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Articles - Telemarketing - June 21, 2020

COVID-19 and the Contact Center: Horror, Heartache, Humanity and Hope

Has anyone besides me noticed how many contact center industry work-from-home (WFH) experts there suddenly are? I thought there was only one, really. That would be Michele Rowan and I wrote about her in my April column (“On-Trend: At-Home Agents”). The timing of that column was totally serendipitous. We had no idea when we were writing the column that, by the time it would be published, we’d all be working from home due to the coronavirus pandemic.

But judging from my email inbox and the number of webinar invitations I receive daily, the number of WFH experts in the industry seems to have grown exponentially in a period of about three weeks. As contact centers scramble to comply with safety directives from the Center for Disease Control (CDC), plenty of other companies are aiming to cash in on it. It’s a shame these experts didn’t do a better job of positioning themselves and their services prior to the COVID-19 pandemic. After all, it’s not like we didn’t know this thing was coming.

In a 2015 TED Talk, Microsoft Co-founder Bill Gates warned that a pandemic was inevitable. He talked about the lessons learned from West Africa’s 2014 Ebola virus crisis and said in no uncertain terms that the U.S. and other countries were not ready for the future pandemic that would hit them. Gates warned that the U.S. had invested very little in a system that would stop an epidemic and was not ready to confront a pandemic. Darned if he wasn’t right.

The same criticism could be applied to the contact center. Technology and solutions that would have allowed the contact center industry to quickly respond and adapt to the current pandemic have been available for years. But many contact center decision-makers have been dragging their heels when it comes to adopting these solutions. Instead of having to scramble to find solutions when state and local governments started shutting down businesses in accordance with CDC guidelines, contact centers could have made a smooth and speedy transition to a WFH model in a matter of hours. But that wouldn’t have made good fodder for the press.

Within hours of the first signs that the COVID-19 situation was getting serious in mid-March, I started getting calls from journalists who wanted to write about how dangerous it had become to work in a contact center. It was a point I couldn’t really argue. Given the close working quarters in most contact centers, shared workspaces and sometimes shared equipment, it seems the contact center embodied the ideal environment for spreading the coronavirus among workers.

The first media call I received was from the Maine Sun Journalnewspaper. Once that article was published, it apparently made the media rounds because I started getting calls from trade magazines like American Banker, and other newspaper reporters who had seen the Sun Journal and wanted to pursue their own angle on the COVID contact center story. I also got calls from television stations that were reporting on the story. Interestingly, most of the calls came from media outlets in smaller metropolitan areas around the country, but that makes perfect sense given the fact that most contact centers are located in areas that offer a relatively lower cost of living. So, I didn’t make the CBS Evening News, but I did make the news on WJHL TV in Johnson City, Tenn.

The concerns raised by the media were also validated by unexpected calls and emails I received from people working in contact centers who were scared for their safety and didn’t know what to do or who to turn to. One in particular that stands out in my mind was an email from an agent at a call center in Colorado. This person wrote that she was 65 years old, asthmatic and working in a job making $12.25 an hour because she needed to supplement her social security and the job provided, ironically, health benefits. She said they were still working practically elbow-to-elbow and she feared for her health. Her manager said extra cleaning was being undertaken on the shared workstations in order to prevent the spread of the coronavirus. Other than that, she said nothing else was done with the exception of periodic broadcasts of recorded video messages from the CEO that were basically all rainbows and unicorns.

She had seen my name quoted in other articles and contacted me for help. I replied to her email twice and had both my replies returned to me as undeliverable. So, I called her and two days later we finally connected. She told me that she had walked into her supervisor’s office at 8 p.m. the previous evening, put her headset on his desk and walked out. She decided to take her chances with unemployment rather than continuing to work under what she considered to be dangerous working conditions.

But it hasn’t all been doom-and-gloom stories for the past month. One curious story came to me by way of The Wall Street Journal reporter Aaron Zitner. He called to tell me that he had heard from a couple of sources that their contact center agents were having a hard time getting callers to hang up at the end of a call. They wanted to keep on talking. And this wasn’t just happening to agents at incoming customer service centers, it was also happening to agents in outbound sales and collection contact centers. Agents previously challenged to get people to just pick up the phone now can’t seem to get them off the phone.

My first instinct was to…

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