Customer experience (and sales) at risk as call volumes surge

By Matt Agronin

The U.S. labor shortage combined with a spending frenzy is a perfect storm for customer service.

Customers and prospective customers are facing wait times they haven’t seen since the early days of the pandemic. And while at that point people were understandably more forgiving, now they have cash in hand to stimulate the economy—in some cases—and can’t.

A perfect storm of the U.S. labor shortage and a sharp increase in demand as customers get back to spending money on travel and hospitality—in addition to the continued acceleration of online shopping across categories—means that competition for workers is at an all-time high along with customer call volumes.

Scaling up and onboarding new domestic customer service agents has become increasingly difficult in this environment. The competition to attract workers to the 9.3 million job openings (as of April) is fierce. Even with higher wages and signing bonuses, many businesses from restaurants to manufacturing to call centers are struggling to ramp up their hourly workforces. And for the latter, some are shuttering contact centers altogether. By contrast, Q2 office demand specifically for contact centers in the Philippines is up 160% for the quarter, while nearshore locations like Colombia, Mexico and El Salvador are seeing similar growth.

On the customer service front, brands without a geographically dispersed contact center footprint and/or a robust work-from-home solution, could be putting their customer experience, sales, loyalty and retention in jeopardy.

If you’re going to promise 24/7 customer support, then your customers should expect the same experience whether they call at 9 in the morning or 9 at night.

Higher spending means more customer inquiries

If you can’t hire the right people fast enough, that surge in consumer spending volume (see “By the numbers”) quickly becomes a sharp double-edged sword. Customers had more patience at the beginning of the pandemic when everyone was scrambling to figure things out. But customers are tired of excuses. You can’t site the pandemic anymore. So, if you can’t staff up fast enough to provide great customer experiences, what can you do?

Many government entities, which often have contractual requirements for call centers to offer onshore service, have never gotten a handle on pandemic volumes and citizens are still bearing the brunt of that.

By the numbers

A snapshot of the U.S. Labor market and customer service and consumer spending trends

9,300,000

Job openings as of April 2021

942,000

People who voluntarily left their jobs in June, up 164,000 from May

20%

Nearly 20% of all jobs posted on ZipRecruiter in June offered a signing bonus, up from 2% in March

12

Hours on hold for some airline customers

40%

Increase in call volumes since 2019, Delta’s CEO told Good Morning America in June

39%

Online sales YOY increase in Q1 2021, nearly triple the 14% increase in Q1 2020

$4,400,000,000,000

Estimated retail spending, up by as much as 13.5% over 2020

For us at Ubiquity, geographic diversity in service delivery isn’t just about cost savings—although that’s certainly a draw for many of our clients—it’s also about business continuity. I dare say we’ve all learned quite a bit more about business continuity planning in the past 18 months than we ever cared to.

But what many of those plans have never accounted for was the current labor market. Minimum wage is on the rise in the U.S., which is great for workers. But businesses have struggled to keep pace. The time to adapt is now. And while raising wages and signing bonuses in your domestic contact centers might be options, it’s not going to solve the whole problem—because everyone else is offering those, too. You need a multipronged workforce management plan, and it’s got to include some nearshore or offshore options—even if it’s just for overnight service.

Delivering on the brand promise of 24/7

Take this recent example. I was booking a flight online with an airline that prides itself on being customer-first. I ran into an issue getting the last seat on the flight I wanted, so I called. I was informed that wait times were long and offered a call back. I got a gracious call back, and the agent was extremely knowledgeable, personable and helpful. Unfortunately, I was going to have to call back to pay for my reservation once my rewards credit card arrived in the mail.

On that second call, which I made at 9 at night, I was once again warned of long wait times. However, this time I wasn’t given the option of a callback. So, I stayed on the line … for an hour.

If you’re going to promise 24/7 customer support, then your customers should expect the same experience whether they call at 9 in the morning or 9 at night. Even if I’d had to wait, the callback feature would have made a tremendous difference in my overall customer experience.

The thing is: I know I’m not alone. And for some, the waits have been far worse. A recent Washington Post article cited wait times as long as 12 hours for some airline customers. And although I’ve focused my attention on the U.S. market in this article, other countries are grappling with the same issues. In the U.K., for example, brands are taking longer to answer the phone and some aren’t answering at all, according to recent Money Mail report.

In this environment, brands have an opportunity to differentiate themselves with stellar customer experience. That starts with rethinking service delivery locations, staffing and recruitment processes to attract more workers across geographies and to retain customers for the long haul.

We’d love to help.