Call centre sector braced for Covid-19 double whammy

call centre 11The contact centre industry is steeling itself for widespread disruption from the spread of coronavirus Covid-19, with companies facing a double whammy of increased workload and fewer staff, amid fears that centres could even be forced to close due to mass infections.

Industry body the Customer Contact Association (CCA Global) reports it has received “a significant surge in enquiries” from companies seeking to implement better home working and alternative operating solutions.

With everyone from the NHS to financial services companies being inundated with callers, the contact centre industry is under huge pressure to keep services going.

Earlier this week, a Belfast call centre with about 1,000 employees was closed after a case of the virus was detected. Lloyds Banking Group, which owns the Halifax centre, said “a colleague based there was diagnosed with Covid-19”.

The banking group said it would “allow for the appropriate areas of the site to be cleaned”. Staff have been asked to self-isolate, work from home or work from another site. “Our priority is the wellbeing of the individual, as well as the colleagues and visitors to the building,” the group added.

Contact centre staff based in the Belfast Gasworks building have also been asked to self-isolate, work from home or work from a contingency site, depending on which team or part of the building they work in.

Meanwhile, a Sky call centre in Cardiff was evacuated yesterday (Tuesday) and is closed for deep cleaning after a staffer was diagnosed with the virus. In a statement, Sky said: “We can confirm that a Sky colleague in our Cardiff contact centre has been diagnosed with Covid-19 and they are self-isolating at home.”

In a blogpost, CCA Global chief executive Anne Marie Forsyth writes: “During times of uncertainty, every business must challenge themselves as to how they can be more helpful with the current situation customers find themselves in.

“Questions about contingency planning are routinely covered in the CCA Global Standard process and there’s lots of learning that can be immediately shared.

“We recognise that different member company policies are impacting (or not) on travel plans and things will continue to shift in the next month or so. For now, we are quickly converting case studies, learning packs and any additional advice and recommendations to be made available to members. That way we can all continue to serve existing customers better but can widen our reach to those who want to access our services.”

While there will inevitably be greater pressure on day-to-day operations, due to soaring call volumes with fewer staff to service the calls, longer waiting times could also lead to increased customer dissatisfaction.

With many UK companies using cloud-based systems, it should be easier for staff to work from home, although there are still logistical challenges. But those not operating in the cloud could be hit hard as could those brands which have outsourced their contact centre operations overseas.

In the South Korean capital of Seoul, for instance, one call centre alone has reported 90 cases of coronavirus infections, with 550 other workers being screened. Elsewhere, companies have begun to pilot work-from-home projects, especially in India.

So-called business process outsourcing firms have long had home-based agents, a group the industry calls WAHA, but traditionally only key employees have had that option.

Teleperformance president of group transformation Bhupender Singh told the Economic Times: “Work-at-home has been available, but its uptake by clients was not there. Now, in China, with the coronavirus, we have 2,000 agents working from home. It is an unfortunate thing, but the side-effect is that clients are now open to this.”

Singh said the company has about 1,400 agents working from home in the US, although the vast majority of its 330,000 employees globally work from offices.

Meanwhile, back in the UK, the Call & Contact Centre Expo is still going ahead on March 18 and 19 at the ExCel, London.

In a statement, event organiser Prysm said: “The health and safety of our exhibitors, visitors and staff will always be our number one priority. We are working closely with the venue to put measures in place that currently include public health messaging displayed and shared before and during the event; increased hygiene, sanitisation, and availability of disinfectants onsite; as well as awareness and training of all staff and suppliers on standard personal preventative measures.”

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