trends are changing over time very quickly. They can also tell you how your agents are responding.
  4. Use “listen in” tools along with recording analysis to see what is happening on the front lines and understand customer concerns and contact center performance.  These tools can help you understand if clear language in the IVR is sending calls where they should go or preparing consumers correctly when they get to an agent.  These same tools can help you understand if your agent call scripts are being effective and are being properly used. 

The power of directional language to improve call center performance today

Directional language is consistently driving engagement across the board in service emails, banners, and announcements. This means your teams need to be very explicit and instructive in the language used across channels. This impacts performance of a message more than any other component of the message. 

People respond very well to very explicit instructions that at first glance may look obvious or unnecessary. 

A leading insurance company recently changed the language in emails to use stronger call-to-action language which drove more self-service use. The company used directional call-to-action language such as “click ‘print’ below,” resulting in saving nearly $600,000 from a single email campaign.

In the context of customer support and directing people to the right resources, “less is more” does not apply. People respond very well to very explicit instructions that at first glance may look obvious or unnecessary. 

Example phrases you can use now to get more out of service messaging:

  1. Click on the button below
  2. Scroll down to the bottom of this page
  3. Copy & paste the following code in the “X” field

Looking ahead

Viewing the call center channel as simply an overburdened service point is self-limiting.  As touches with consumers increase with higher call volumes, those touches also become opportunities to meet consumers’ evolving needs. Predictive next-best-action and segmented offer management presented through the customer relationship management (CRM) system will enable the contact center to meet the consumer where their needs are likely greatest.  

Up-sell and cross-sell should be augmented with up-serve and cross-serve 

Enterprises have the opportunities to deepen consumer relationships with additional contextually relevant offerings such as additional lines of credit, unlimited data plans, and relevant at-home service or product bundles. Reframe the concepts of upsell and cross-sell as up-serve and cross-serve. Meeting this up-serve/cross-serve opportunity has to be balanced with the potential of longer handle times which then lead to longer queue times. However, concerted efforts to drive self-service where possible and better serve where the opportunity emerges will help turn the contact center into a relationship enhancing force.

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