The Death of the Call Center and The Future of Customer Service

Customer service requests have skyrocketed since late February. So let’s talk about solutions to the shortcomings of the traditional call center.

By Lauren Cuthbert

Jun 25, 2020

6 min

Dialing in to a customer call center is not exactly anyone's idea of fun. From endless loops of menus and pressing 3, to agents who resist a customer's attempts to cancel a service or get help with a product, call centers are not exactly known for their ease of use.

The dynamics of call center interactions have gone viral, thanks to the "unintentional comedy," according to Salon, that "so easily develops when two strangers, one following procedures mandated by a faceless corporation, and another who is short on patience, are pitted against another." And it's true: call centers usually involve two parties trying to reach a satisfactory outcome in an environment that isn't optimized for anyone's happiness and is governed by rules out of both participants' control — and on top of everything, they're insanely expensive to operate.

But in the Covid-19 era, call center comedy exited stage left. There's simply nothing funny about the fact that greatly expanded volumes of consumers are reaching out to brands with questions through channels that are in no way equipped to field inquiries on such a scale. Now, reaching a real live human after sitting on hold for hours — possibly on the heels of placing multiple fruitless calls before that — is more likely to result in sobs of relief than of laughter. As the Washington Post wrote, "The pandemic [caused] a perfect storm of customer service issues, with companies and government agencies struggling to keep up while keeping their employees safe, and customers struggling to keep their cool."

Customer service requests skyrocketed after February 2020 as people scrambled to defer bill payments, recover the cost of canceled travel, access unemployment benefits, explore grocery and food delivery options, and determine the health of investments. Per a report from Zendesk, support requests grew at least 133% for grocers, 85% for remote work and learning companies, 33% for food delivery between February and May 2020, and "[businesses] of all types experienced surging ticket volumes… with a 24 percent increase in the average weekly requests handled by global support teams this week compared to last year" — pushing the system to the breaking point.

"Breaking point" is honestly not overstating the situation: This increase in support requests has led to a rise in reported hold times (34% and climbing) and call escalations (68%), hampering customer service and creating an expensive problem. Frustrated with these long call wait times, consumers are increasingly turning to brands' websites and customer support channels, like search, FAQs, and live chat, for answers, and this trend has continued into "post" pandemic life — but not all businesses are ready. (We'll get to that later.)

"Call centers are sometimes technological holdouts, with many still reliant on traditional on-premises, business-telephone systems, rather than portable, cloud-based services," explains the Wall Street Journal. In short, "America's biggest companies are racing to overhaul customer-service operations."

As Donna Fluss, president of the contact center market research firm DMG Consulting LLC told Vox, "'The Covid-19 crisis presents a set of challenges that almost no company was prepared for. When there's a natural disaster, companies typically shift their operations to an overseas outsourcer or a site in another region of the US.'" That, of course, isn't an option during a global pandemic. And even as restrictions lighten, and workers return to offices, customer call centers must accommodate the need for potentially extensive and expensive workplace reconfigurations.

All this is in the face of sinking sales and budget belt-tightening for many of the companies being inundated with calls. The pressure on call centers has never been higher — and it's showing the structural and strategic flaws that have always existed in their functionality as a front of customer service.

The death of the call center means the rise of better support search.

So let's talk about the modern solutions to the shortcomings of the traditional customer service call center. It makes sense that many companies (and not just scrappy young startups) are rethinking the efficacy and sustainability of the call center at this moment. Not only are call centers overwhelmed, but countless businesses are facing a revenue downturn as a result of the pandemic — and the average cost of a support call holds steady at nearly $5.

According to CNBC, "More companies are adopting digital communication software as the coronavirus pandemic puts more pressure on call center operations around the world." That view comes courtesy of Rob Locascio, CEO of LivePerson, an AI software company specializing in conversational commerce, who told Mad Money host Jim Cramer that COVID-19 will lead to "the death of the call center," an outcome his company anticipates within a decade.

Whether or not that prediction comes true remains to be seen, but there's no denying that elevating the availability and quality of online self-service fills a badly needed customer service hole. As an MIT Technology Review headline noted, "The pandemic is emptying call centers. AI chatbots are swooping in." People have more questions than ever before, and they're already looking for answers on businesses' websites. Businesses need to be ready to respond.

Since February, website visits from consumers seeking information about businesses have increased by an average of 65%, and by as much as 376% in some industries, according to the Zendesk report. In some cases, the volume of traffic to self-service sources like help centers and site FAQs actually outpaced growth in customer support requests during this period. Our research shows more of the same: Yext Answers customers saw an 88% growth in questions/searches from February 2020 to April 2020, reflecting the surge in online questions being asked by consumers across search engines as well as brand websites.

Not being able to provide online customer support easily and accurately can be a deal-breaker: 68% of people say they would not return to a site that provided a poor search experience. What's more, 62% of consumers will switch to a different brand or decide not to purchase from the brand after a bad customer experience. When revenue is uncertain and budgets come under the ax, the smartest thing you can do for your brand is to offer an exceptional customer experience via an agile, responsive, scalable, and low-lift self-serve solution — like, ahem, Support Answers.

Expensive services like call centers have their place, and they may not disappear entirely — at least, not as long as the human desire to speak to a live person still exists — but the customer service future will be about serving customers through online offerings that deliver immediate answers andlower support costs.

That makes now the perfect time for your brand to invest in cost-saving tools that help customers find the answers they need online — no dialing in to a call center required.

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