The year 2020 was a unique and challenging one for everyone. I am not eloquent like those quoted above, but I have learned that difficult times can either cause people to fail, or they can be the driver of new strengths that carry them to undreamed of success. Like everyone else, at Dexcomm we certainly faced challenges in the unusual and difficult year that was 2020. But we managed to persevere. The lessons we learned were significant and have changed our business forever and for the better.
As a Telephone Answering Service (TAS), handling emergency phone calls 24/7/365, we are an essential business and did not suffer from many of the challenges that forced large numbers of companies around the country to offer different products, completely change their business model, downsize, or even fail and go out of business entirely. But the challenges we did face compelled us to refocus on business fundamentals with the goal that we would emerge stronger from the lockdowns and other new business and life protocols.
During the year, we identified three customer service trends that we believed will impact us and many other companies in 2021 and beyond.
Three customer service trends we noticed in 2020:
- Many people still wanted the personal touch of talking to someone rather than booking, shopping, or transacting online or with AI or a bot. Therefore, maintaining an in-person call center is important for most businesses.
- Outsourcing the company’s calls 24/7 was a viable option, although many companies like to maintain their personal touch whenever possible. The decision of whether to outsource or “home source” was a difficult one for many companies.
- Many staff members like to work from home. However, we found they still must come into the office occasionally to maintain culture and focus, and to receive the best training, both initial training and ongoing training. Training remotely remains extremely difficult, at least in our industry.
While the use of the computer or smartphone to place orders and book appointments certainly increased dramatically in 2020, there was still a significant number of customers that prefer to speak to an agent and experience the personal touch. In fact, with so many people sheltering in place, for many people the desire for personal contact had increased.
Our initial call volume increased approximately 30% when the Covid shutdowns began. Part of this increase was because our customers’ offices closed, leaving their phones directed to us. Part was due to more people transacting business over the phone rather than in-person or online.
One of our real challenges was keeping talk times within normal limits. Frequently callers wanted to chat in addition to booking a job. We have always experienced this issue when dealing with the elderly, but it became more prevalent in 2020 when dealing with younger callers. Training staff to remain polite while also exercising excellent call control is one of the most important new challenges in customer service arising from 2020.
It is a challenge to walk the fine line between rudeness to a caller by overtalking, interrupting, or dominating the conversation and allowing them to continue talking and increasing call duration. In our case, longer calls mean higher billing for our customers, something we definitely strive to avoid. We used three tools to overcome long talk times:
- Frequent reminders. Even the most skilled and experienced agents need reminding of the techniques used to ensure a balance between politeness and acceptable call length. This is one of the items we learned to employ in 2020.
- Call monitoring. We used many actual and virtual monitoring sessions. This is where a trainer listens to an agent answering calls for a set timeframe, usually one or two hours. The trainer was then able to recount actual instances where the agent could have handled things differently. If necessary, they could review and listen to some of the calls together for further instruction.
- Self-grading of calls. One of the most powerful tools we have found is for the agent to listen to—and grade—their own calls. We frequently had them also rate the calls of a superior agent, to get context and learn new tips or techniques.
When the lockdown orders began, most companies initially reverted to their standard out-of-the- office protocol of using the answering service for out-of-office call times. However, this quickly became a less than optimal choice for some companies for various reasons. They were then faced with the benefits and difficulties of outsourcing, compared to the benefits and difficulties of home sourcing.
After the first week or so, things began to change as it was evident the lockdowns would continue for an extended period. This required excellent communication between our office and our customers’ staff. We frequently had to re-program accounts, change on-call protocols, etc. Fortunately, issues such as re-programming, modifying on-call procedures, updating rosters, and contact methods, etc. are standard for our industry. Our staff and the staff at our customers’ offices adapted to new methods and managed procedures remarkably well.
We had several customers decide not to outsource and chose to forward their phones to an employee at home. This process has both strengths and weaknesses.
- It allows for the continued employment of staff that might otherwise be laid off.
- It allows someone who is intimately familiar with all aspects of the business to answer each call.
- Employees at home rarely have the backup power, telephone, or Internet that offices have. They certainly do not have the backups that most call centers employ.
- For most phone systems, it is difficult to create personnel backup scenarios. That is, when the employee at home must be away from the phone for a meal, restroom break, or personal errand, the phone(s) is left unattended.
- Training new employees is extremely difficult to perform remotely. If there is inevitable turnover, it is nearly impossible for most companies to hire and train someone to manage telephone traffic from their home unless they have already established plans and protocols for doing so.
To outsource or home source was a decision entirely left up to our customers. Some changed their choice during the lockdown. For future planning, our suggestion would be to make contingency plans for both methods and be prepared to utilize each, depending on new circumstances.
Working at home
Many articles have been written about the benefits and challenges of a large workforce working at home. Surveys have been conducted and there has been overwhelming sentiment from workers that they enjoy working from home. The surveys also indicate that productivity increases while working at home. Our experience regarding productivity is that reality is far different than the surveys. Nevertheless, there are indisputable advantages to working at home, both for the employee and the employer. Finding the proper blend and managing the trade-offs is essential to a happy and productive workforce.
There is another huge issue to consider: the industry/type of work of the company, and the type of work being done by the at home worker in that industry. Some jobs are well-suited for at- home work, some are impossible, and some are in between. The TAS industry falls into the “in between” category.
The comments below are intended for general businesses, but those in italics apply specifically— although not exclusively—to TAS.
Some of the benefits of working from home for the employee are:
- No need of a vehicle for travel to work, or commute time
- No need for childcare for older children
- Lower clothing budget
- During this pandemic, no fear of catching the virus at work
- In many cases, lower food expenses, as eating at home is generally less expensive than eating out at lunch.
Some of the benefits for at home workers for employers are:
- Lower occupancy costs, e.g., rent, utilities, etc.
- Ease of expansion without having to add new facilities
- If workers are geographically diversified, less impact from a single weather event such as a tornado, flood, severe rainstorm, or a hurricane
- For a call center, at-home workers generally can jump in to take calls in times of unexpected traffic spikes
- Flexibility of scheduling. At-home workers are much more agreeable to split shifts, for example, than for workers having to drive to the office twice a day.
Some of the negative factors of working at home (according to employees)
- Loss of camaraderie or interaction with other staff, i.e., feeling like a hermit
- Loss of visibility to management, hurting upward mobility (at least this is the perception)
- Lack of ability to learn from co-workers
Some of the negative factors for working at home (according to employers)
- Difficulty of training at-home staff
- Loss of company culture and values for at-home staff
- Difficulty of training in-house staff, because at-home staff are not available to train or mentor the in-house employees
- Poor attendance. It is much easier for an employee to simply exit a workstation and head to the couch with a minor health issue that would normally not be worth driving home for, than staying at work and finishing a shift.
- Lower quality service. For a TAS, at-home staff rarely have the same Internet bandwidth, the backups of power, telephony, or Internet that are found in the office. At-home staff routinely answer fewer calls per hour than in-house staff, for the reasons listed above and others.
- It is difficult to motivate, compliment, and/or evaluate staff working remotely.
- There is a loss of cross-pollination of ideas. Planning and execution of group projects are much more difficult.
There are compelling reasons both to work at home and to work in the office, and few easy answers. Examining each of the areas discussed above for your industry and your company, plus other factors not included in this brief essay, will lead to an informed decision on an important subject.
In summary, we learned many things throughout 2020 and dealing with the pandemic. We are a stronger company today because of skills we have learned, new processes we developed, and opportunities that we were able to pursue. Change is rarely easy, but frequently can be quite rewarding. We hope that the changes we encountered and learned from can benefit others.