In a rapidly moving scenario, financial institution leaders are having to confront the reality or strong possibility of significant disruptions to in-person operations, due to the rapid escalation of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Several states imposed strict “stay-at-home” rules for all residents in March, and other states and cities are considering doing the same. The rules in California and New York exempt financial institutions and other essential businesses, yet out of concern for the health of their employees, and customers, many banks and credit unions have encouraged most staff to work from home. Such moves complicate the need to provide necessary service and information to customers, in which contact centers (or call centers) play a vital role.
“With social distancing used more and more to limit infections, call centers could potentially be severely understaffed or even closed.”
— Forrester Research
“With social distancing used more and more to limit infections, call centers could potentially be severely understaffed or even closed in the near future,” states Forrester Research.
The impact of COVID-19 on financial institutions goes far beyond contact centers, of course. However, in this article we focus on that function specifically because of its role in maintaining personal contact with customers if branches are closed — as hundreds already have been, fully or partially — and, equally important, as large numbers of people simply won’t travel to any public place.
A survey of 1,000 consumers by Lightico found that 82% are concerned about visiting their local branch.
Importance of Contact Centers During the Crisis
Much has been said about how the coronavirus pandemic puts the spotlight on digital banking options. This is undeniable, but also true is that contact centers are very much a part of the digital picture, not a relic of banking’s legacy past.
There are two main reasons: First, in times of stress people crave the ability to speak with fellow humans who are helpful and empathetic. And second, contact centers handle a great deal of non-voice communications. This varies by institution but often includes live web chat, SMS messaging, email and, in some cases, conversational AI (e.g., chatbots).
Ian Jacobs, Principal Analyst with Forrester Research and an expert on contact center operations and issues, spoke with The Financial Brand about the increased importance of contact centers during the pandemic.
“The contact center is critical now because of the high emotional state people are in.”
— Ian Jacobs, Forrester Research
“The contact center is critical now because of the high emotional state people are in,” says Jacobs. “It’s such a high stress time. People’s health and wealth are at risk.”
Financial institutions need to ramp up their ability to handle inbound calls and be able to respond with empathy, the analyst continues, even if they’re just FAQ-type questions. That will go a long way to building a long-lasting relationship that will extend well beyond this emergency, he states.
There are several things banks and credit unions need to do to achieve this, Jacobs believes.
First, there is an immediate need for specific training for existing staff. This involves not only how to handle upset customers, but self-care as well. The emotional well-being of contact center staff needs to be considered, Jacobs states, because this kind of work is not what many of them signed up for.
Second, the institution will need to hire people with specific skills for dealing with troubled consumers.
Third, there is a need for contact center technology to change. This is covered in more detail, below.
Home-Based Call Centers?
Most business continuity plans involve relocating workers to a separate location. But relocating an institution’s workers to their own homes for an unknown duration was never envisioned.
Yet that reality is what many financial institutions are grappling with. One large retail financial institution Forrester is working with has already begun sending its contact center agents to work from home.
There are two issues here, according to Jacobs:
One is the security and privacy concerns over the fact that sensitive financial information is going into employee homes where the usual security features of a contact center don’t exist. The analyst states that the response of the one institution he’s working with is, “We just have to get over it, and trust in the training we’ve already done because we need people to work from home.” Often, the most sensitive data is already redacted, Jacobs notes.
The second challenge is the technology. If an institution is operating its contact center in the cloud, however, this shouldn’t be a big issue. “Modern, web-based agent desktops mean that representatives with a laptop and internet connection can log in and start handling calls from virtually anywhere,” states Ryan Brogan, Director, Cornerstone Advisors, in a blog.
“Banks and credit unions pre-CV crisis had already rapidly begun converting from on-premise to cloud-based contact center technology,” Brogan says. The cloud has become far more secure with the growth of public cloud providers like Amazon Web Services and Microsoft Azure and contact center technology has been unbundled from traditional telephony suppliers. A group of new cloud-based contact center tech vendors has set their sites on financial institutions, Brogan adds. “The result is that at least a half dozen new options are now on the table for banks and credit unions.”
For banks and credit unions that use a premises-based contact center platform, however, the transition is a little more difficult, but still doable, according to Jacobs. Providers of contact center platforms are working nonstop to accommodate this need, he states.
Outsource Option Adds Resiliency
Contact center outsourcers may also be in a good spot, experts believe. Many specialize in handling seasonal volume surges. While the coronavirus situation is far more complex, the use of properly trained gig workers by some of the bigger outsourcers could be helpful in dealing with the high volume of crisis calls and other communications.
The contact centers operated by the big U.S. banks already are a mix of in-house and outsourced operations, Jacobs reports. These institutions like to keep some interactions close to hand either for security reasons or because they involve high-value customers. But a lot is sent to outsourcers, many of which are based in rural areas of the U.S., and so are less likely to be hit by a coronavirus lockdown.
It’s still early in an unusual situation, but the indications are that there is increased interest in outsourcing for contact center resiliency, says Jacobs. If a financial institution has made arrangements so that the work can be ported to multiple locations, then resiliency is improved. But not all institutions have designed their outsourcing program with that in mind, he adds.
Chatbots to the Rescue? Maybe
Interest in conversational AI — chatbots and digital assistants — has been growing for several years, spurred in part by the success of Bank of America’s virtual assistant Erica and Capital One’s Eno, but the coronavirus pandemic may result in a more rapid ramp-up of the technology. Outsourcers also have this capability so it may not have to be an in-house effort.
According to Forrester, about 80% of the incoming customer queries for the largest retail banks (not including self-service on a mobile app) are still voice-based. The idea is to have many of them handled by a chatbot, at least initially. Chatbots can be “trained” to handle common crisis questions such as “Are you branches still open?,” which is not much different from “Where is your nearest branch?”
However, in the COVID-19 crisis environment the questions are much more complex, such as “Can I get coronavirus from cash or from an ATM touchscreen?” Or “What cleaning regimen do you have in your branches?” Or “Can I put my mortgage payment on hold?”
Training chatbots to handle those type of questions would take time, according to Jacobs. A few institutions are considering doing that to get as much information out as possible, in an effort prevent customers from facing a 90-minute wait to speak with an agent.
The analyst cautions that using chatbots for coronavirus responses “is a different world altogether” from the usual applications, which only a handful of larger institutions have mastered. One of his Forrester colleagues, Karine Cardona-Smits, observes in a paper: “When an automated system fails to solve customers’ problems, it leaves them frustrated and angry. In those situations, customers see them simply as obstacles to reaching human agents, which damages the company’s reputation.”