A recent article in Vox entitled “One nation, on hold” makes the point (in its subtitle) that “Call centers have never been more important – or more strapped.”[1]  Indeed, despite the negative stigma that unfairly cloaks much of the industry, call centers have proven to be as critical to society as the public utilities that we take for granted.

The COVID-19 pandemic and resultant economic and societal lockdowns have spiked demand for telephonic services to unprecedented levels.  At the same time, companies confronted with sudden, dramatic revenue shortfalls and forecasts have been whipsawed, cutting workforces while converting shorthanded customer support employees into remote, work-at-home staffers.

According to the Vox article, this double-edged sword “presents a set of challenges that almost no company was prepared for,” and for which many companies’ historical reaction – “relying on outsourcers,” which have made “India and the Philippines the ‘call centers of the world’” – “has also proved to be a flawed strategy.”  After those faraway countries’ quarantine measures were announced in mid-March, “the majority of the industry was forced to either go remote or close down,” and “even large companies saw their business cut in half overnight as tens of thousands of employees were unable to work from home, lacking essentials like laptops, high-speed internet, and a secure way to access sensitive customer data.”

The spike in customer service demands caused by the pandemic and resulting lockdowns has confirmed and underscored a fundamental reality that persists even in today’s interconnected, cyberspace society – “in a crisis, most people still tend to reach for the phone.”  As the Vox article quotes an industry official, in the early days of the pandemic, “we saw a lot of people moving away from digital channels very quickly to the voice channel, trying to get certainty, assurances, empathy, [and] making sure that they got commitments on the enterprise decision.”  The official explained that trend to call and speak to another human being as therapeutic: “What people don’t realize about contact centers is that they are free psychological counselling centers in times of crisis.  Often people call up and they dump their fears and their concerns.”

These inflated demands for telephonic communication, and the resulting problems they spawned, are not limited to private businesses.  With more than 33 million people – or about one in five American workers – having filed unemployment claims in the past seven weeks, “desperate workers have placed hundreds of unanswered calls, spent hours on hold, and navigated archaic online systems that are buckling under the influx of traffic – and still, not everyone has been able to get through.”  While state “unemployment offices were operating with skeleton crews prior to the pandemic” because the unemployment rate was just 3.5%, that rate has now ballooned to nearly 15%, and state-operated “call centers have struggled to meet even a fraction of the demand.”  For example, Nevada “has seen 90 times its usual call volume in recent weeks,” and Florida “could only answer 2 percent of incoming calls as of mid-April, with an average wait time of more than six and a half hours.”  And while many states are ramping up their call center operations, training new workers to navigate them and implementing security measures “can take months.”

So, with demand spiking in both the public and private sectors, and the pandemic limiting normal call center operations (which “are generally not well-designed environments for social distancing”), why haven’t more establishments hired more people to work from home?  Two primary reasons, the Vox article explains.

First, in many instances, “the companies that have been overwhelmed by calls and messages are the same ones facing massive revenue declines.”  As a result, “apart from banks and insurance providers, more companies weren’t expanding their customer service teams as the crisis escalated across the U.S.”  To the contrary, “customer service job postings fell 16 percent in the week ending April 5 compared with four weeks prior.”  Some companies have reassigned employees from other, now dormant, departments (e.g., sales) to answer calls and respond to messages.  Other customers have attempted to reduce call volumes by sending mass emails to customers, hoping that such proactive “overcommunicating” will translate into “avoiding a backlog of individual queries.”  But such measures have met with little success, and even less satisfaction from customers.

Second, companies have faced substantial difficulties transforming their centralized customer service operations into individualized work-at-home arrangements.  Before the pandemic, “only about 5 percent of call centers were 100 percent work-from-home,” while “others may have had 10 percent of their agents working remotely,” so the transformation required a “massive shift” across all industries.  And even where work-at-home arrangements were feasible, they present enormous challenges: “agents may have spotty internet or distracting background noise, supervisors need to figure out how to conduct ongoing training, and companies need to ensure they’re staying on the right side of privacy regulations.”  Indeed, certain industries with the largest customer service needs – such as financial institution and health insurers – “handle sensitive customer data,” and thus “undoubtedly have more hurdles to jump over in order to move their customer service departments out of the office.”

The answer to these problems?  Domestic call centers, which offer trained experts in customer service communications who can work safely and efficiently for operations that protect confidential information and avoid compliance problems.  As the Vox article overwhelmingly details, public and private “call centers have never been more important – or more strapped.”  Domestic call centers can unstrap those operations and unplug the nation’s bottlenecked communication systems.

[1] https://www.vox.com/the-goods/2020/5/13/21243420/call-centers-on-hold-customer-service-unemployment-airline-cable.

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