In the latest instalment of our contact centre industry executive interview series, we spoke to Max Ball, Director of Contact Centre Product Marketing at RingCentral, about his company, the challenges posed by COVID-19, industry opportunities and priorities for 2021 and beyond…
Tell us about your company, products and services.
RingCentral is a market-leading business communications provider. We provide businesses with secure and reliable communications technology to help them operate more competitively.
Cloud communications has really come into its own these last 12 months, and we’ve been at the forefront of that – helping businesses keep their remote workforces connected, engage customers on multiple channels, and stay productive and collaborative thanks to virtual workspaces.
Born in the cloud, RingCentral was voice-first, and expanded from there. More than two decades later, our offering combines a digital-first contact centre platform with world-class telephony and UCaaS integration in an open platform, all in the cloud.
What have been the biggest challenges the Contact Centre/Customer Services industry has faced over the past 12 months?
The COVID-19 pandemic has been the biggest challenge for contact centres in the last year, decade, or maybe ever. Moving to a work from home model overnight while call volumes are spiking is not for the faint at heart. The most impacted companies, for example those in travel, retail and government, face up to an 800% increase in volume.
To handle the volume many companies have increased their presence on digital channels, a change that is frankly overdue. It allows agents to be more efficient while significantly improving the customer experience by meeting them on their channel of choice.
A lot of contact centres were still housed in on-premises hardware when the pandemic hit. That gap between leaving the office and setting up remote agents caused major disruption in customer services the world over. Shep Hyken likes to say that the pandemic forced 3-5 years of advancement in the contact centre in 6 months. I think he’s right, and in many ways contact centres will be the better for it for decades to come. Work from anywhere for agents is now normal, and that changes the quality of the agent’s life and the type of person you can hire as an agent.
Managers must learn how to manage remote agents effectively, and contact centres must have the right cloud technology in place to allow agents to communicate and collaborate from anywhere. With agents burning out over increased pressure, and suffering with forms of ‘COVID fatigue’, organisations must learn how to support their employees through these different styles of work, and make sure it works for everyone.
The first half of 2021 will be a particularly trying time; the novelty has worn off, in many places the weather is cold, and customers’ patience is once again wearing thin. COVID fatigue is real, and keeping agents’ spirits up so they can meet customer expectations is more important than ever before.
And what have been the biggest opportunities?
The biggest opportunities seem to have been around businesses delivering virtual experiences. Whether that’s restaurants offering takeaway meals or retailers pivoting to a purely online presence, the power of virtual connection has offered some fascinating opportunities.
From a contact centre perspective, this is the time to start realising the benefits of a remote workforce. From widening your access to talent, to offering follow-the-sun support, to cutting property management overheads, bringing remote agents into your contact centre operation is going to give your business a much better chance over the coming years.
Complementary to that is the shift to digital. Now that shift is gathering pace, and the companies that learn to embrace this technology will benefit greatly.
What is the biggest priority for the Contact Centre/Customer Services industry in 2021?
This will be the year of the haves vs. the have nots. Companies that are stuck on ageing premises-based systems will struggle to deliver the same service they had before and keep their agents sane. They will face many challenges: voice-only support, inefficient impersonal customer experiences, siloed agents who cannot access experts for assistance to solve problems quickly, high turnover from agents who are still stuck at home and don’t have the communications tools required to connect with the rest of their team.
Companies that embrace cloud based solutions will be able to grow and differentiate in ways that turn customer service into a significant competitive advantage.
What are the main trends you are expecting to see in the market in 2021?
”Virtual contact centres” – more adoption of flexible cloud contact centres through CCaaS providers. Cloud has provided businesses with the tools to handle the challenge, whilst ensuring high levels of service to consumers. Now, businesses recognise that the cloud contact centre is more than just a tool for innovation and scalability; it’s a critical part of business continuity.
Businesses will continue to modernise their legacy technology, they’ll also be looking to advance their digital initiatives and will increase cloud adoption. A big part of this will be the push for a digital-first approach. Customer service organisations must provide digital omnichannel support and self-service to reduce call handling time, increase customer satisfaction and lower their costs.
