As companies around the world figure out how to navigate a way through the SARS-COV2 pandemic, solutions that enable employees to rapidly transition to and effectively work from home have never been more critical.
I recently sat down with NICE’s President of APAC Darren Rushworth and Managing Director of ANZ Rod Lester to learn more about how NICE has been assisting its clients during these unprecedented times.
NICE has three key areas of focus: perfecting customer experience, powering public safety, and financial crime prevention & compliance. Today, over 25,000 organisations in more than 150 countries, including over 85 of the Fortune 100 companies, are using NICE solutions.
A black or grey swan event?
Darren said that there is a common misconception that the current pandemic is a black swan event: one that is unpredictable, beyond what is normally expected of a situation and with potentially severe consequences. In his view, there were many warning signs that were ignored even up to the point when Wuhan went into lockdown. Companies and Governments were in denial of the evidence and unprepared for the severe impacts.
Three Phases Of The Pandemic
Darren explained how companies have moved through three phases of the pandemic: from phase 1, getting a dial tone operating; moving to phase 2, maintaining productivity; turning to phase 3, service optimisation.
Phase 1: Getting A Dial Tone
In phase 1, the general lack of preparedness presented major challenges for contact centres when they had to immediately switch to work from home arrangements. During this first phase of the pandemic, NICE had to respond rapidly to help customers manage a massive increase in volumes of increased complexity while their agents had to immediately switch to home working.
“We had a couple of things happening in parallel,” he said. “One was enabling a remote workforce in a very short period of time. The second thing was an increase in enquiries even though in some cases – such as airlines – they actually had less actual business.”
Darren noted that in some cases big global brands had even shut down their voice channels completely as they were unable to deal with the situation.
“Compounding this, most self-service channels failed too, because the knowledge bases couldn’t handle COVID-related enquiries,” he said.
To help its clients cope with the rapidly-evolving situation, Rod said NICE in mid-March launched an initiative called ‘At Home’, which promised that NICE would be able to help get contact centre agents up and running from home within 48 hours.
“We were able to provide over 30 types of organisations across ANZ with voice call recording and basic IVR in that time,” he said. “What was interesting is that there wasn’t demand from one particular sector, we assisted government departments, small and large enterprises and essential service providers.”
Following that rapid deployment, Rod said that NICE has incrementally been adding less critical features such as CRM integration.
I asked Darren and Rod about how they were quickly able to market their services during a time of elevated ‘noise’.
“We ran full-page ads in all the major metropolitan newspapers, mainly on the weekends because we thought this would be when most decision-makers would have any time to sit down and make sense of what was happening,” Rod said.
Over the past 12 months, NICE has also been working on developing its partner network, which was also useful when it came to amplifying its message, according to Rod.
“Our partner community really helped us get our message out,” he said. “Without them, we wouldn’t haven't been able to get as many organisations out of trouble.”
Darren said that in order to serve the spike in demand resulting from these increased marketing efforts, NICE had significantly increased its data capacity.
“We increased that by 25% in March alone, it was a massive increase,” he said. “The COVID situation has been a major catalyst for widespread cloud adoption.”
In my view, adding that amount of capacity within a month goes back to the key point of business continuity planning.
While it might not be designed for an event like a pandemic, it demonstrates the robustness and resilience that comes with planned flexibility.
I think these views get thrown around a lot, but in a crisis, we really see them put to the test.
Phase 2: Maintaining Productivity
“One we had moved people home, the second phase involved finding out exactly what they were doing there,” said Darren.
With agents no longer being monitored by supervisors, the next challenge was to ensure that they continued to do their jobs properly. I asked Darren what role artificial intelligence and other technologies played in all of this.
By using technologies such as screen capture and desktop analytics, Darren said that NICE was able to detect whether agents were being productive or just wasting company time.
To achieve this, NICE focuses on “outliers”, essentially agents that are either doing very well or very poorly.
At the positive end of that spectrum, NICE is able to identify the best-performing agents and then feed their processes back into systems and coaching materials.
At the negative end, Darren gave the example of one of NICE’s clients, a large financial services firm, which had had trouble with its employees calling themselves and putting themselves on hold to avoid working.
“Voice analytics were able to identify spaces in calls,” he said. “If there’s a space of more than a minute or even 30 seconds for example, the systems identifies these anomalies and highlights them to the supervisor, who can then listen and act on the information.”
Another issue was the question of conversation style. Darren noted that people who are working from home may automatically adopt a more casual style, which might not best reflect their organisation.
“Without a supervisor walking around, you have to use analytics for that,” he said. “AI is playing an increasingly large role when organisations are managing agents remotely.”
I asked Rod what other impacts the rise in volume and complexity of customer queries had had on ANZ-based organisations.
“As they rely on outsourcing, many banks and energy providers lost up to two-thirds of their agents in an instant,” he said. “I think there will be legislation put in place which prohibits these organisations from outsourcing at that level in the future.”
Although locally-based agents are more expensive, Rod said technology will allow the costs to come down while also increasing efficiency and effectiveness.
“Organisations won’t be able to outsource as much so they’ll be looking for smarter ways of doing things through the use of AI and automation,” he said. “That’s absolutely a trend.”
Darren and Rod were quick to agree when pointed out that employee experience is another area of critical importance post-pandemic.
“We’ve seen a huge demand for employee engagement solutions, particularly in India,” Darren said. “Our solution allows workers to bid for or swap shifts using a mobile application.”
That demand is driven by the fact that in remote places, agents may have to share a 4G connection amongst a whole family, thus requiring them to have flexibility on shift times.
A solution like this may even be useful in Australia, where although the NBN has now rolled out to over 80% of the country, we are still seeing in some cases that residential-grade services are being used to run businesses.
Phase 3: Optimisation
According to Darren, we are now in phase three, which is marked by increasingly compressed time frames for the deployment of solutions as well as the ongoing optimisation of existing remote working arrangements.
Pre-COVID KPIs are now under review. Fifth Quadrant’s most recent contact centre benchmarking report measured the average “time to competence” for an agent to be approximately 14 days.
Darren’s view is that organisations need to train people a lot more quickly than that in a post-COVID world.
“For example, there is a government department in Australia looking to hire a thousand people now,” he said, “They’ll interview and train them over Zoom or Messenger and they’re going to be taking calls in a few days.”
Going forward, Darren and Rod said that NICE will continue to focus on investing in R&D so that it can refine and improve its solutions.
“We’re doubling down on R&D while many of our competitors are making cuts,” Darren said. “We think we can really strengthen our lead so we’ve actually increased how much we spend on R&D quite considerably during this time.”
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