Customer Contact Centers After Covid. More Human, More Local, More Joyful?

It’s Down By There… I had two experiences of Customer Services this week. One was a terrible grind, the other left me feeling joyful.

The terrible grind is what you might expect when trying to cancel a conscription* with a massive global company. You don’t actually get to speak to anyone human. It’s just a lengthy exchange of messages where you have to answer infuriating questions, repeatedly, to the point where you almost give up. I’m fairly confident that it’s actually designed to be almost impossible (*meant to say subscription, but the typo works better).

The other experience was a reporting a problem. The person I eventually spoke to (they too have that horrendous rigmarole of pushing buttons up front) was a delight. They sounded like me, and had a fair idea of exactly what I was talking about. “Oh, I know, its down by there… them lot with the orange writing on their trucks”. Aye, exactly! I’ve not much confidence that the problem will actually get sorted (it’s complicated), but I did feel a bit joyful after the experience. The warm glow of human contact with someone who sounded like me and sounded they cared.

But why does this matter? Well, the experiences have got me thinking about how ‘customer service’ might work after COVID. The questions floating around my head include;

  • What actually makes a good ‘customer service’ person;
  • What working arrangements will exist after COVID; and
  • Can the skills and networks developed during COVID be used for other things?

What makes a good customer service person. I realise that this amounts to far more than my delight at talking to someone who sounds like me and knows the local geography. There are serious people who have a deep understanding of this topic. One of the things that sticks in my head is a 2014 blog post written by Kate Bentham called Channel shift or Channel shove? The point made by Kate is that many services seem to have been designed to ‘shove’ people into things that work for the organisation (rather than the customer). This seems to be just as relevant 6 years on and ‘shoving’ is common practice across both public and private sectors.

However, if you want to get a sense of what good customer services could look like, have a look at this. The BT Global Service Innovation Team white paper Botman vs. Superagent: Man vs. machine in the future of customer experience. I’ve heard the author Nicola Millard, BT Head of Customer Insight & Futures, speak a few times. I think the white paper is essential reading for anyone involved in customer services – especially if it involves the phone, video or anything digital (including pesky chatbots).

Here are some key points from the white paper where I think we should pay attention:

  • computers (machine learning and artificial intelligence) have an important role to play in the delivery of customer service;
  • This works best where computers complement and support what humans do;
  • The machines deal with the ‘simple’ FAQ’s while the humans deal with the complex and emotive issues; and
  • The people who do this job have serious skills and generally work best as part of a wider Team or Network.

That’s all I want to say about that for the moment, I suspect I will come back to ‘Botman v Superagent’ in the future. That might be for the excellent descriptions of machine learning and artificial intelligence. In the meanwhile, here’s a screen shot from the document which I’m sure / imagine / hope, is at the core of how every customer service function works (with or without computers).

Digital or not, these points are relevant. Source: Dr Nicola J. Millard, BT Global Service Innovation Team Botman vs. Superagent: Man vs. machine in the future of customer experience.

Will COVID change customer services? I’m old enough to remember the days when there were buildings that housed enormous ‘Customer Contact Centers’. There were even television programmes about them (remember Nev Wiltshire?). Well, COVID has changed all of that and people are now working (sucessfully) from home dealing with everything from how to get a mortgage to Pilates classes.

The point I’m making is that people don’t need to be in a ‘central’ location to provide high quality customer service. In my mind this opens up the possibility for people from specific areas being able to provide customer services specific to that area (like what happened to me with my “Down by there” complaint).

Technology should help this. About 10 years ago someone from Dubai told me that if you phoned the Dubai Police your call was always answered by someone who spoke your language. Apparently most visitors to Dubai had phones with sim cards from their ‘home’ country. The Police switchboard recognised these numbers and automatically transferred you to an operator proficient in the primary language of that country. Brilliant!

This might be a wild fantasy, but why isn’t this possible at a more local geographic area level? Now that nobody needs to have people physically in a call centre, why not have people doing customer service jobs in every community? Local people making a phone call and getting to talk to a person who sounds like them / speaks their language? It would certainly help ‘kill the commute’. In my view, COVID has been a pretty good ‘proof of concept’ to demonstrate that this could work.

