Has Covid really driven digital transformation in customer contact operations?



Has Covid really driven digital transformation in customer contact operations?


During the pandemic there was a lot of talk about how Covid had accelerated digital transformation plans within UK customer contact operations. However, a glance at the available evidence shows that in reality the pandemic has not had as much of an impact as we might think.

Certainly, when we look at the drivers of contact centre digital transformation, most of them predate the pandemic. In terms of the undeniable impact of lockdown on contact centres – the rise in remote working and increased call volumes – these are both reflections of longstanding operational issues. Indeed, according to some sources, the pandemic actually slowed digital transformation.

The first important point to recognise is that adaptation is not the same as transformation. Moving contact centre systems onto the Cloud to facilitate remote working was a short-term measure. It does not represent transformation if the contact centre’s underlying processes remain the same.

The second point to recognise is that the ultimate judge of contact centre success is the customer. Many contact centres seem to know this, which is why many of the acknowledged drivers of contact centre transformation revolve around improving the customer experience.

Covid slowed contact centre transformation for some

Let’s look firstly at the impact of Covid on contact centres’ digital transformation, where the evidence tells a different story to the one we might expect.

According to Customer Contact Week’s (CCW) Future of the Contact Center report from November 2021, 58% of companies surveyed said that their digital transformation progress was either “as fast as expected” (26%), “somewhat slower than expected” (26%), or “much slower than expected” (6%) during the pandemic.

That compares to just 35% who said their progress toward digital transformation in 2020 – 2021 was faster or more successful than expected. In other words, almost twice as many companies reported slower or expected transformation during the pandemic than reported faster transformation.

At the same time, while many contact centres did indeed move their operations into the Cloud, there were many who struggled to do this. Even among our clients, I can think offhand of two firms of significant size – one a huge multinational corporation, the other a globally famous football club – that were unable to take phone calls or even access their CX system outside the office during the first lockdown in 2020.

This points again to a fundamental truth about contact centre technology: that, for many, Covid exposed existing weaknesses or pain points rather than accelerated change.

“Almost twice as many companies reported slower or expected transformation during the pandemic than reported faster transformation.”

To get a real sense for what’s driving digital transformation, it’s probably better to look at the pain points highlighted by contact centres themselves. Returning to the CCW report, the top pain points mentioned by survey respondents were:

  • Disconnected systems (51%)
  • Disconnected channels (43%)
  • High agent turnover (33%)
  • Systematic inability to support remote working (31%)
  • Cumbersome processes (31%)

Clearly, “inability to support remote working” is directly related to the pandemic, but the rest are challenges the industry has been struggling with for years. So, if these pain points are the genuine drivers of digital transformation, how is this reflected in what contact centres are prioritising as part of their digital transformation?

Key contact centre pain points

Looking at the evidence, the top priorities highlighted in the CCW report are:

  • Improving use of AI for customer interactions (46%)
  • Creating seamless experiences across channels (42%)
  • Improving the use of AI for employee productivity (41%)
  • Improving the quality of customer experience within digital channels (40%)
  • Better mapping and orchestrating customer journeys (37%)

These are mostly customer-focused priorities, with only “improving the use of AI for employee productivity” standing out as being focused on improving operations.

"AI, brand loyalty, reducing customer effort are amongst the top priorities this year."

By contrast, Contact Babel’s UK Customer Experience Decision-Makers’ Guide 2021-22 paints a picture of a more self-interested industry.

According to Contact Babel, the top four priorities of contact centre digital transformation are:

  • To increase customer retention rates and loyalty
  • To reduce the cost of serving the customer
  • To increase the number of customers
  • To increase revenue per customer through cross-selling and upselling

As you can see, these four points are all pretty much about improving things for contact centres themselves, though it’s worth remembering that none of these goals will be met unless transformation results in a better customer experience.

It makes me think of the reasons our clients have told us they want to progress digital transformation. Over the last two years, these have included:

  • To reduce contact centre costs
  • To offer more contact options for a wider range of customers
  • To increase access for those with accessibility issues, such as the blind, the deaf or hard of hearing, or those with English as a second language
  • To improve customer service
  • To make sure their technology is “up to scratch”
  • To reduce customer effort

So, cost is a big deal for them, but most of the rest are customer-focused. In fact, these reasons are somewhat heartening. Note once again that, although the pandemic may have highlighted existing failings in some of these areas, or sharpened the minds of customer contact leaders when it comes to focusing on the art of the possible, most of these priorities are not directly related to the impact of the pandemic at all.

How will Covid be remembered in terms of customer contact transformation?

So, when we think of digital transformation, it is better to think of Covid as an accelerator of existing challenges or an inhibitor of change. As we continue to emerge from the pandemic, my feeling is that it will be remembered as either a roadblock or a catalyst for many organisations’ digital transformation efforts rather than a major driver in itself.


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