Call centers have never been more important — or more strapped

The Nevada unemployment agency was about to shut down, and Shanay, a 26-year-old Las Vegas resident, had been on hold for nearly 11 hours.

More than five weeks earlier, she was fired as an administrative assistant at one of the city’s top resorts and casinos. Her mother and stepfather – a room attendant and an employee of a flower company that mainly serves hotels and conference centers – also lost their jobs when the Vegas strip went dark.

While all three claims served immediately afterwards and even waited in line in the UPS store to fax (yes, fax) asked for pay slips, it soon became clear that they had to get someone on the phone to get their applications out of pending status.

Shanay knew hers was not the only household in Las Vegas to see her income practically disappear overnight, in response to the coronavirus pandemic – a third of the city’s workforce works in leisure and hospitality – but she didn’t expect calling unemployment would become her family’s new part-time job.

Every weekday they woke up and got their phones ready to call at 8am to hear after 200 or 300 phone calls that the queue was full. It wasn’t until April 22 that they finally connected. When an exhausted voice came up in the call center late at night, Shanay’s mother broke down in tears.

“As soon as they replied, she started crying and crying because she was so relieved,” she told Vox in late April. “It was a month without a salary. We have savings. But you know, after a while it starts to hurt. ‘

The problem millions of Americans are struggling to get overburdened unemployment offices is the same that countless people faced when trying to cancel plane tickets, delay credit card payments, and restore internet connections during the pandemic.

Just as demand has increased, the call centers dedicated to these questions have experienced their own disruptions, leading to unprecedented delays.

Many call centers have done their best to send thousands of customer service representatives home for the first time, a process full of logistics and technical hurdles. Others have continued to tell employees to come to the office – what they can do since call centers have been designated as an essential service – but at reduced numbers. A grows number have seen workers get sick with Covid-19.

The Covid-19 crisis presents a series of challenges that almost no company was prepared for, said Donna Fluss, president of the contact center market research firm DMG Consulting LLC. When a natural disaster occurs, companies typically relocate their operations to a foreign outsourcer or location in another region of the US. “There is no precedent for a business continuity plan that requires people to be more than six feet apart,” she says.

Reliance on outsourcers has also proven to be a flawed strategy as strict closures have been imposed in India and the Philippines, the “call center capitals of the world. When the countries’ quarantine measures were announced in mid-March, the majority of the industry was forced to travel or Close. Even large companies saw them company cut in half overnight because tens of thousands of employees were unable to work from home, lacking essentials such as laptops, fast internet and a secure way to access sensitive customer data.

Today, capacity has risen again by about 80 percent, according to technology research firm ISG, but even achieving that has been a struggle.

“I had a call yesterday with a service provider who said, ‘I never knew what a dongle was, and I just had to order 10,000.’ So people just get the hardware and equipment they need, “said Melissa O’Brien, vice president at HFS Research, a business services consulting firm. (Dongles, for the uninitiated, are small, increasingly ubiquitous computer adapters.)

On the other side of the phone line, none of this is visible, although it may be audible as more representatives work from home alongside children and pets. Most people understand that customer service departments are inundated right now: An analysis by ListenFirst, a social media analytics company, found that while customer service tweets about supermarket delivery apps skyrocketed in March, the share of negative words or phrases actually dropped. Sentiment remained relatively stable among airlines and internet providers, even as volume increased sharply.

What has changed is that the need is now more urgent than ever – and in a crisis, most people still tend to pick up the phone.

In the early days of the pandemic, we saw “many people who went from digital channels to the voice channel very quickly, looking for certainty, guarantees and empathy, and made sure they got obligations for the business decision,” says Merijn. te Booij, chief marketing officer of Genesys, a contact center technology company.

“What people don’t realize about contact centers is that, in times of crisis, they are free psychological counseling centers,” said Fluss. “People often call and dump their fears and worries.”

A Comcast call center, pre-pandemic.
John Leyba / The Denver Post / Getty Images

According to the Department of Labor, more than 33 million people – or about one in five U.S. workers – have submitted unemployment claims in the past seven weeks. Desperate workers have posted hundreds of unanswered calls, published hours on holdand navigated archaic online systems that nod under the influx of traffic – yet not everyone was able to get through.

