Last updated: Contact centers during crisis: An action plan from experts

Contact centers during crisis: An action plan from experts


Crises aren’t anything new in business, but as we’ve moved to a more empathetic and customer-centric way of life, important questions are brought to life in the current business landscape:

What are the guideposts contact center pros should follow in leading their organizations through times of intense difficulty?

Because Coronavirus, the pandemic also known as COVID-19, has thrust organizations of all sizes into crisis operations mode, CX leaders everywhere are now completely in the thick of that crisis—contact center leaders, especially.

I sat down to compare notes on the subject with long-time colleague, Rosetta Lue, Principal Consultant at GovCX, LLP. Rosetta and I have both served in leadership roles where part of the job was helping our respective organizations—and customers—through times of crisis.

Rosetta is the former Chief Customer Officer for the City of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. She also served as a senior executive for the United States Department of Veterans Affairs, where she oversaw the modernization of more than 1,800 contact centers.

If anyone has been “in the trenches,” so to speak, and has practical wisdom to share that can help professionals make sure they’re facing the right direction, strategically, it’s Rosetta. Here are five big takeaways from our conversation to start thinking about today.

Coronavirus Crisis: 5 CX Lessons for Contact Center Leaders

  1. Planning is everything.

“As a leader, you can’t plan for a crisis when you’re in a crisis,” says Rosetta.

“When you see people on television leading constituents and customers through situations like COVID-19, 9/11, hurricanes, and volcanoes, and they look like they know what they’re doing, that’s because they’ve been through actual events, or a simulation, on multiple occasions. So, what I have learned is you have to prepare, prepare, and prepare again.”

Tactically, planning gives you the chance to automate processes within your contact center that will help communicate important information to customers. You may need to communicate expectations to the organization, train people, work with unions, build scripts for agents, update knowledge bases, and pull in your human resources team to arrange for catastrophe pay for employees who will be required to work and help customers through an emergency.

  1. Remember to take care of  employees.

More than anything, taking care of customers during a crisis or emergency requires leaders to remain mindful of their employees—particularly those working on the front lines, like in the customer contact center.

While serving as the Chief Customer Officer for the City of Philadelphia, Rosetta had responsibility for a contact center that typically received 5,000 calls per day, but during a snowstorm emergency, calls increased to 25,000 per day since customers were calling about school closings, snow removal routes, and missed trash collections, for example.

“You have to make sure employees don’t burn out due to the heavy workload and mandatory overtime,” Rosetta says. “Besides the workload, you have to understand employees are dealing with the same issues customers are—knowing how they’re going to get to work, to the grocery store, or who will take care of their kids because daycares and schools are usually closed. Their lives are disrupted just as much as the customers they’re trying to take care of.”

This is where data and planning can help. Use data to understand the demographics and lives of employees. Understand who might have conflicts or family dynamics that might not allow for the flexibility to cover a second shift. Then, plan accordingly, drawing in third party vendors if needed, to help you take care of customers during a surge.

  1. Refocus the attention you usually place on KPIs.

During the normal course of business, you need data to understand customers’ experiences with your organization. But during the height of a crisis, you’re dealing with an exponential increase in customer support activities like customer calls, e-mails, and chats.

You’ll never achieve your typical Key Performance Indicators (KPIs). Put those aside for now, Rosetta says.

  1. Don’t skimp on a follow-up review.

The only way you’re going to be prepared for the next disaster is by doing a thorough, honest review when the dust settles. Include all the organizational departments that played a role in serving customers during the most recent crisis.

“For example, during a postmortem review was when we decided we had to plan for hotel accommodations for contact center employees during prolonged snow emergencies,” Rosetta explains.

  1. Leaders need to understand their role.

“In a crisis, leadership’s job is to take the stress away from employees,” Rosetta says.

In one of her past lives, that meant making sure 100+ contact center employees had food to eat—especially snacks and beverages—and a place to sleep during prolonged events while many were working double shifts.

It also meant finding ways to get employees to and from work safely when they were unable to drive or take public transportation due to snow-covered roads. Leaders may also need to get into the weeds and do things like make sure information on digital platforms matches information in agents’ knowledge bases so consistent information goes out to customers.

It’s also leadership’s job to keep cool.

“There’s nothing worse than a leader running around like a chicken with their head cut off in the chaos,” Rosetta says. “You have to walk the talk. You have to be confident. Show customers and employees you’re there for them. This, too, shall pass.”

Johns Hopkins has created a comprehensive dashboard to track global cases of coronavirus COVID-19. View the dashboard HERE.

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