The COVID-19 coronavirus outbreak has caused widespread disruption to many industries, but one of the less discussed is contact centres.

Used across industries to provide vital support to customers, many contact centres are under increased pressure during the coronavirus crisis, as growing numbers work from home and face challenges setting up unfamiliar platforms or using new services.

But contact centres are by no means immune to the coronavirus. In the UK alone, there are over 6,000 different contact centres, employing over 225,000 people – around 4% of the UK’s working population, according to Contact Babel. And now they are facing the prospect of having to support widespread working from home for the next few months, or potentially face closure.

“More and more  contact centres are likely to be faced with employees needing to work remotely in the coming weeks and months, so having the foundations for true flexible working capabilities will likely prove to be essential to remain competitive, or perhaps even operational,” says Martin Taylor, deputy CEO of Content Guru.

It is a challenge quite unlike any the industry has faced in recent years.

“The key challenge that contact centres will have is the ability to provide the same seamless, omnichannel customer experience they have been, even if agents can’t come to a physical location,” explains Taylor.

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“Not only this, but they will need to act fast, with little or no notice – being unable to support a remote workforce presents a significant risk.”

However, the changes contact centres make may ultimately evolve into a long-term transformation of the industry, with cloud technologies enabling a radical shift in the nature and culture of this type of work.

Contact centres, coronavirus and the shift to the cloud

For many contact centres, the upheaval is significant because they still rely on legacy infrastructure built around the traditional definition of the field: a room full of people receiving calls and logging them on a centralised system.

However, any contact centre that wants to successfully weather the coronavirus outbreak will need to enact a shift to cloud technologies as quickly as possible, if they have not already done so.

“For those businesses still relying on legacy on-premises infrastructure, and particularly those that have been sitting on the fence for some time, coronavirus could well act as the catalyst needed for change,” says Taylor.

“With the likelihood of mass quarantine becoming a real possibility, it wouldn’t be surprising to see most contact centres start looking at how they can adopt a cloud-first approach which allows agents to work from wherever they are based, as a matter of emergency.

“Without the technology to back up an organisation’s plans, it risks having to cease operations as well as closing its contact centre.”

Rapidly deploying the contact centre as a service

For those contact centres still reliant on legacy infrastructure, Taylor’s advice is to switch to cloud-based solutions as quickly as possible.

“There is still time. Cloud-based customer engagement technology can be deployed and fully operational in less than two weeks,” he says.

“Even the biggest contact centres still operating completely on-premises can put a cloud-contact centre in front of their legacy system to enable a remote workforce in the same time frame.”

The technology that underpins this is known as contact centre as a service (CCaaS), and is well-suited to transitioning contact centres to remote working because it supports a wide selection of hardware, limiting the amount of expenditure a company needs to make.

“A cloud-based CCaaS platform gives contact centres the flexibility and, crucially, the speed that they need to operate at times like this. Cloud contact centre solutions can be deployed in days and ready-to-use wherever the agents and IT team are, whether that’s in the contact centre or at home,” he explains.

“Due to its browser-based nature, all an agent or supervisor needs to carry on is an internet-enabled device, such as a laptop, and a headset. This means that a business can rapidly adapt in the face of disruption, and continue to provide customers with great experiences.”

Organisations also have the option of a hybrid transition to enable the switch to be made without creating dramatic upheaval for staff.

“Hybrid deployment, during which initially numbers, some automated services, intelligent routing and queueing capabilities are moved to the cloud, whilst keeping the same familiar agent desktop, can act as a stepping stone for organisations to rapidly move to a full CCaaS deployment as and when required.”

Managing a remote contact centre

Of course, one of the most important aspects to running a successful contact centre is management, and it is this element that may have put many contact centres off making the switch to the cloud prior to the coronavirus outbreak. However, Taylor argues that the technologies available enable just as close management as is afforded by an office environment.

“One of the potential pitfalls of remote working is related to trust – how can managers be sure that the quality and efficiency of work will stay the same if agents are at home? A supervisor needs to be able to support agents from afar: structuring work and teams, answering queries and empowering agents to do their best work,” he says.

“One vital component for this setup to work is continuous communication and monitoring between call agent and supervisor. Screen recording, for example, enables both supervisors to keep an eye on their agents in real-time, and agents to feel supported in their work while away from their desk.”

Such screen recording, he says, “provide exactly the same insights to supervisors as when agents are in the contact centre itself”.

“This ensures that supervisors know that the same excellent standards of customer experience are being delivered, even when they are not in the same location as agents,” explains Taylor.

“Granting supervisors the ability to see agents working also enables them to provide real-time support to agents. For example, if an agent has had a disgruntled customer on the phone, supervisors will be able to step in and offer support and consolation where needed.”

Changing the future of contact centres

The coronavirus will, Taylor says, force contact centres to embrace cloud solutions, but once they have done so the change will be permanent – prompting a radical shift for the industry to a far more decentralised approach.

“I believe that coronavirus could positively impact the way contact centres operate forever,” he says.

“Those that decide to move to a cloud-based platform may discover that, since operations can continue to run just as smoothly at home, flexible working may be a viable option for their staff.

“Call agents may be given the choice to work remotely or from home, where before it would not have been possible for compliance as well as operational reasons.”

This could not only have profound impacts for the companies that operate such contact centres, but transform the nature of the workforce they employ.

“We may see more and more contact centres allowing agents to work shifts from home, fitting in around family and home life by logging in while the children are at school, for example,” he says.

“Flexibility and agility are key in this: a true cloud solution ensures that the location of the agent does not matter and can develop alongside, and meet with, businesses’ and individuals’ growing demands.”

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