Leaha, a 26-year-old childcare worker in Michigan, voluntarily resigned in mid-March to reduce the risk of her getting the virus at her family’s home and almost always tried to contact the state unemployment service. since.

The agency is live chat service is offline, and none of her calls have even been put on hold, despite calling more than 100 times a day.

“I was like, ‘Am I calling at the wrong time of the day?'” She says, “but I’ve almost always tried between 8 and 6.”

The wave effects of record unemployment, escalating travel restrictions and a rapid shift to remote school and work have led to similar headaches in many industries.

In most cases, O’Brien says, the delays are coming, “not just because of the demand for contacts – people who want to contact their bank or their insurer or know when their toilet paper order comes in – but also just the fact that has caused this major disturbance [fewer] people who can call and have less time to do that. ”

Can’t you just hire these people, you know, more people?

The staggering unemployment rates certainly suggest that call centers should have little trouble finding more employees to answer phones, respond to emails, and handle chat lines – but it’s not that easy for many companies.

Often times, the companies that are overwhelmed with calls and messages are the same companies that are facing massive sales declines. Airlines, travel agencies and department stores have fired or fired millions of workers to save money during the crisis, and for them, staffing is generally not an option.

This may be why, apart from banks and insurance companies, more companies did not expand their customer service teams as the crisis escalated in the United States. According to Julia Pollak, a labor economist in the ZipRecruiter labor market, customer service vacancies fell 16 percent in the week ending April 5 compared to four weeks earlier.

The online travel company Expedia, which already cut some 3,000 jobs in February for reasons unrelated to the pandemic, is expected to cut bookings by half this year. Alexis Tiacoh, Expedia’s public relations manager, says the company has seen phone calls five to seven times higher than average, representing hundreds of thousands of calls that go beyond normal during the busiest season.

“We know that it has created challenges for everyone, and first of all we want our customers to know that we are sincerely sorry they struggled to reach us,” said Tiacoh. The company has also strengthened the self-service and virtual agent options and offers an online refund request form to free up telephone lines for more complex issues.

Many companies also had to look for more cost-effective alternatives to building an army of customer service. This is partly why your inbox has probably seen a flood of emails with subject lines like ‘Checking in with our customers’ and ‘An update from our CEO’. Companies prefer the side of over-communication if this means avoiding a backlog of individual questions.

Some have also transferred workers from other parts of the company. For example, 8×8, a cloud communications software provider, is working with a UK retailer that has recruited its sales staff to answer calls and respond to messages.

“You think of retail, those employees are no longer in the workplace to come face to face with customers,” said Janice Rapp, 8×8 vice president of product marketing. However, their skills put them first for call center appearances.

In some parts of the economy, companies are now hiring spells: the grocery delivery service Instacart has seen its business grow as a result of at-home orders in the US and Canada, with an order volume of 300 percent year over year. year early April.

In addition to adding 300,000 shoppers – the gig workers who pick and deliver orders – the company is scaling its customer service team to 18,000 by this month, starting at 1,200 in early March.

While a spokesperson expects most of these hires to remain as permanent employees to fill shorter term roles, Instacart has partnered with companies like Hertz and Hilton, which have been hit hard in recent months as trips are nearing its stop.

Unemployment offices worked with skeletal crews before the pandemic because their numbers are that tied to the unemployment rate, which was 3.5% in February, a low in 50 years. Since that figure has risen to almost 15 percent – by estimate economists the actual rate is closer to 20 percent – call centers are struggling to fulfill even a fraction of the demand.

Nevada, like most states, has pledged to scale up its capacity to answer these questions, but its efforts have not kept up with the pace of job losses. The Ministry of Employment, Training and Rehabilitation, which until recently employed only 75 people, has seen so many 90 times the usual ringer volume the past weeks.

In Florida, the state’s Department of Economic Affairs was able to answer only 2 percent of incoming calls as of mid-April, with an average wait time of over six and a half hours, a local News 6 survey found it. As of late March, the agency has spent more than $ 119 million on contracts to add thousands of call center agents and improve the technology infrastructure supporting the system. Similar efforts on our way in states such as Michigan, Pennsylvania, New York and Texas.

