This year reminds me of one of those Magic Eight Ball toys. Do you remember those? You would ask it a question and then shake the plastic ball until a written saying floated to the surface. The Magic Eight Ball answer that comes to mind regarding fall 2020 trends is, “Cannot predict now.” Unpredictability is the new normal.

With that in mind, here are some possibilities to consider this autumn.

Contact Center Volume in 2020

There may be sudden changes in contact volume. Covid-19, California wildfires, Florida hurricanes, or some other issue may cause a dramatic rise in customer inquiries. How will you handle the potential increased volume?

Not only can natural disasters and mass illness create extra contact volume, but they can also create situations that affect your staff. Agents might not be able to come into the office because it is flooded. They might not be able to work from home because their electricity or internet are down due to storms. Or, they have been forced to evacuate due to wildfires. They may be ill or need to care for an ill family member.

To handle higher than normal contact volume or a shortage of staff, some contact centers have part-time staff that can increase their hours to cope with extra volume. Other companies have contracts with outsourced contact centers to handle the overflow. If they have multiple sites, some companies shift contact volume across different parts of the country.

On the other hand, contact volume could also decrease in some industries, as customers reduce spending due to the economy. So, that also requires contingency planning. Brainstorm possibilities. If this year has proven anything, it is that the least expected thing can happen.

Planning for Contact Center Disruption

Technology can also help with increased volume or decreased staffing. Develop a plan so you can quickly update your IVR system, chatbots, website, and mobility (smartphone) apps to reflect sudden, common inquiries.

Last March, for example, banks updated their websites to answer questions regarding mortgage deferment requests. The more answers you can provide through self-service, the more you can reduce agent contact volume. Have a protocol in place with your marketing and IT teams so you can quickly add customer service updates to your queue messages, website, and mobility apps.

Staff disruptions due to school closures are another possible challenge this fall. Do you have technology and processes so employees with school-aged children can work from home (WFH)? The coronavirus forced many contact centers to shift agents into WFH mode. Keep those plans in case you need it again.

On the other hand, some contact centers may start asking Agents who have been temporarily working from home to move back onsite. Some people cannot wait to come back to the office. They may have loud neighbors, a lack of desk space, or challenging family members. Other people miss friends at work or hate feeling isolated at home.

Those office employees need a safe working environment. Providing this safety means following local health guidelines to create the safest possible situation for your team, especially with the coronavirus still prevalent and with cold and flu season starting this fall. Work with your Human Resources, Health and Safety, Facilities, Legal and IT departments to safeguard your team.

WFH Coaching- A Must for Contact Centers

Even with that support, some agents may refuse to return to the office due to Covid-19 concerns. They may be in a high-risk group, have vulnerable family members or feel anxious about the possibility of being exposed to a virus. Develop a contingency plan. Determine if you can allow part of your team to continue working from home. Some contact centers function well as a hybrid operation, with both onsite and WFH teams. If you do require all agents back onsite and cannot accommodate WFH exceptions, consult with your human resources and legal departments to determine the best course of action.

If you remain a hybrid (onsite and WFH) team or are fully WFH, build up your virtual management processes. Most contact centers stopped doing coaching when Covid-19 hit. They needed everyone helping customers. So, coaching got canceled. Before you restart coaching, train team leaders and quality assurance reps on how to coach via videoconferencing. They should look directly at the webcam to create “eye contact” with their agent. Another tip is to eliminate background distractions such as email and instant messaging. So, they can focus on their agent, as if the two of them were in a separate coaching room away from their desks.

Delivering virtual coaching is more exhausting than face-to-face coaching. It takes extra concentration and energy to read two-dimensional visual cues such as facial expressions on a computer screen. So, team leaders and QA coaches should schedule gaps between coaching sessions rather than doing back-to-back sessions.

A more challenging situation is delivering performance management conversations via videoconferencing. Normally, you could meet with an employee in a private breakout room at the office. So, an agent’s peers would not overhear the conversation. However, if an agent is working from home, their family members or roommates might overhear the discussion. Even using a headset, your agent can be afraid to speak because their children can overhear it. You may need an agent to move to a private part of their home for your call or possibly come into the office for a sensitive meeting. Consult with your human resources team to determine the best way to handle the situation according to company guidelines.

Another challenge this fall is how to handle holiday workplace gatherings. Plans to hold a holiday dinner with your entire department might be disrupted by the coronavirus. Although not ideal, you could hold a virtual dinner by leveraging videoconferencing and meal delivery services. Depending upon the food you order, using a restaurant delivery service to send food to each Agents’ homes can be comparable to the price charged per person at many banquet halls. Then, you can use videoconferencing to deliver any banquet speeches, announce year-end prizes, and thank your team for a job well done.

Consider these ideas as you plan for the fall season. Be sure to brainstorm additional ideas with your team, as well. If 2020 has proven anything, it is that the unpredictable can happen!