How Contact Centers Optimize Efficiency in a Hybrid Work World

Sep 09, 2021By Subspace Team

History is dominated by humankind's search for ever-greater technological efficiency. Hannibal’s war elephants were the tanks of ancient Carthage, but elephant technology never caught on because it proved too inefficient over long, difficult distances.

For a few centuries, naval power was determined by the height and strength of a nation’s trees—and thus its masts. Better masts succeeded because they proved more energy-efficient than preceding approaches;

Strange as it may seem, these same principles apply to modern contact centers. Efficiency is everything, especially in a world in which the trend toward decentralized workforces suddenly jumped from experimentation to a pandemic-fueled mandate. Harnessing leaps in efficiency has created survivors and victors for ages, and will again in the future.

Decades of Communication Evolution

This concept of escalating efficiency has played out in the history of call centers ever since the 19th century. The first switchboards arrived within two years of the telephone’s invention. In small towns, it was common for switchboards to be installed within the operator’s home for quick 24/7 access, proving once again that even if history doesn’t repeat exactly, today’s work-from-home contact center workforce certainly rhymes with the past.

Automation almost inevitably yields tremendous efficiency scaling. From the 1960s to 1980s, evolutions in switching automation increasingly removed the customer handling burden from operators. In the 1990s, the rise of IP technology and Internet services set the stage for much more significant efficiency leaps. Interactive voice response (IVR) systems created in the ’70s suddenly became cost-effective when paired with computer-telephony integration (CTI). Telephony paved the way for new capabilities from screen popping (when call center operators would have the caller’s info automatically appear on their display) to intelligent call-back solutions, which dramatically lowered abandoned call rates.

The transition from call to contact centers dawned with the expansion of customer service beyond phone support. The early 2000s witnessed the application of natural language recognition to consumer calls and the addition of email-based support channels. By the end of that decade, social media services became a primary forum for customer inquiries, alongside the rise of mobile apps and customer expectations around any time/anywhere service. Contact center platforms needed to integrate and manage all these channels as a coherent whole.

By the 2010s, expectations focused on real-time customer service. After all, people could pull a phone from their pocket and get information instantly, so why not service help? Automation helped make this possible. Chat-based representatives could live in any time zone worldwide, and increasingly intelligent chatbots could answer the most common concerns. Both cases represent higher efficiency, increasing overall customer satisfaction while lowering costs. Cheaper, faster bandwidth also enabled more video-based support options.

The icing on the support efficiency cake arrived in recent years. The expansion of affordable last-mile Internet bandwidth to homes meant that contact centers could effectively run as cloud-based services. Whether deployed on-premises, in the public cloud, or through a hybrid approach, cloud-driven contact centers offer organizations the ability to deliver in-office experiences for support groups and management, even if those employees operate as work-from-home (WFH) staff spread around the globe.

This trend turbocharged when COVID lockdowns forced all functioning contact centers to adopt a WFH model. According to Amazon, before the pandemic, “less than 10% of [contact center] staff worked from home. That is now flipped: going forward, 71% of contact centers will be remote.”

Changing Support Norms

Decentralization and WFH represent another efficiency leap for contact centers. All that expensive commercial real estate and, if appropriate, costly on-site infrastructure can now be a thing of the past. Simultaneously, support organizations have a broader, more powerful toolset for handling real-time customer needs. This includes the use of artificial intelligence (AI) to support interactions. Gartner notes that “by 2022, 70% of customer interactions will involve emerging technologies such as machine learning (ML) applications, chatbots and mobile messaging, up from 15% in 2018.” CRM provider Atento discovered this first-hand when it deployed AI to automatically transcribe support calls and use text analysis to populate post-call CRM record notes. This single step cut “after-call work by approximately 65 percent.”

A modern contact center should be ready for all customer needs, from routing to the most qualified support rep to remote desktop “co-browsing.” Avaya sums this up under the term “multi-experience” because the modern customer “expects everything.” Vonage survey data from August 2020 confirms this, showing that while mobile phone voice calls remain the most popular method for customers to communicate with service providers, they are only favored by 30% of consumers. Email, chat, and messaging account for 18%, 10%, and 10%, respectively. Notably, video chat use increased by 67% between January and August that year.

In fact, a remarkable Hubspot article identified 13 channels through which companies communicate with customers for marketing, sales, and support purposes.