We’ll also see an increase in video interactions. Video will allow employees to collaborate on complicated tasks with their subject experts and deliver face-to-face interactions with customers, which introduces the entire body-language part of the communication spectrum into customer interaction. That’s really going to help build loyalty, because the customer experience will be so much richer for it.
What technology is going to have the biggest impact on the market this year?
AI and automation will play a key role in helping contact centres handle volume and deliver consistent customer experiences at scale. Machine learning will make chatbots more attractive for handling and routing queries, while automation will help in reporting trends, guiding attention and completing admin that frees agents up to handle more cognitive tasks.
There is a real possibility for a shift from a customer contact centre to a customer experience centre, where AI takes care of the simple stuff and allows for proactive, highly personalised experiences. (Think of getting a text message alert that you have been put on the next connecting flight automatically since your first leg was delayed.)
This significantly changes the agent’s job. Agents become empathetic experts, able to help with the most difficult challenges, and able to really understand the frustration of a complex situation and help the customer through that. This is where ‘work from anywhere’ really combines with automation and digital transformation: my pool of talent really expands when team members don’t have to live within an hour of the office.
In 2025 we’ll all be talking about…?
The most obvious one is how the pandemic turned customer engagement upside down. But I’ll go a bit broader and say we’ll be talking about how crazy we were to wait so long before finally embracing the hybrid work model. I think we’ll look back and be relieved we’re not commuting hours to work anymore, that we’re not tied to living in a specific location simply for work.
Will we also be looking back at how rigid and unhelpful the 40-hour, 5-day week was? We’ll have to see.
Which person in, or associated with, the Contact Centre/Customer Services industry would you most like to meet?
Well, I missed my opportunity: the person I would like to meet was Tony Hsieh, CEO of Zappos. He passed away last November, but his approach to customers and customer service showed how the right focus on the customer can make all the difference. At Zappos agents were not measured on average handle time, or how many calls they took in a day; the only measure was how long agents interacted with customers. If an agent spent 10 hours on a single call with a single customer all day that was a great, and very productive day. Tony really understood the power of building relationships with your customers; it wasn’t a catchphrase, or something just for PR, it was a passion for him.
He was also focused on the agents, and the environment in the office. Everyone had their cubicle decorated in a way that showed the world who they truly were. He will be missed.
What’s the most surprising thing you’ve learnt about the Contact Centre/Customer Services sector?
The complexity of inputs and outputs. It’s not linear; it’s not x + y = z. Customer service is an intricate web of various components; management, technology, communication trends, expectations, accessibility, and so many other factors. It’s dealing with people, so the potential for personalisation is unfathomably deep. But you have to balance that with business goals and ROI, along with other competing priorities, so it’s like a constant dance of trying to fit everything in.
Along with that, the basics of customer service – the essential elements of what customers need and value, and their expectations based upon these fundamental needs – will remain remarkably persistent and consistent. The complexity is fascinating.
You go to the bar at the Contact Centre Summit – what’s your tipple of choice?
White Russian. I’d sip it while munching through a bag of cookies.
What’s the most exciting thing about your job?
I love it when I get to meet with our customers. They are the ones who use our technology and make a difference for their agents and customers. 25 years ago I worked on IVR systems and saw them go out into the world and create nightmares for people with a laser focus on making people do everything through self-service without a thought for the actual needs of the customer. I really feel that the world has changed on this front and companies really want to deliver great customer experiences, and with the cloud it is so much more practical to do this than ever before.
And what’s the most challenging?
We always want to do more, and it’s a question of prioritising. We see so much opportunity everywhere, and we want to do more than we have time for. So we have to make decisions about what to go for and what to hold back on.
What’s the best piece of advice you’ve ever been given?
Treat others as you wish to be treated. It has encouraged me to empathise with others and try to understand their perspective, which is so valuable in creating a connection and finding ways to work together with people. It’s also the basis of great customer service!
Succession or Stranger Things?
Stranger Things – I’m a sucker for nostalgia. I also have Netflix and not HBO at the moment, I saw the first episode of Succession, so ask me again when I’ve seen the rest.