Service crew

Wait times for customer service triple due to staffing shortages Vex Call Centers

(Bloomberg) — Thanks to a trio of pandemic-era upheavals — vacancies, working from home and more talkative callers — customer service wait times are skyrocketing in the United States.

The average duration of a service call has increased by several minutes since the start of the pandemic, according to call center analytics firm CallMiner. During the Covid-19 lockdowns, callers were so desperate for human contact that they started “talking about the pandemic, talking about vaccines, talking about the political climate,” said Jeff Gallino, CTO of CallMiner.

In a 2021 study of call center leaders that Forrester Research conducted for CallMiner, 68% of respondents said the phone was a new “channel of customer empathy” and 70% said their agents were dealing with more emotionally charged consumers.

Add to that rampant turnover that has worsened as remote work has made it easy for employees to transition to other types of jobs, and you get wait times that have likely tripled, according to the Gallino estimate.

“Wait times have been measurably terrible,” Gallino said, adding that he expects things to improve as call centers work through the hiccups. “As they increase their staff, it will decrease.”

One bright spot: The data hasn’t shown much change in the overall quality of customer service during the pandemic.

The Covid-19 crisis that has emptied offices across the country has been a mixed blessing for call centers. At the same time, it has made customer service work more attractive for those who prefer to work from home, but it has also made it easier for call center employees to move to another location.

Staff turnover has historically been high in customer service, around 50% a year, said Jeff Christofis, who oversees the contact center unit at recruiting giant Kelly Services. During the pandemic, it swelled to at least 80% – and in extreme cases up to 300%.

There are approximately 3 million customer service workers nationwide. Before Covid-19, up to 90% worked in offices, Christofis estimated. He sees the industry settling into a 50-50 split between in-person and home workers, but for now the workforce is largely working remotely and resisting change.

Among them is Timmarie Czichas, a 55-year-old Phoenix-area woman whose small business has been decimated by the pandemic. Her arthritis flared up and made it impossible to work outside the home, so she considers herself lucky to have landed a remote customer service job with used car dealership company CarMax Inc.

“I love talking and helping people, so I feel very lucky to have this position,” Czichas said.

Claire Roma, a 28-year-old Detroit-area woman, took a work-from-home customer service job at a meal delivery company in January, happy with the good pay and “incredibly good” healthcare benefits . She says she doubts she could handle the stress of a commute, office culture and sometimes grumpy customers if it were an in-person job.

Vacant jobs

In suburban Atlanta, it took Chris Sperry two to four weeks to fill a remote position, but seven to nine weeks to fill an in-person position. Sperry oversees the Georgia Medicaid operations of Gainwell Technologies, which manages Medicaid programs for various states across the country, and he is obligated to have at least staff working on-site.

On a recent morning, the 10th and 11th floors of the glass-enclosed office tower where Gainwell has its contact and tech support centers were eerily quiet, save for half a dozen agents who had come in to work on the phone. . For now, most agents are free to work from home, but he worries about mass attrition among his 110 call center workers if they are asked to report to the office. He already has about 25 vacancies.

Call center managers are responding by raising salaries and trying to build a company culture despite the fact that they rarely see their employees. Before Covid, pay for customer service representatives averaged about $14 an hour, and there was little pay variation among the big business process outsourcing, or BPO, giants that employ tens of thousands of agents. So there was little reason to change jobs, Gallino said.

But with a shortage of workers during the pandemic, some BPOs have increased pay to $17 an hour on average, and $19 in some cases. Remote work meant people could jump ship without getting out of their pajamas.

“If you’re sitting at home and unhappy with your job, you’re just two clicks away from completing an application,” said Bryan Ennis, vice president of Customer Experience Centers and CarMax customer relations.

CarMax is trying to build relationships among its remote crew by hosting more employee icebreaker events and volunteer opportunities with charities, Ennis said. Turnover peaked a year ago and has fallen lately, he said. Other companies are setting up Facebook-like corporate intranet systems so that staff working from home can express themselves and build relationships with one another.

Some companies give up and move overseas. The industry has gone through periodic waves of relocation and outsourcing for decades, with massive moves to India 20 years ago and to the Philippines around 2010, although many jobs have returned to the United States due of quality issues, said King White, who leads the Dallas-based site selection group.

He sees the start of a new wave to Latin America and Jamaica as companies grow tired of understaffing.

“I’m talking thousands and thousands of jobs,” White said.

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