Each channel has its own staff and data—what enterprise IT often thinks of as “silos.” And just as in enterprise IT systems, communication silos breed data isolation, redundancy, waste, and overall inefficiency. Does your company pool information from its phone, Twitter, and blog channels? It should, but many companies don’t.

As a result, according to the article, “frontline employees spend 10% of their time reconciling disconnected communication systems.” Not only does this time carry paid salary costs, but it also carries costs in lost opportunities and goodwill. Manual cross-channel reconciliation is laborious and likely to push customers beyond that critical 10-minute window in which they expect to have their question or issue resolved. That time window continues to shrink as real-time performance expectations become normalized across society.

The Imperative Experience

Many remain uncertain about if and how employees should return to the workplace. In general, some form of WFH or “hybrid” model seems to prevail in businesses that can accommodate it. Many contact centers that were edging toward WFH have now embraced it, especially after witnessing its positive impact on their bottom lines.

Avaya’s “Life and Work Beyond 2020” study, polled from over 10,000 people across 11 countries, found that “over 6 in 10” respondents “would be eager to carry on as they have this year.” Fifty-two percent report that they “fear returning to work full time in an office.” Similarly, 46% state that they “love” the idea of “working from anywhere in the foreseeable future.”

It’s too early to draw a causal link between this widespread sentiment and the ongoing difficulty businesses face with filling their employee vacancies, but at least some relationship seems likely. As the “new normal” solidifies, companies remain under pressure to remain attentive to employee wellbeing, motivation, and daily experience. As the Avaya study concludes,

“Organizations should ensure their workers are equipped and empowered to perform at their best irrespective of where they work from.”

One key element of providing WFH contact center staff with favorable work conditions is workflow and interface. A broad, flexible customer experience (CX) concept applies to end-users and support representatives alike. It’s part of why Avaya and others now offer contact center platforms based around modular, customizable elements, including the Avaya Spaces real-time voice/video/chat application.

Contact Center Efficiency and Performance

There is no shortage of key players in the contact center space. Along with Avaya, 8x8, Cisco, Five9, Fuze, Genesys, NICE inContact, TalkDesk, Vonage, and many others offer compelling solutions. While it’s impossible to guess which platforms and providers will lead the industry over the long term, some contributing factors seem predictable. For instance, this is a technology-driven field, so innovation will doubtless propel success. Early in 2021, Avaya reported holding over 4,400 patents in its communication-related portfolios; 600 of these are specific to contact centers.

On their own, patents don’t equate to customer value, but they do demonstrate a commitment to pushing the boundaries of a fast-growing and transforming market. Whether or not these changes deliver positive outcomes will likely depend on whether they increase efficiency. As we’ve seen, efficiency is what drives dominance.

Of course, efficiency and real-time performance are closely bound. We can tie these qualities to three underlying criteria.

Speed

Since the dawn of voice-over-IP (VoIP) in the mid-’90s, everyone has understood the need for real-time speed in network-based communications. For voice, bandwidth was a priority (insufficient bandwidth meant stalled streams). Still, latency concerns were paramount, as long latency times lead to excessive and awkward pauses between speakers and users talking over each other. These factors only magnified with the move to video-based communications. The implications for satisfactory support sessions are apparent.

Real-time performance requires an underlying real-time network, something the public Internet was never designed to provide. Subspace offers a global, edge-to-edge, real-time network and removes common last-mile performance challenges such as hairpinning and lag-inducing network hops. For contact centers that provide voice and video support, Subspace’s network acceleration technologies can mean the difference between satisfying CX and customer complaint notes.

Reliability

Network conditions can change in microseconds. Lag, jitter, and dropped packets can plague traffic, especially at the edge. Supspace’s network maintains incredible reliability through real-time monitoring, intelligent routing response, and algorithms explicitly designed to improve real-time communication, such as SIPteleport and RTPspeed.

Security

Contact centers amass substantial volumes of client data, all of which need to be protected. This need only increases as channel silos break down and data pools merge. Conventional firewalls offer some protection, but their effect is less comprehensive in a time of distributed WFH employment. Also, firewalls add network latency. Subspace’s network offers in-line DDoS mitigation, making it an inherently superior choice for security over the public Internet.

All of this is only the tip of the real-time network iceberg. Discover more about how Subspace can help accelerate your contact center’s real-time communication and propel efficiency to new heights.


Related Articles