To curb the spread of COVID-19, states across the U.S. mandated the closure of “nonessential” businesses. More than 250,000 stores have temporarily shuttered since mid-March, representing 60% of overall U.S. retail square footage, according to GlobalData Retail. Retail has been heavily affected by the pandemic, but while physical store sales have screeched to a halt, e-Commerce has been booming.
According to Forbes, there was a 129% year-over-year growth in U.S. and Canadian e-Commerce orders in April, and 146% growth in all online retail orders. Shopify, which serves as a useful proxy for e-Commerce, has experienced Black Friday-level traffic. People haven’t stopped shopping, but they have adjusted their shopping habits to the current environment and retailers have to adapt accordingly.
To stay relevant and accessible during these trying times, retailers are optimizing their digital channels to accommodate increases in traffic and to help supplement lost sales due to physical store closures. During this shift, contact centers have become critically important because customers are desperate for information and support. Contact center agents, who are responsible for directly interfacing with customers and addressing their needs, are under intense pressure.
In terms of demand, closing retail shops has put a greater load on virtual channels like calls, messaging and chat. In terms of supply, the number of agents who are dormant or working from home has reduced contact center throughput and capacity. The increased demand coupled with the limited supply makes it absolutely critical that remote contact centers are able to deliver a high-quality virtual experience.
The transition to digital contact centers was already underway before the outbreak of COVID-19, but the pandemic has accelerated the trend. While transitioning to work-from-home is the right thing to do for health and safety, it does create challenges. Creating a contact center experience that aligns with what customers have come to expect from the in-store experience is not easy.
To successfully transition to a remote contact center, retailers need to be transparent. Ideally, the shift would have no impact on the customer experience at all, but customers understand that operations have shifted, and being upfront about changes will keep their expectations at bay. For example, Hilton recently added language to their IVR and Pre-Chat alerts that informs customers that agents are working from the safety of their homes, and asks customers to be understanding of their situation in the event of background noises.
Virtual contact centers also need to adhere to the same standards of quality and compliance and deliver consistent, tailored messaging across all interactions. They need to understand what’s going well and where there’s room for improvement, and figure out how to conduct quality control and coaching in a distributed environment.
Experts From Day One
To excel on each of these fronts, retailers are embracing artificial intelligence (AI) to provide agents with real-time coaching and support at scale. Every new job has a learning curve, as does learning to work in a new environment or learning how to respond to a new set of customer needs. Ensuring agents have access to training is essential for them to do a good job, but traditional training methods are time-consuming and inefficient. Moreover, even once agents are brought up to speed, a large performance gap exists between expert and average agents.
AI has emerged as a critical technology that enables agents to perform their best without requiring a time- and resource-intensive training process. AI makes it possible to codify the psychology, behavior and language that top contact center agents use to achieve successful outcomes. This knowledge can then be redistributed to every agent in real time through suggested responses, personalized behavioral coaching and workflow automations. And because AI gets smarter over time, these tools can learn, adapt and improve to achieve the best outcomes.
Now more than ever, it is critical that organizations equip their agents with the right tools, processes and support networks to effectively deliver high-quality service to their customers. What’s ahead may still seem uncertain, but regardless of when and how retailers start to open back up, a highly productive and effective remote contact center will be a key part of helping retailers thrive now and in the future.
Zayd Enam is CEO and Co-Founder of Cresta. Enam received a BS with High Honors from UC Berkeley in Electrical Engineering and Computer Science. He completed the requirements for a PhD candidacy in the Stanford AI lab before leaving to found Cresta. Enam won 1st place at the All Pakistan Science Fair held at the Ghulam Ishaq Khan Institute of Technology, received an Asia Pacific ICT Alliance Award, and was selected to be on the Forbes 30 under 30 Enterprise Technology list.