I live on Chicago’s North Side, and two of my favorite places are closed at the moment due to COVID-19.
One of these places, called Templestowe Pub, feels like it’s straight out of the old comedy show Cheers. It’s a simple bar with six draft beer lines, trivia on Tuesdays and bingo on Thursdays. No food and no frills, but everyone knows your name.
The other place is called Hopleaf. Hopleaf usually boasts 68 draft beers, including many Belgian beers unavailable elsewhere, along with a European-inspired menu that includes frites, captivating cheeses, a Montreal-style brisket sandwich and (apparently, since it’s not my thing) the best mussels west of the Atlantic.
While I may think these businesses are essential, our governor has made the more rational decision to order them shuttered for the time being in the interest of public safety.
However, contact centers satisfy a more enduring purpose than Trappist ales, manchego cheese and overpriced French fries doused with house-made aioli.
Keeping the contact center open might mean literally the difference between life and death.
If someone has a medical issue and cannot contact their insurance company, results might include the limitation of services available, the timeliness and quality of care received, or a significant financial impact when the bill comes. If a person’s credit card is declined and they cannot reach their bank, they may not be able to make day-to-day purchases such as food and medicine.
Oh, and don’t forget, if there is an emergency, we call 911. Since our childhood, we have had the number of a vital contact center drummed into our memory. And, the list extends well beyond those examples to include utilities, communications providers, airlines, delivery companies and shopping.
However, contact centers present a unique challenge as it relates to the spread of viruses.
Many contact centers have 36- to 42-inch cubicles with low-rise walls. Oftentimes our team will see 600 people working out of a pole barn structure with limited personal space. So much for 6-foot social distancing.
So, how should contact center leaders balance both the need for uninterrupted service to customers with the safety of their staff?
This is a complex challenge, but here are a few suggestions:
1) Send as many people as you can home, as fast as you can.
Although customer service cannot close down for several weeks, it’s hard to imagine anything worse than an outbreak at the office. This might mean hard decisions to send people home with desktop computers or to recognize that certain policies may not be followed and risks may have to be accepted in the very near future.
2) Put in place safeguards for staff who must work at the office.
If some staff need to continue working from the office, implement the strongest possible no symptoms policy. In addition, space out the workspace to whatever extent is possible to allow for distance between staff. Make hand sanitizer, desk wipes and screen wipes available to the maximum extent possible.
3) Create an internal help desk.
Working from home cold create a multiplicity of new challenges – including bandwidth, virtual private network (VPN) access and other technical issues. In addition, working from home may limit the ability for customer service representatives to ask questions and access other physical help resources they might rely upon at the office.
4) Don’t forget about fraud and other risks.
Many contact centers have spent years refining their “secure floor” policies to ensure that customer information isn’t subject to identify theft by employees. The new way of working might involve rethinking the use of technology – such as biometrics and interactive voice response (IVR) systems – to limiting the access of remote staff to social security, credit card and bank account numbers.
5) Be intentional about employee engagement and communication.
Even if employees become out of sight, they still need regular communication, interaction, oversight and training. All of this is still true when working from home and requires deliberate planning.
6) Build a virtualization roadmap and schedule.
Some of the technology vendors in the marketplace have messaging about how to migrate agents home within 48 hours. While that may be partially true, the work is not complete once people get home. Coaching, quality, workforce management, oversight, policies and procedures all need to be reinterpreted through the lens of remote work.
Templestowe and Hopleaf remain closed for now. However, customer service remains open. Serving the customer while protecting employees will require constant vigilance and planning.