Contact Centre in a Post Covid World

Dan Plashkes, Founder, CEO , S&P Data
January 2021


Like many of you reading this, I have spent a lot of time in airports throughout my career - frankly, more times than I would like to admit. Going through security once, a family in front of me had a precocious child with them who constantly asked “why?” Questions like: “why do we need to remove our shoes? Why are we only allowed a certain liquid amount? Why do laptops need to be pulled out? etc.” Finally, the impatient Dad simply answered the child with “because of September 11, that’s why.” Of course, this child had no idea what the world was like before the watershed moment of 9/11, a time in history that changed the regular lives of people who take public transportation, not just in New York, but throughout the world. It has never been the same since.

Jump to the end of the year 2020, as we go from months of watching the regional daily counts of new Covid-19 cases to the anticipated distribution of the vaccines, we all now see the light at the end of the tunnel. This pandemic will end. Things will revert to the “new normal” that people keep talking about. I think of that kid I saw in the airport. I think many years from now he will have his own child, and likely in an airport, the child will ask loads of questions of “why do we have to do that?” - and the answer will be: “because of Covid, that’s why.”  No one can dispute that Covid-19 is a global watershed moment where life as we know it will never go back to the way it was. The way we shop, bank, work, travel and play will be reinvented to match the “new normal” and therefore the environment in contact centres that provide sales/service will need to adapt to support commerce and financial services.

In this White Paper, we will cover the top four
areas that a contact centre needs to consider as
they build their new normal:

Talent Sourcing
Talent Management/Employee Engagement

We will discuss how the contact centre needs to adapt to permanently adopt a remote work model that businesses will lean towards for employee engagement, demand from talent pools and real estate savings.

We will review talent sourcing and the supply/demand of labour as we predict the future of contact centre recruiting.

Security in a remote work contact centre model is examined. How will PCI compliance need to adapt to a remote work model? What technology is needed to ensure the cyber-security coincides with the nomad-esque style of the remote contact centre associate?

This paper will also consider the challenges the remote world brings to training and support, since gone are the days when an associate can raise their hand, and a team lead runs over to support – how will that look in a virtual call centre concept?

Coaching, mentoring and performance management will need to be adjusted in what will be a virtual associate/leader relationship. Lastly, how will employee engagement tactics in the contact centre adapt in a remote work model?

Before we jump into this list, an education on the definitions many of us have been using/heard when discussing remote work will be provided.

Remote Work Defined

Of late, you’ve likely heard the terms Work from Home (WFH) and Work from Anywhere (WFA) touted when discussing the remote work trend, and perhaps assume they are one in the same - they’re not. The difference between WFH and WFA in the contact centre world, is not semantics, but rather a distinct manner in how the call centre associate’s remote office is set-up and connects with the business. In the WFH model, the associate is provided with company-issued equipment that is pre-designed and configured with connections, VPN, and applications necessary for the associate to perform their duties. In the WFA model, the associate leverages their own equipment and are provided unique logins to remote access the necessary software, data and applications required to perform their duties. Currently, WFH associates have been geographically tied to the call centre’s traditional brick and mortar sites to simplify the logistics of equipment pick-up, temporary on-premises attendance for training and essentially leveraging the infrastructure that currently exists at the site-level. However, as the momentum shift to permanent remote work option continues, corporations will adjust their operations model by releasing real estate ties, fewer brick and mortar sites, with a vast WFA model allowing more far reaching recruitment nets and promoting diversity in their hiring model. I believe this is a significant part of the future of call centres and therefore we shall use the nomenclature of “WFA” throughout this paper.

Remote work

Talent Sourcing:  
Casting the Nets and finding the right fit for the
post Covid Virtual Centres

Job fairs. Career Days. Recruitment Expos

Many contact centre talent sourcing teams have hosted on-site events like this for active hiring requisitions or building a talent pipeline. They were designed to showcase the centre, the leadership teams, the culture. They were designed to be fun. They were face-to-face and if promoted well, they were crowded. And – they are no more. In-person interviewing will not be completely abandoned post Covid. Once restrictions lift, opportunity to interview talent, especially for leadership roles, via in-person interviewing will still be desirable. However, contact centre hiring of large quantities for seasonality and campaigns in the WFA will be remote, so the delivery of the recruitment and hiring process needs to adjust to ensure the candidate and onboarding experience matches the desired talent expectations. Therefore, simply shifting from in-person job fairs/interviews to virtual video interviews is certainly not enough of a strategic shift. Sara Benincasa, VP of Human Resources at S&P Data, speaks of the serious shift undertaken in talent hiring/on-boarding:

In the past, in-person job fairs for large recruitment initiatives gave us the ability to quickly weed-out and turn-out a short-list for talent pipelines. In a remote world, we have shifted our strategy and leverage our Artificial Intelligence Recruitment (AIR) to support our résumé ‘weeding’ and short-list creations. Leveraging AIR tools like chat-bots with on-line applications and robotics with resume review; before we schedule virtual interviews, has been a game changer for us, especially in this WFA model.

