2020 began with chatbots threatening to take an ever-higher percentage of customer contacts. Then, the coronavirus pandemic occurred, and overall call volumes increased dramatically for most contact centers. Chatbots and coronavirus combined to make the human element even more important from a customer experience perspective.

How so? First, with automation taking away "easy" customer service interactions, Agents need to deal with the remaining issues. Most of these situations are complex. They require a higher skill level to solve. Agents need tremendous problem-solving ability, excellent communication skills and a well-developed sense of emotional intelligence to handle those challenges.

Customers were also upset about the coronavirus’s health and economic impacts. Many people felt shocked, scared, or angry. Besides the need to delay a payment, cancel a subscription or book a home delivery order, they also needed to emotionally connect with other human beings. They wanted to be noticed and acknowledged. Not just as an account number. But, as a person.

Did your contact center have an increase in Average Handle Time (AHT) over the past two months? Most did. That was due to customers wanting to talk longer with Agents who seemed empathetic. With many people isolated at home, a customer service call was their only chance to speak to another human being outside their home. One of my contact center clients, who deals mostly with seniors, noticed a huge uptick in AHT. That is because customers did not just talk about the company’s products. They also talked about their lives and current events. Showing empathy and making that kind of, “small talk” requires emotional intelligence. It is something a chatbot, with its transactional focus, does not.

Chatbots are good for routine transactions. However, the coronavirus pandemic created fast-moving scenarios, such as homeowner mortgage deferments, that were complex and yet had to be done quickly. That meant live Agents had to talk customers through the process, explain policies, and negotiate an outcome. That type of nuance is hard for computer programs. It places a premium on human flexibility and emotional intelligence. Chatbots may be programmed in the future to help with that task. However, real people will be needed to help customers with the complexity and emotional intensity of making a major financial decision, such as coronavirus induced mortgage deferment.

That is just one example. The next year of customer experience will be turbulent due to the impact of coronavirus. There may be more phases where businesses are forced to close temporarily due to local health issues. So, contact centers need to stay flexible. It can be challenging to program a chatbot for all those variables. In comparison, your Agents should be able to adapt quickly and help explain new policies.

Customer retention is also increasing in importance. Coronavirus’s economic impact has caused people to cut back on their spending. Your Agents may have already established relationships and built goodwill with certain customers. So, they can help minimize customer losses or at least encourage customers to buy from you again when times get better. A well-trained retention Agent can also help customers identify ways to save money, by switching to a lower-priced product or service. Or even showing customers how staying on their current plan might be cost-efficient in the long run. Train your Agents on proper retention skills. Work with your marketing team to develop retention scenarios and offers to reduce customer turnover. If appropriate, invite customers to contact you regarding ways to reduce their bill. It may be better to have customers call you to negotiate, rather than lose them entirely when they call to cancel.

While customer retention is crucial, it is also important to retain your best Agents. Take care of them so they can take care of your customers. As Sir Richard Branson said, “The way you treat your employees is the way they will treat your customers.” Set the right example by treating your Agents well. Give them a safe working environment, proper equipment, training, and support. Celebrate them by sharing positive customer satisfaction survey (CSAT) results and Agent success stories! Let them know how they make a difference. Praise their flexibility if they quickly adapted to working from home. Or if they continued coming to the office, thank them for their dedication.

Chatbots and other forms of contact center automation are wonderful tools. They can be used to handle basic inquires and transactions. They can be more efficient and cost-effective for straightforward issues. However, customers still want to talk to a real person when they are confused, frightened, or angry. Complex and/or emotionally charged customer situations place a premium on empathetic human to human contact. The kind of contact that can deliver great service, build customer loyalty, and increase customer retention. That makes the human element more important than ever for great customer service.