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Did 2020 Reveal the Future of Public-Sector Contact Centers?

Now that 2021 is upon us and there is a faintly visible conclusion to the pandemic, the question remains — will public-sector contact centers revert to the models they had relied on prior to COVID-19?

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For public-sector agencies, 2020 proved to be a year that put their contact centers to the test. From handling unprecedented call volumes, leading contact tracing efforts was a big contribution in the roll out and distribution of vaccines, disseminating information for the masses with scores of questions and requests. It also required swift action by leaders within those agencies to pivot their historically centralized contact center agents to remote work.

Making this ‘adjustment,’ understatement of the year, was an enormously heavy lift in the contact center. From implementing new technology stacks that supported remote work to procuring laptops and ensuring that contact center leaders could manage, monitor and coach agents remotely, contact center leaders were juggling a considerable load to maintain continuity of operations in the contact center. These were just some of the boulders that contact center leaders were pushing up a seemingly unclimbable mountain. In the end, agency leaders and those in the contact center rose to the challenge and made the shift that allowed the proverbial lights to remain on as well as keep agents safe.

Now that 2021 is upon us and there is a faintly visible conclusion to the pandemic, the question remains — will public-sector contact centers revert to the models they had relied on prior to COVID-19? The answer is unequivocally NO. Regardless of how the adoption of new flexible models in the contact center arrived (and yes, the speed with which it was done amid the pandemic was a painful way to do it) the reality is, it’s done. Contact center leaders have made the pivot. Under great pressure, new cloud-based solutions which have long eluded public-sector agencies have been/are being deployed. Tools that allow agents to more deftly respond to incoming calls and proactively conduct outreach is transforming the public-sector contact center and closing the gap that has historically existed between citizen experience and customer experience, carefully developing and advancing in the private sector.

Let’s start with a look at the obvious. Contact center leaders have moved agents and employees to remote working environments over the last year. That tectonic shift blows up a lot of best practices when it comes to managing a contact center staff. For starters, they aren’t in the same room or building with managers anymore, and like all of us, working remotely creates a collision between personal and business life. I can’t count the number of barking dogs, meowing cats, child intrusions or even contractors and repairmen that are now routinely part of conference call and video chats. This is equally true for agents who are in the public sector. There are new variables in our new work reality and contact center managers should take these variables into consideration. Flexible schedules, easy shift swapping for agents and being able to make informed decisions on number of agents that align with ebbs and flows of call volume are a must. Leveraging technologies like Workforce Management (WFM) solutions allow contact center leaders to agilely adjust worker schedules. Coupling WFM with AI-powered automation will amplify the agility effect.

Monitoring agent performance also demands that WFM software be used. Contact center leaders are no longer able to roam the floor and check in on agent productivity. WFM solutions that deliver Quality Management Analytics, screen recording and performance management provide robust capabilities to oversee quality assurance, agent productivity and engagement for coaching. In the new reality of a scattered workforce, these capabilities are key. One key benefit that has emerged for contact center leaders in the public sector is employment and recruiting. With the limitations of the need to be in a specific building now being removed, recruiting for a remote contact center workforce expands the talent pool considerably. Consider the commute conundrum: An exceptional agent that lives 50 miles from a physical contact center location may never have either 1. been considered, or 2. considered it themselves, but an agile and remote contact center now can take advantage of talent far outside the immediate radius of the physical location. This is great news for upping the talent ‘bench’ for public-sector contact centers and another reason a return to previous “pre-pandemic” models would be a step backward.

Let’s talk about citizen experience. Most would say that today, even before COVID-19, we live and operate in an “experience economy,” where companies make significant investments into differentiating between themselves and competitors through the experience they extend to the consumer. There are lessons that public-sector agencies can learn from these private enterprises who now compete and differentiate on delivering exceptional customer experiences. In order to do that, both contact center agents and contact center managers must have the tools necessary to deliver an exceptional citizen experience. As Public Sector Industry Principal at Pegasystems, Peter Ford noted in a recent article in 2021 “giving staff sophisticated solutions such as intelligent automation allows them to do their jobs more efficiently and cope with peaks in demand for public sector services.” In other words, activating self-help for citizens removes an enormous burden from human agents. Evidence of the impact of ‘self-help’ for enterprises or agencies indicates that over the last year as call volumes reached unprecedented levels is real and significant. Noted in a recent survey by Inference Solutions, that an overwhelming 71 percent of responses, IT decision-makers agreed that intelligent self-service automation helped their organization remain agile during COVID-19. Alarmingly though, the same survey notes the highest number of responses to the survey with no automation or self-service strategy was government organizations. Self-service and automation remove repetitive, transactional engagements from the agent queue, allowing them to focus on more complex issues that require human support.

As we work our way through the pandemic, with contact tracing, vaccine distribution and supply chain management being largely supported by public-sector contact centers, self-service is especially noteworthy for any contact center leader looking to drive improvements or struggling to find a way to balance rising call volumes with proactive outreach like contact tracing.

In the arena of citizen experience, it would be impossible to ignore the activation of digital channels in the contact center. The pandemic has forced individuals across all demographics to accept and adopt digital communication — social media, SMS text and apps like WhatsApp. These channels allow agents to work call volumes simultaneously because they are asynchronous versus a phone call which handcuffs agents to an engagement until it is concluded. It also gives citizens, who are already living digital lives, options for connecting with the agency on a familiar platform of their choosing. Digital channels accelerate resolutions and give agents more bandwidth to solve more issues and truly deliver on the agency’s mission.

As I noted earlier, light at the end of the tunnel for the pandemic may still be a small one, but it is visible. Once we reach whatever resembles a conclusion of this pandemic, citizens that have adopted new ways of engagement will not simply return to the old. So too, must contact center leaders that have made the pivot to a new contact center landscape. The hard shift is done, now is the time to focus on amplifying the agency’s ability to stand out, deliver exceptional citizen experience and deliver on the agency’s mission.

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