Sara Benincasa

VP of Human Resources at S&P Data

Finding the right tool for remote learning is key,” says Brian Cato, President of Operations at S&P Data, “While some applications work great for one-on-one or traditional group meetings/gatherings, finding one that is suitable for large remote classrooms, with break-out rooms and learning-labs, has been instrumental in the success of our remote learning

Brian Cato

President of Operations at S&P Data

Embracing new technology for the training of new associates

Embracing new technology for the training of new associates has also been paramount in ensuring an optimal employee onboarding experience.   S&P Data’s Hiring Accelerated Lab Onboarding (HALO) program allows S&P to have engaging and interactive remote employee onboarding and training experiences.

Interviews, classrooms, and training were once primarily designed to be in-person. The thought that these pivotal aspects for any organizations to be performed remotely, let alone artificially, would have seemed inadequate and ineffective. However, not only welcoming new technology to replace the former in-person process is needed, but embracing this technology, can actually enhance the experience. That is the serious shift needed in the post-Covid contact centre world

Technology and Security:
Connecting and Safe-Guarding in
a WFA world

Working remotely is no longer considered a privilege reserved for folks in higher positions that were issued laptops; designed for the employee that conduct business travel, site visits and thus working remotely. In traditional large contact centres, call centre associates worked at assigned stations with PC’s that were not portable so the option to WFA was simply not possible. These large centres of PC’s were all interconnected and wired to safeguard the customer data and proprietary information housed within (or with direct access to) the organization’s IT infrastructure.   Systems are protected with firewalls that restrict in-and-out traffic, unique IDs are provided to every single employee to control access and conduct foot printing, and a plethora of other measures and controls in place for the security of data. The cost and risk to move these centres remotely has been debated in many an organization for years. The debate was settled for contact centres by March of 2020 – figure out how to do it, and tout-de-suite, or you will have a pile of other risks to manage.

Ensuring our remote associates were able to safely work from home from a health perspective, while securely connecting to the systems and applications to do their job, was our north star as we implemented our swift WFA model at the start of the pandemic..

David Borts

COO and Head of IT at S&P Data

Borts explained that shifting off-site required allowing outside access in, which mandated a re-architecture of the network and adding incremental security solutions to provide “an umbrella of coverage for our own and our client’s data”. Partnering with a Secure Remote Worker (SRW) software, married with RSA tokenization, allowed the remote associate to securely access company sites via their own device, and essentially “locks” down the personal device while the associate is logged in to the corporate desktop and applications. Borts explains,“through SRW software, we are also able to allow our IT admins to manage the secure workspace remotely, update or configure security policies when needed and validate the device during the employee interview process to ensure they’re a WFA candidate – all done virtually and safely.” The next-gen call centre of a WFA model has always been a vision – the pandemic gave contact centres the push needed to make it happen. However, cost, and technical logistics have not always been the hesitation to move service/sales centres to a WFA environment – especially for those centres tied to the Payment Card Industry (PCI).

PCI Compliance is a requirement for any organization that records/stores Payment Card details. There are several controls needed to ensure the account data is safeguarded against theft, fraud and money laundering. While many of these controls are technologically managed, there have been many tangible measures undertaken to ensure compliance. Locked rooms within the centre are accessed only with keycards for designated staff, a ban on paper/pens and smartphones in the designated areas to prevent associates recording any customer or cardholder data. Cameras are often installed to spot-check the environment for adherence. It is because of these types of required controls that many contact centres in the PCI or Financial Services industry thought wide-spread WFA was an impossibility. Covid-19 made what seemed impossible – mandatory.

Practically all the major banks in Canada, UK and the US implemented remote work to all their employees – including the frontline agents that have access to payment card data – at the start of the pandemic. While many contact centres were able to be deemed an “essential service” and allowed to remain open, regional rules and restrictions of social distancing, self-isolation and quarantining forced PCI and financial services to extend WFA for frontline agents. What has been surprising throughout the months of the pandemic, were the announcements made by many large financial institutions that WFA will be extended for months, and for some, plans for a blended WFA/Office environment for their employees will be made permanent. This is further supported by research conducted by Forbes contributor and WFA consultant Laura Farrier, who cites that many workers will continue to have the WFA option post pandemic. This raises the question– how is PCI Compliance certified in a remote work environment and has many a Chief Privacy or Compliance Officer likely asking themselves “Now what?”

Technology and Security

While the technical requirements needed to safeguard cardholder data from cyber-attacks has been resolved via the aforementioned SRW software and tokenization; the more rudimentary controls of no paper, pens, locked rooms, shredders – how is that controlled? What is to stop an agent from recording a card number or a dishonest roommate looking over their shoulder as they type in sensitive customer information? The most truthful answer to that right now is - not much. When asked his opinion on how PCI Compliance will be mitigated in a WFA model, Borts provides a transparent and forward-thinking approach: “Let’s face it. Even if it is mandated to conduct random remote WFA in-person audits, it will never reach the same level of control that an office based centre can provide.” So, does that mean after the pandemic we call all PCI associates back into an office? Borts says not necessarily: “We have all been pushed to evolve, and compliance measurements and controls will need to as well” Borts suggests the compromise will be several options introduced to the WFA model. Some institutions may ask cameras are installed to watch agent as they work for compliance checking, leveraging voice analytics to flag accounts when cardholder information is recited to agent and a resurgence of traditional technology, like DTMF, and coupling it with cloud supported data-suppression solutions that masks any customer/cardholder data the caller identifies and allows the agent to focus on what is really important – the caller and their query – all while getting over the hurdle of WFA PCI Compliance.

