With offices and shops closed and face-to-face communication all but impossible, contact centres have never been so important. Customer-facing teams’ efficiency and agility were vital to business survival and success across industries and sectors in 2020.

And in 2021 none of that is likely to change. The Covid pandemic is far from over, and even when it is, the experience of lockdown has ushered in fundamental changes to the way we live and work. For contact centres, it’s hard to see things ever going back to exactly the way they were.

So if a return to ‘normal’ is out of the question, what is in store for the industry over the coming months? Here, MaxContact CEO Ben Booth predicts the trends and innovations that will shape the sector in 2021 and beyond.

Cloud-based contact centre software will come of age

The wholescale shift to cloud has been predicted for years, and the pandemic has finally provided a tipping point. That’s true for almost any digital service you care to mention, and it’s certainly the case for contact centre software. Covid undoubtedly accelerated the pace of change – it’s what was going to happen anyway eventually, but we had 5-10 years of change in 6 months – and cloud proved its worth.

It’s easy to see why. When lockdown hit, cloud-based services smoothed the transition to remote working in a way on-premise solutions couldn’t match. Overnight, apps and features that could be made available anywhere and anytime became a business necessity. Cloud’s natural support for softphones and BYOD was also hugely beneficial.

Meanwhile, companies with racks of on-premise telephony equipment were left with a big headache in the midst of a global pandemic – with some of the UK’s brands not even able to answer their phones.

And cloud’s advantages were about more than agility. When contact centre staff access corporate networks and sensitive customer data from home broadband services, locktight security is vital. Cloud is simply the safest way to manage lockdown communications.

Remote work is here to stay

The remote working that cloud services helped enable isn’t going anywhere. That’s partly down to the continuing pandemic and partly because when we started to work remotely – on an unprecedented scale – it wasn’t a disaster.

Quite the opposite, in fact. Staff had a taste of home working, and many want it to continue, at least some of the time. Meanwhile, management has started to think about the cost savings that would accompany a downsized office estate. Companies that force staff back into the office full time after Covid might find they have a recruitment and retention problem, as well as a hefty bill for oversized premises that no longer seem indispensable.

At the same time, remote working has made it easier for contact centre managers to draw from a wider talent pool, ensuring optimum coverage even during peak times and unsocial hours. For example, a working parent may be unavailable between 2pm and 5pm, but happy to work later in the evening if there isn’t childcare or a long commute to worry about.

Demand will grow and be much harder to predict

Throughout 2020, we saw spikes in inbound customer contact at an unprecedented rate, with many brands being caught-off guard in their usual ‘off-peak’ periods. Whilst digital self-serve continues to advance, sectors like debt recovery, financial services or any support team can be sure to expect increasing volumes of contact – at different times of the day. A recent Call Centre Helper poll showed 58% of contact centres expected volumes to increase this year.

So if your omnichannel strategy and digital experience is emerging, you need to analyse patterns, triggers for change and have easy to switch-on solutions to ensure lengthy inbound queues are kept to a minimum.

This is where solutions like WorkForce Management (WFM) come into their own, your contact centre team may not be huge, but you may find yourself dealing with a changing beast that’s easier to manage with WFM.

Video makes its way into NICHE markets 

Video has been on the horizon for a while, we’ve evaluated it internally, but it’s not entirely made it into the contact centre – yet.

Consumers are less bothered about being on camera, all those Zoom quizzes paid off in some way, right? I think we’ll see video used in certain circumstances. Perhaps a broadband provider’s support team need to diagnose a customer’s fault, and a video call would be easier for both customer and agent. It will be an interesting one to see develop.

The efficient management of remote teams becomes even more crucial

With remote working turning from a sticking plaster to something more permanent, other issues come into play. Managers and leaders need real-time data and reporting to know that remote teams are working efficiently and that customers are being properly and promptly served.

And connected to that is the issue of employee engagement. How do you keep remote staff motivated and happy? Is it through Zoom quizzes, regular virtual one-to-ones, or gamification? Can online training keep staff interested while upping skills and demonstrating your ongoing commitment to their career development? Different businesses will have different solutions, but employee engagement will be a crucial theme through 2021 and beyond. It’s something I urge you to think about.

Technology will continue to advance

The march of technology won’t be stopped in 2021. The rise of AI and self-serve will continue. They’ve been talked about for years, but in 2021 the technology will finally match the claims that have been made for it. Intelligent algorithms will continue to optimise performance in both outbound and inbound settings, and AI-powered customer service chatbots will proliferate.

Real time language translation is another technology that has been around for years, but never with a level of speed or accuracy that would make it commercially viable. That might be about to change. At MaxContact we’re experimenting with AI-powered natural language applications that could allow a UK-based contact centre to handle enquiries from around the world, without compromising the experience.

Service continues to be the differentiator

In some ways, the future looks a lot like the past. For everyone in the contact centre industry, quality of service will continue to separate excellent operations from those that are OK. That’s true of contact centre software providers, too.

At MaxContact, we know that our customers want their issues answered quickly and thoroughly, even when that requires a rapid escalation up the chain of command. We know they want a software provider who understands that downtime isn’t an option.

We already operate one of the best service and support teams in the business, and we’ll be investing heavily in it in 2021. That’s because we know that, more than anything, 2021 will be a year of uncertainty. The very least you should expect is a partner who will give you the contact centre platform your business needs, and the dedicated service to match.