Pandemic pushes calls through with chat bots and apps

Striving for resilience in APAC call centres.

The recent events of COVID-19 have forced CIOs and IT functions to work differently and across a broad range of tools to ensure vital contact centres are up and running, even when staff were no longer in a physical call centre.

According to KPMG with the drive to remote working in full force there has also been a significant increase in the need for support resources, such as the use of intelligent automation, self-service, and artificial intelligence.

Prior to COVID-19, according to KPMG research, over 40 percent of companies were actively investigating automation, self-service, machine learning and AI.

Since February 2020, early indications show that number has increased to over 55 percent.

While not everything in IT can be automated, there are tools to turn to in time of disruptions of global supply chains, employee work patterns, contact centres and overall operations.

Tools such as self-service digital and chatbots, contact centres combined with self-service voice (voicebots), and tool-chain automation can help fill in the gaps, especially for certain work types.

According to GlobalData research several legacy contact centres are not built to cope with Covid-19 scenarios. Especially for companies that are facing different degree of anxiety among customers, the ability to address customer needs is crucial for the long-term success. In Asia, India and the Philippines are the two key call centre outsourcing destinations and as these places go into lockdown, contact centres operations are affected. Some of these contact centres may not have the technology and process in place to support remote agents.

Call centre failures

The havoc during COVID-19 on call centres was pushed to the forefront for APAC businesses like one Australian telecommunications provider Telstra. At the time, the telco had to let customers know that “due to global containment measures, Telstra’s contact centre workforce has been reduced. This means there will be longer wait times for customers contacting us via phone or online messaging.”

At the time the telco wrote: “We are working to increase our contact centre capacity in a number of ways including recruiting additional contractors, ramping up our working from home capabilities, increasing overtime and extra shifts for our Australian-based staff, and diverting sales calls to our stores.”

Australia’s independent Telecommunication Industry Ombudsman wrote, due to the unusual circumstances, there would be alternative commitments for Telecommunications Consumer Protections Code (TCP Code) compliance during the pandemic, Ombudsman Judi Jones said.

“It is important that the government, regulators, and phone and internet providers maintain their focus on keeping people and small businesses connected and ensuring they have access to financial hardship programs,” she said.

“I acknowledge the challenges confronting phone and internet providers with the closure of overseas call centres and increased demand on their customer service teams.”

In a news article, Telstra boss Andrew Penn said the loss of the overseas centres had forced the telco to review how to best tackle customer complaints and the changes instituted at the start of the pandemic will now stay in place.

“While we have managed to move a large amount of this work online and to Australia, we are very conscious of the impact it has had and is still having on some of our customers in trying to contact us,” he said at a Trans Tasman Business Circle event.

While Telstra will rely on keeping its call centres in Australia for in-bound calls from customers. Digital options, like its ‘My Telstra’ app will play a big part in fielding customer enquiries

Chatting with bots

SingTel owned Optus recently revealed over the last 12 months, Optus’ AI Assistant Chatbot has surpassed two million conversations, with one in six Optus customers having their queries resolved immediately, providing a seamless experience without needing to speak to a person.

Optus Assistant greets every customer that comes through My Optus App Messaging and its Web Messaging service with on average 100,000 customer conversations a month taking place through the platform, said Vaughan Paul, vice president of digital consumer at Optus.

“The last few months have reiterated how critical it is for us to provide multiple digital channels for our customers to reach us, with the Optus Assistant proving especially valuable in delivering immediate answers to common queries,” he said.
“Across these two million conversations we have noticed that our customers have a better experience in having their queries resolved with a combination of the Optus Assistant and our Optus Agents, rather than Agents alone.”

With over 4.8 million customers using the My Optus App, the chatbot has proven to be a vital tool in customers’ interactions with us, providing resolutions to some basic queries in as fast as 30 seconds, said Vaughan.

Optus’ virtual agent uses Google Cloud’s natural language understanding platform, Dialogflow. The end-to-end, build-once deploy-everywhere development suite is powered by Google machine learning. Featuring built-in analytics and advanced sentiment analysis capabilities, it enables the Optus Assistant to better recognise and respond to user intents and improve the customer experience.