The future is already here. Apparently there are about 3,100 people doing COVID Contact Tracing in Wales (Wrexham Leader, November 2020). From what I understand most of these people are; working from home and contacting people in the local area where they live. Local people talking to local people – sort of demonstrating the point I’ve made above…

I do actually know a few people who work as Contact Tracers. One of the things they say is that the local knowledge they have, helps them to connect with people, and get a better result. The fact that there’s a common connection ‘we both live locally’, the nature of the conversation is going to be a bit different.

So, what happens after COVID? If you jumble together all of what I’ve written here I think there might be an opportunity… All sorts of customer services have moved from offices to be delivered from people’s homes in local communities. Technology should just help to make the job easier and better in the future. We’ve also got a cohort of 3,100 Contact Tracers deeply connected with people in their communities.

Human Sensor Networks. To borrow a phrase from Dave Snowden, COVID Contact Tracing in Wales has created a ‘Human Sensor Network’. I’m just wondering what this network could do after COVID? With organisations like the Institute of Welsh Affairs creating a Learning Partnership to listen to Citizens Voices, this might be the perfect network. It already exists and maybe they could join up? Just a thought… Here’s a link to Dave talking about Human Sensor Networks at the State of the Net conference and a link to the IWA Live Learning Partnership.

I don’t know the answer to any of this but, I’m just hoping that after COVID the customer services I encounter will be; More Human, More Local and More Joyful.

So, What’s the PONT?

  1. Humans are better at conversations with other humans than computers. Its not a competition, they can work together.
  2. COVID has shown that all sorts of customer service activities can be ‘distributed out into local communities’. People working from home means you could talk to a local person to discuss your local issues.
  3. Contact Tracers are effectively a ‘Human Sensor Network’, unlike anything that exists. What that network might be after COVID is an interesting possibility.

About WhatsthePONT

I'm from Old South Wales and I'm interested almost everything. Narrowing it down a bit: cooperatives, social enterprises, decent public services, complexity science, The Cynefin Framework, behavioural science and a sustainable future. In 2018/19 I completed a Winston Churchill Travelling Fellowship, looking at big cooperative enterprises and social businesses in NE Spain and the USA. You can find out more here: https://whatsthepont.com/churchill-fellowship/

7 Responses

  1. Absolutely fantastic article, with some really thought provoking points.

    One thing I also think is that some of the more linear problem-solving/process improvement approaches that originated in manufacturing and have subsequently been applied to service environments (you know the ones…) have meant that all of the ‘slack’ has been removed. They build ‘standard’ processes for ‘standard’ customers… the issue being that (other than the neat persona that was used during designing the service), that customer *doesn’t* exist. And if there’s any change to the environment (e.g. a sudden spike of calls due to COVID) the processes can’t cope.

    They optimise the 80% forgetting they still need to cater for the 20%… so anyone who asks something ‘off script’ gets fobbed off. This is combined with ‘management by objectives’ at such a micro-level (e.g. “average call handling time”, “wrap-time”, “# calls per day”) that it is actually in the call-handlers interest to fob the person off. The management pretty much *incentivise* it if they are micro-managing in this way.

    Which ironically means the majority of stuff the call handlers are dealing with is stuff that should have been dealt with right the first time IF they’d designed the processes with adaptability and variety in mind… Of course, not *all* contact centres are like this….

    …Anyway, I digress, however the connection is that your (really thought provoking) observation about regional/community based responses is perhaps a way of absorbing/understanding this variety. E.g. build slack *into* the processes, have individuals accountable so the call comes back to *them* (creating the best incentive to get the thing resolved).

    Or perhaps I am being overly optimistic 🙂

  2. David Williams

    Someone I know has just received an invite to receive their vaccination but at a regional centre 26 miles away whereas someone else local to them has been offered somewhere only 5 miles away – and all mediated through a remote call centre with no local knowledge.

  3. As always find your writing thought provoking and accurate. I’m all for chatbots in the public sector, but only so that we can focus on the more important human centered conversations.

  4. Fatima

    Great article!
    I am of your generation and I find it difficult to accept these new tools; especially when, as you say, it involves explaining situations of a certain complexity. The person opposite is often very limited in his responses and the help he can provide. The worst is when you have sorting systems at the beginning like: type 1 if …; at the end of the process, you are dealing with a human, who tells you he/she’s not the right person to talk to! and you have to start all over!

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