Those sacrifices extended to customer service expectations as organisations grappled with the urgent need to develop and deploy work from home and hybrid work strategies. Having invested heavily in delivering unrivalled customer experience (CX), many operators suddenly found themselves scaling back or even turning off their contact centres due to the sheer scale of the logistical and labour force challenges facing them.
This was particularly so for those that had embraced the many benefits of outsourcing to offshore providers but who were now struggling to establish work-from-home operations due to societal and infrastructure hurdles. As a result, some companies even made the decision to suffer the ongoing cost of repatriating outsourced contact centres to onshore environments.
While such moves may have negatively impacted customer experience, we were all in this together so consumers were willing to share the pain. They accepted they may have to spend more time on hold than normal, send emails rather than phone or wait several days for those emails to be addressed. These were unique times that required patience and understanding.
Well, times have changed. After more than two years of living with COVID-19, people are no longer happy to encounter automated messages blaming the pandemic for customer service issues. Higher expectations have returned and for organisations wanting to stay ahead of their competitors, that means weighing up the best way to deliver quality 24/7 support while balancing the cost of doing so.
From onsite options and work from home to onshore versus offshore, there has never been a more important time to consider where the workplace resourcing market is moving.
In the early days of the pandemic, it was devastating to see how many companies faced the difficult decision to essentially cease contact centre commitments for the foreseeable future. Having outsourced their operations to offshore providers, they found themselves working with partners in BPO hotspots, such as India, that did not have the ability or infrastructure to quickly transition entire teams to work-from-home capabilities. Worse still, the businesses did not have onshore contact centre infrastructure that would help ease the pressure. Instead, they simply turned off the function and, to be fair, customers were initially understanding of the situation.
The concerning thing is the number of companies that are yet to make a full return to the contact centre function they employed pre-COVID. With no onshore support and yet to flick the switch on realigning with offshore providers, they find themselves in a holding pattern and hoping the goodwill customers showed them in the early months of the pandemic can last a little longer.
Such hopes are misguided, with customer service expectations on the rise. Crucially, offshore providers have done a remarkable job of rising to the challenge of developing hybrid working models that allow them to meet the needs of a new outsourcing world. Many larger BPOs, especially in the Philippines, used ingenuity and creativity to quickly transition their sizable workforces to an environment where they felt safe – their homes.
And that can only be good news for companies wanting to deliver quality customer service in the most efficient and cost-effective way.
While the global pandemic forced some companies to close or run their offshore contact centres at significantly reduced capacity, others opted to return them to home soil. In the latter half of 2020, Telstra announced its intention to bring all offshore call centre roles back to Australia, while Westpac was another big name institution that chose to ‘reshore’ up to 1000 jobs in the new COVID-19 landscape.
Amid the teething issues of the work-from-home transition and a rise in nationalistic fervour, some executives likely considered such repatriation strategies a certain winner in the early days of the pandemic. Along with having their operations closer to home, there was the chance to promote a story of local businesses employing local people. However, a couple of years on, there will surely be key players starting to question whether the costs associated with such moves outweigh the benefits.
For starters, Australian businesses and onshore providers are battling to find staff amid one of the country’s largest ever labour shortages. The unemployment rate sits at a 48-year low of 3.9% and, just two years after COVID-19 sparked fears of mass job losses, businesses instead find themselves needing to pay higher wages to attract recruits.
This certainly impacts contact centres, with many of the people who once relished such job opportunities increasingly able to secure hourly rates of two to three times more working in other sectors. While outsourcing destinations such as the Philippines offer labour and infrastructure cost savings of up to 70%, organisations that pursued a repatriation strategy are battling rising wage bills at a time of inflation, labour shortages and lower-than-expected annual financial results.
Another motivator for returning customer service to home soil was the chance to strengthen local knowledge. For example, many businesses partnering with or operating a Brisbane-based contact centre believed it would be staffed by Brisbane locals but the rise of remote work has effectively fostered a national labour force for such workplaces. The ability to work from home or remotely means a Sydneysider or rural Victorian is just as likely to service customers from a ‘Brisbane’ contact centre, thus negating the hoped-for onshore benefit of tapping into local staff.
Similarly, the return to Australian shores has not fully addressed another perceived bugbear for customers when reaching out to contact centres. While it is a delicate subject, it is a fact of outsourcing life that some businesses worry about their customers’ perceptions of being serviced by agents with non-Anglo accents and they would have hoped the onshore environment would eradicate such concerns.
However, another fact of life is the Australian contact centre award wage tends to attract a disproportionate number of new arrivals and itinerate workers who boast such accents regardless. Meanwhile, a cost-effective outsourcing destination such as the Philippines has English as an official language and ranks extremely high on English proficiency indexes.
The first imperative is for organisations that continue to use COVID-19 as an excuse for diminished customer service to realise those days are over. Since those crazy first few weeks of the pandemic, outsourcing providers in nations such as the Philippines have embraced work-from-home strategies and the technology that supports them to create hybrid workplaces that once again deliver great results. Partnering with the right provider means it does not matter if a contact centre is based on the Gold Coast or in Manila – it is just another office for your company.
At a time of fiscal belt-tightening, organisations that rushed to repatriate such workforces to home soil are increasingly realising the huge cost in doing so. It is all well and good to talk up local jobs in buoyant markets but when end-of-financial-year reports increasingly feature red ink, something must give. Do they reduce the number of people answering enquiries? Do they make a huge investment in digital technologies despite not having the deep pockets to do so? Or do they once again look to foreign shores where the lower cost of living means they can employ enough hard-working and enthusiastic staff to ensure customer enquiries are dealt with faster than they ever could be closer to home?
The answer, of course is simple. It is time for more businesses to return to a pre-COVID time when customers not only had high customer service expectations but businesses consistently met them, often with the support of their offshore outsourcing providers.
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