Call Center Recession Prep Starts at Underperforming Agents and Bots

The US unemployment rate dropped to 3.5% in September, which marks a 50-year low. And according to the Site Selection Group, almost 30,000 call center jobs were announced by big name companies in the second quarter of this year, including Amazon, Uber, Allstate, Ford, T-Mobile and Wayfair. Given this positive news, you might wonder why we still need to discuss what call centers should do to prepare for a recession.

The answer has to do with several other indicators that aren’t so positive. The yield curve inverted, the Federal Reserve cut interest rates three times in 2019 (rates hadn’t been cut since the last great recession), and, according to a CNBC report, “US job openings fell to a 1-1/2-year low in August and hiring slipped, suggesting employment growth was slowing mostly because of ebbing demand for labor.” Large companies are starting to make significant job cuts too, including HP, who announced it will shed up to 16% of its workforce (or 9,000 jobs).

CFOs understand that these indicators point to a recession on the horizon. According to a Duke University/CFO Global Business Outlook survey, “More than half (53%) of US CFOs believe that the US will be in recession by the 3rd quarter of 2020; 67% believe that a recession will have begun by the end of 2020.” CFOs in other parts of the world are even more pessimistic, as major economies like India and Germany hit hard times.

Where to Start

If you agree with the majority of CFOs, begin by focusing on the most expensive part of your call center operation — people. Assess talent and identify underperforming staff. This helps you prepare for job cuts, if needed. And you identify underperformers who have potential. Investing in your people, both performers and less-skilled folks with upside, during a recession is important. It breeds a sense of loyalty and makes employees want to stay when things pick back up.

Assess Bots, Too

In addition to evaluating talent, take the next step with artificial intelligence (AI)-powered voice and chatbots. This technology is advancing quickly and will prove key to managing interaction growth should the number of agents you employ decline or stay the same.

A recent Temple University study suggests undisclosed chatbots are as effective as proficient call center workers — and four times more effective than inexperienced workers — in engendering customer purchases. And, while limited to more structured outbound calls, the researchers make a good point when they say, “As millions tell Alexa, Siri or Google Assistant to play music, reorder products and make appointments, the impact of AI new frontiers on our daily life will be ubiquitous in the long run.”

Bots will never replace all call center agents. However, they’re an important part of the emerging workforce. In addition to offloading boring, repetitive tasks that annoy proficient agents, bots can help less-experienced agents perform better as they develop new skills. They become a sort of personal coach that listens to live interactions and offers prompts, hints, tips and even special offers to help agents get customers what they need quickly.

Take a Balanced Approach and Get Going

Assessing talent and taking the next step with bots are just a couple of ways that the call center can prepare for a recession. Be sure to ready yourself on all fronts.

Learn from companies that proved resilient during the last great recession. Look for ways to enhance flexibility, spend more wisely, and maintain customer and employee loyalty. Be the voice of reason and a catalyst for change in your organization. Resilience is born out of preparation meeting adversity, so get your team started now.