Mark Baylis, vice president customer care at Optus told CIO Tech Asia, when making decisions about our call centres, it has two priorities:

  • Ensuring the best service possible
  • Keeping staff are safe.

“We have learnt a lot in 2020, and we are in a much better position to deal with today’s lockdowns than the lockdowns that occurred in late March,” he said. For our overseas call centres, we now have adopted a new ‘micro-centre’ approach in both India and the Philippines.”

According to Baylis where it had previously had only a few larger centres, it now has more than 20.

“These micro-centres are located closer to where our overseas staff live, that means lower risk of exposure,” he said. It also means we can provide better social distancing and a more COVID-safe environment.”

Baylis said Optus has also redistributed skillsets among all our centre locations.

“For instance, instead of only have our most technical experts located in the same call centre, we now have these experts across our Australian, Philippines and Indian locations,” he said. “Virtual teaming and tech allow our experts to provide support to one another, even if they aren’t physically together.”

With these virtual call centres comes the need to be “vigilant about the security” of customers’ personal information, which is only accessible from secure locations, said Baylis.

“We are also seeing a trend in more customers seeking support through digital channels like messaging and our My Optus App, so we have ensured more of our experts are trained on these platforms,” he said.

Remote call centres

In Singapore the Ministry of Education (MoE) had two problems with its call centres. There was a surge of calls due to from parents and other stakeholders since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic. A rough summary of the nature of calls handled by MOE CC over the past few months:

  • Jan – March: Parents asked about the precautionary measures undertaken by schools to ensure the safety and well-being of their children, e.g. seeking clarifications on travel declarations, Leave Of Absence, mask-wearing guidelines etc.
  • Late March: Tuition / enrichment centres had to suspend their operations. Call enquiries surged from these centres as well as from parents, seeking clarifications on the advisory and alternatives.
  • Early April: When full home-based learning (HBL) was announced, there was another surge of calls from parents asking about the scope of HBL, alternative childcare arrangements, definition of ‘essential services’ etc.

However, all call centre staff were in lockdown and at home. MoE had to enable its staff to be able to answer calls and serve public customers from home, as this would mean reducing the risk of Covid-19 exposure.

This meant staff needed to be able to remotely access MOE’s Call and IT systems from home.

“We had never done this, because we met with all sorts of challenges in all our previous tests! We were very uncertain how this could work,” wrote the WFH Transformation team.

“We knew it would tax the existing VPN network with both voice and data traffic and were unsure if our officers’ home networks would be stable enough to ensure undisrupted call connectivity and reasonable call audio quality.”

The main concern? We did not want to frustrate the public if we could not hear each other properly, or worse still, have calls dropped midway through a conversation.

“Given that MOE did not have the recommended QOS (Quality of Service) for our LAN/VPN network infrastructure, maintaining call audio quality was also a concern. COVID-19 was truly an unprecedented event, and no one in 2019 could have foreseen that we’d all be working from home enmasse in 2020,” it wrote.

The team could only carry out most of the system configuration work and testing for its call system after hotline operating hours, to minimise service disruption to the public.

“Our team worked round the clock, including weekends and public holidays, with daily conference calls (due to the COVID-19 situation) to meticulously resolve and track project progress which included end-to-end testing, validating results and fixing issues expeditiously and effectively through close collaboration,” the WFH Transformation team wrote.

COVID pushes resilience

Siow Meng Soh senior technology analyst at GlobalData said Covid-19 crisis revealed the need for contact centre solutions to be more resilient, scalable, and easy to setup.

“As things become unpredictable, businesses want the flexibility to scale their operations,” he said. “Cloud-native solutions come with the obvious benefits such as rapid deployment, consumption-based pricing model (based on usage rather than capacity or number of agents) and the ability to scale to meet unpredictable demand. These are crucial attributes in light of the Covid-19 situation.”






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