Contact centers prepare for hybrid WFH — Industry Voices: Greenblatt, Millar

customer service
Adopting a WFH model will be strategically important for customer service centers. (Getty Images)
Industry Voices - Greenblatt
Emily Millar Industry Voices

Prior to the pandemic, 88% of telecommunications companies surveyed by J.D. Power allowed, or enabled, only 25% of their agents to operate in work-from-home (WFH) environments. But by July of 2020, 78% of telecommunications companies were at 100% work-from-home.

A full 86% of wireless company executives surveyed by J.D. Power indicate that they’re planning to roll out a workforce plan that offers some sort of permanent WFH option. The WFH era is here to stay.

As difficult as 2020 has been, the pandemic year introduced the opportunity to revisit assumptions that have been taken as an article of faith by wireless service providers when it comes to optimizing contact center operations. Adopting a WFH model will be strategically important as will anticipating the expansion of WFH employment opportunities for customer service representatives (CSRs), putting further strain on retaining top talent.

The move to work from home may have happened out of necessity, but the resulting benefits are sure to keep many wireless provider contact centers working virtually—or at least providing a hybrid model—well into the foreseeable future.

RELATED: Greenblatt: Wireless purchase experience improves through Covid

Ironically, the first half of 2020 saw an increase in overall customer satisfaction. After surviving the initial disruptions of longer wait times to reach a CSR, more consumers leaned on digital self-service channels—like web and chat—to address routine issues. Companies that focused on getting self-service right benefitted. 

This shift illustrated, however, the importance of CSRs, because in many cases, the issues they worked on with customers required meaningful human interaction that could not be resolved by more automated digital channels of engagement.

This was serendipitous for companies, CSRs and customers alike. When customers help themselves, there’s a lower cost to the enterprise. The ability to work from home provided CSRs greater flexibility to better manage work-life balance while keeping themselves and their families safe. Customers lowered their expectations of companies during this period and reported higher levels of customer satisfaction. It was a counter-intuitive outcome.

This is all the more remarkable when the scale at which this all took place is considered. In April 2020, virtually all customer care agents were sent home to work for the first time in the history of the industry. 

This grand experiment in contact center working arrangements proved successful, opening a vibrant conversation about what is possible when it comes to fielding an effective contact center operation. It also, however, has revealed nuances.

Not everybody, it turns out, is interested in—or in an optimal position to—work from home 100% of the time. This was certainly seen in a growing number of cases in October and November 2020. A significant portion of the workforce became exhausted from the length of time spent working in isolation.

WFH has an unexpected positive effect on the customer experience

It is worth exploring how the shift to WFH actually improved customers’ perceptions of their experience during the pandemic. In response to COVID-19 and the hardships that many Americans faced, more than 800 telecommunications companies and associations signed the Keep Americans Connected pledge, waiving late fees due to economic hardship and promising not to terminate service because of an inability to pay. Agents were able to offer deferred payment options to customers and relax policies to accommodate hardship.

RELATED: Due to Covid, Comcast extends support for internet access through June

The shared experience of living through a pandemic has in many ways been humanizing, creating a sense of connection between customers and representatives. For many CSRs, 2020 created opportunities to help customers in meaningful ways.

As the long-term implications of sustained WFH arrangements became clear, so did the fact that contact center leadership needed to revisit core principles of management to create a viable and meaningful culture for CSRs.

Consequently, many companies are now working diligently on long-term strategies to put the technologies, management structures and training programs for employees who will likely work in a hybrid workplace that integrates WFH and in-office environments.

Ian Greenblatt leads J.D. Power’s Technology, Media and Telecommunications Intelligence. With in-depth industry expertise, Ian drives market strategy across the rapidly converging landscape, which encompasses the entire communication sector. He is a graduate of Northwestern University and DePaul University College of Law. You can reach him by email at [email protected] and follow him on Twitter at @GreenblattTMT.

Emily Millar is Global Account Director for J.D. Power’s Technology, Media and Telecommunications Intelligence, where she focuses on building and maintaining client relationships and driving business development. You can reach her by email at [email protected]

Industry Voices are opinion columns written by outside contributors—often industry experts or analysts—who are invited to the conversation by FierceWireless staff. They do not represent the opinions of FierceWireless.