Times have certainly changed in a very short period in 2020. The brick and mortar call centre protecting cardholders and financial institutions from risk will never cease, and at S&P data, we continue to offer our clients the option for WFA or on-premises services. However, the time to adapt how we approach security and compliance is now, and we are up to meeting and leading this challenge with and for our clients.

Coaching, Mentor and Engage Remotely:  
Creating the Buzz, when the Hive is Virtual

walking the floor
Walking the Floor

It is a term used in many businesses and one that I have executed myself and asked of my contact centre leaders in the decades I have been in the industry. Team Leaders in the contact centre world often (and should) share the floor with their team of associates. Being visible and available for coaching, mentoring, and rushing over when an associate raises their hand for help. The “buzz” of the contact centre, it generates energy and for people who love the industry, they often talk of their love of the “buzz”. But when the hive is cleared out – and the associates go virtual – how do we generate the buzz?

Accessible knowledge, communication and providing timely feedback

Accessible knowledge, communication and providing timely feedback is a strategy that is steadfast in employee engagement – regardless of where it is executed.

communication channel
Contact Centres have been centralizing their knowledge banks via online/CRM channels/tools for some time now

In contact centres, average handle time is an important metric, so long gone are the days of file cabinets or training binders for associates to reference for knowledge, and rather, a far more accessible, “at your finger-tips” mechanism has been utilized for well over a decade. Contact centres have been prime for a WFA model, before WFA became a relevant consideration..

motivating team
Motivating a virtual team

– keeping them engaged, informed, and motivated – how to do it? What is the secret sauce? Well, here is the real secret…there is no secret sauce. In fact, the best way to look at this to consider the fundamental that if a company does something well – it has far more to do with HOW they do it, as opposed to WHERE they do it. You take that fundamental, add it to a WFA model – and voilà! – You have a Remote Employee Management Strategy.

engaged team
An engaged team is one that is mentored and coached

If a team feels confident and understands the purpose of their role, they will be engaged, motivated and this always translates into a better customer experience. Accessibility of information for the frontline associate is key – and is something that has been readily and maturely established prior to the pandemic.

Communication associates
Communication to the associates

In what are often ever-changing policies, scripting, offers, etc. in the contact centre environment is paramount for the employee engagement. Adjusting that communication to suit the WFA model, is described best by Laurel Farrer from Forbes magazine as “Asynchronous Communication”. In-person team meetings and “walking the floor” in the literal sense of the words are impossible in a WFA, so embracing asynchronous communication methods that suit virtual centres and different time-zones, like video chats/video conference rooms, team chats, group SMS texts, or recorded videos to be played at start of shift that provide instantaneous communication can actual be a more effective and efficient method of communicating. In fact, some of these methods are proving to be so effective, they are being adopted by in-house brick and mortar contact centre environment to replace the traditional communication style.

Lastly, timely coaching and mentoring for the frontline associates. There is one thing that makes this successful for a contact centre leader to excel in, either in-person or virtually– time management and attentiveness. An associate raising their hand on the floor, or one using team chat/online supervisor alerts requires the same thing from their leader – their attention. Team leads needs to be committed to watching “the floor” and given that some of our client’s teams can be anywhere from 300 to 1000 associates, leveraging technology to do that effectively has been our process long before WFA. Leveraging real time data that monitors the typical KPIs such as schedule adherence, talk-time, hold time, etc. is provided to contact centre leaders via online platforms. Quality teams need to be disciplined to regularly monitor the call recording tools or voice analytics and providing results to the team leaders, with flags for when there are associates who require remediation. Results based tracking, where the team lead gives consistent and constant feedback, goals, and results on those goals; are coached back to the associate. Instead of delivering them in a small closed-door “coaching room”, the are delivered via video chat with the associate (a far more comfortable setting). Always part of the importance of engagement – is to celebrate when an associate or a team does an outstanding job. Cupcakes and pizza days may not be a simplistic method, but online “prizes” and gamification “points” are partnerships that many a contact centre have been experimenting and will become far more keenly focused on as WFA expands.

Creativity, leveraging online technology– it can be as simple as high-fives translating into thumps-up emojis – but it is more about ensuring you have quality team leads that understand people leadership, and deploying into a method that works for WFA team.

The call centre isn’t dead…it will continue to resurrect

We have been witnessing this watershed moment for almost a year now. We are watching the world change before our eyes. Often, we have been angry this year, as it has been a tremendous challenge. For me, that concern has now reached a level of excitement. The contact centre, as we in the industry have understood it, will not die out. Rather, it will resurrect, into a hybrid, diverse, dynamic, and next-generation model of brick and mortar hubs with satellite WFA associates with boundless geographical reach. S&P Data is set to meet the changes that will be mandated in the post-Covid world.

We are ready for it. We are ready for our clients. Let’s do this.

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