As much as states ramp up these systems, they still need to train new workers to navigate through them and ensure that security measures are implemented, a process that experts say typically takes about two weeks for private companies. Due to the complexity of unemployment laws and benefit programs, these months may take months to become competent according to these months a Department of Labor survey, so new recruits may have trouble responding efficiently to questions.

Why don’t all customer service employees work from home now?

Call centers are generally not well-designed environments for social distance: agents sit side by side and back to back in tight spaces, often sharing a desk between services. At the same time, their jobs are, at least in theory, ultraportable and all they need is a phone, a computer and an internet connection.

However, according to Fluss estimates, only about 5 percent of call centers before the pandemic were 100 percent working from home, while others may have had 10 percent of their agents working remotely. As a result, the pandemic has caused a huge shift for many companies, while investigations into those who still force their employees to commute to offices where they could put themselves at risk have been investigated.

“Contact centers are petri dishes,” says Fluss. “If a person has a cold, you just hope that person stays at home, and when they come in – because in many cases, if you don’t come in, you don’t get paid, right? – the whole store gets sick.”

A Times survey discovered that more than 230 employees of the telecom giant Spectrum, owned by Charter Communications, had tested positive for Covid-19 as of April 21. More than half are call center employees. In response to the outrage over the company’s working conditions during the pandemic, which allegedly included an initial policy prohibit remote work – the New York State Department said it had opened an investigation into the company.

In a statement, Charter spokesman Andrew Russell pointed out that of the company Covid-19-related paid leave policy, giving workers another three weeks off during the pandemic, and the promise to raise the starting wage to $ 20 an hour by 2022, starting with an increase of $ 1.50 an hour for customer service and field staff.

Wells Fargo has also come under fire for not setting up more remote employee options in its massive US call centers, at least of which five to have seen positive Covid-19 cases, according to news reports. While the bank said she would send “Thousands” of call center agents In mid-April at home in the Des Moines and West Des Moines offices, where two employees and a cafeteria worker tested positive for the virus, some agents in other locations said that their offices had only started transferring agents to remote for the past two weeks. to work.

An agent, AJ, who works at the bank’s location in Roanoke, Virginia, says he has been home since late March because he has a high risk of the disease, but was unable to get an answer from his supervisor about preparing to work on away for more than a month, nor were his colleagues in similar situations. While Wells Fargo continued to pay him his full wages during that time, he said he would have preferred to use it to help customers – especially now that he is back at work, the telephone lines are flooded with hundreds of calls waiting to be queued.

Hilary O’Byrne, a spokesperson for Wells Fargo, said in April that the bank was adding more remote working opportunities: “We will continue to do everything we can to expand our ability to work from home, and we are in the process of equipping some contact center staff with the technology necessary to perform their work from home while still meeting customer and regulator obligations.

Financial institutions, health insurers, and other companies that handle sensitive customer data will undoubtedly face more barriers to switching to getting their customer service departments out of the office, experts say, but the fact that so many have done it since the pandemic began proof that it is possible.

Toronto-Dominion Bank has moved almost everything 9,500 call center employees in the United States and Canada to work from home last month to meet social distance guidelines. Among Spectrum’s competitors, Verizon Communications Inc. in late March, nearly 17,000 agents worked remotely, while Comcast’s chief technologist Tony Werner said on a call from March 30 the company targeted 90% home work among its call center employees.

These transitions don’t always go smoothly: at home, agents may have spotty internet or distracting background noise, supervisors need to figure out how to provide ongoing training, and companies need to make sure they stay on the right side of privacy regulations, but for the most part, the adjustment no different than what people in most industries have faced.

An Oklahoma technical support employee, whose cable internet call center moved nearly all of his employees home in early April, says she is considering going full-time remotely. With the rest of the country trying to remotely manage telecommuting and education, the call volume is so high that she works in 12- or 13-hour shifts with little downtime between calls.

The company tends to be strict in ensuring that agents have a quiet room to work in, she says, but during the pandemic, it relaxed the rules. “Now we have discussion points to say, ‘You know, with everything going on, we had to work from home. Sorry about this.’ But [most customers] don’t expect it to be 100 percent quiet right now, because they know we’re all in this together. We all experience the same thing. “

Sign up for The Goods newsletter. Twice a week we send you the best goods stories exploring what we buy, why we buy it and why it matters.