Call Centres and the COVID-19 effect

For 23 years the Global CX Benchmarking Report has tracked the fortunes of the call centres industry. From the early days of telephone sales in the UK, the emergence of outsourcing and offshoring, voice self-service, digital channels, automation and bots.

The authors at Dimension Data, Merchants and more recently NTT, have commentated and prophesied on the next big thing, signposted trends and fades informing the industry on investments or divestments, depending on which end of the supply chain they sat.

The scale and scope of the report are significant. It provides data annually on around 1000 organisations big and small, in a dozen countries. Those responding to the annual survey have a thirst of knowledge and insight, as they too are at the sharp end of strategic and operational concerns in the industry. Captive and outsource call centres contribute, B2B and B2C, help desks and customer service operations. It’s a comprehensive report, for sure.

But for all the scale, scope, breadth, history, acquired wisdom and data, not even the Global CX Benchmarking Report could have predicted the impact of COVID-19 on the industry. It’s literally closed the doors of hundreds of call centres, and left customers on hold or with their calls unanswered. Telcos and utility companies, banks and insurers have had to dust off their business continuity plans and act very quickly to adapt their operating models to the new norm.

You see, offshoring and outsourcing have long been the go-to strategy for customer service and help desks. It’s cheaper; it’s scalable and removes headcount from low margin businesses seeking to minimise their overheads. Finding reliable data on the size of the call centre industry is tough, but a reasonable guesstimate by CustServ in 2017 suggest it employs close on 5 million people globally and generates revenues of $250bn.

And despite most large enterprises consuming offshore services having plenty of risk mitigation and business continuity plans, few had a contingency for what happened in March this year. The world, and its call centres, closed its doors and sent everyone home.

Those of us fortunate to have spent time working in India, the Philippines and south-east Asia, will know how catastrophic the shutdown is to providers of offshore services. Thousands of people have either had to return home to remote parts of the country or be quarantined in cramped, temporary accommodation provided by their employers. The idea they could continue to provide services – even if handed laptops and headsets – was simply impossible. Some improvised and downsized, but most hung up the ‘Closed’ sign and gave back control to their lords and masters onshore.

And that’s when something extraordinary began to happen. The small number of onshore providers started ramping up, and large enterprises in the telco and finance sectors began hiring thousands of people to staff onshore temporary centres. Call centres literally started to pop-up everywhere.

Our company Eighty20 works with large enterprises in Australia, running desktop system transformations. Suddenly the priorities changed when the lockdown hit; everyone needed a laptop loaded with collaboration tools and guides on running meetings from home.

And when that’s being rollout to 7,000 people in a week or so, guess what, they need help desks to sort out password resets and load virtual desktop software to access corporate systems. But the IT help desk in India shut its doors. So like many others, we had to improvise – seconding 7 of our technical team to answer calls and resolve service tickets. We’re one of many doing this I’m sure.

So is this a blip, a short term fix, or will the industry fundamentally change? What’s happening now could easily be an inflection point for the industry. The Global CX Benchmarking Report has monitored onshore and offshore movements for years. There’s been a steady decline in offshoring, as more and more emphasis is placed on authentic customer experience metrics rather than just cost. In the 2020 Report, NTT says 81% of respondents claim CX gives them a competitive edge, with almost 60% saying its also their primary differentiator. But the pace and scale of a return to onshore centres have been held back by labour costs. In places like Australia, the hourly costs are almost 3x more expensive. So the only way to have the economics work is to automate or have onshore staff work more productively than offshore. In 2017 Gery McGovern highlighted the considerable differential between offshore, onshore and digital service, but emphasises how important it is to determine what kind of interactions are best handled by automation. The rule of thumb is; the more complex, the better handled in person. Which is why IT help desks perhaps are better staffed by people with knowledge, rather than generalists or automated responses. That said, the rise of Artificial Intelligence is primed to pick up a lot more customer service calls. This above all else is, in fact, becoming a driver and differentiator.


So the opportunity created by COVID-19 to try out an onshore option for call centres might be a catalyst for change. A chance to re-evaluate the value and resilience of an incumbent offshore model. Perhaps a hybrid which leverages technology to automate and learn, an onshore capability to deliver an exceptional customer experience and offshore for the heavy lifting, could be the future. We’ll find out by the end of 2020 whether a global pandemic can change the course of call centre industry. It’s sure not to be the only major change this global event will cause.