Call centers were among the industries hit hardest by the Covid-19 pandemic. Not only were they affected by the disruption like everyone else, but the consumer demands on call centers simultaneously exploded while fewer staff were available. The disruptions to supply chains, healthcare, and travel alone have overwhelmed call centers and frustrated consumers.
As consumers ourselves, we all know how important it is to speak with someone who not only understands our problem but who also empathizes with us, especially if we are calling about an urgent issue, like credit card fraud or cancelled flights. The importance of strong English language skills cannot be underestimated. Magellan Services reported that 97% of global consumers say customer service greatly impacts their buying decision. If customers are not satisfied with the service they receive when contacting customer service, they will take their business to a competitor.
Call centers must now sharpen skills to meet the demand and expectations of consumers. Improving soft skills and in particular, English communication skills, will enable call center employees to handle the additional stress and volume that has resulted from these uncertain times.
This article will examine the communication challenges facing call centers around the world, but particularly in Asia, in the wake of the pandemic and review solutions to support managers in running more efficient and effective operations.
The Post-Covid Call Center Landscape in Asia
The post-pandemic call center industry is experiencing incredible growth. According to Data Bridge Market Research, Asia-Pacific call center platforms market is expected to gain market growth in the forecast period of 2020 to 2027, with a CAGR of 16.5%. In China, the world’s second-largest economy, the call center industry is anticipated to grow to $87.4 billion by 2027.
It is exciting growth but hiring and retaining call center agents has never been more difficult. During the pandemic, call centers experienced higher than even normal high rates of turnover. In the fonolo article called “How Has Covid-19 Affected Call Center Agent Turnover,” advisor Peter Ryan said, “Not only are agent attrition levels worryingly high and growing, but the cost associated with finding new agents and developing initiatives to keep them is also climbing. This creates a disturbing situation for contact centers, considering the vicious cycle of agent churn has on customer experience.”
Despite the growth and the hiring challenge, call quality cannot diminish. This includes the ability to handle difficult customer conversations swiftly and respectfully, especially when there is a need to divert from a call script and offer compassion and understanding.
A March 2020 Persado article called “Call Centers Brace for COVID-19 Volume: How Language Can Help,” said, “Call centers should expect not only call volume to grow, but also call complexity to increase. Consumers will be calling in for more varied, involved and complex issues.” The article also suggested that the average call time would rise above the average 3-5-minute range to more than 10 minutes. The longer the conversation with each customer, the fewer calls a center will be able to address, thus contributing to dissatisfied customers.
During the pandemic, stories of frustration were common. For instance, in an article in Wharton Magazine titled “Covid-19’s Impact on Call Centers” one customer, American actor Josh Young, reported an extremely long hold to reach his credit card company: “I did want to cry. Two calls, no humans.” Why was it so important for him to reach someone at his bank? His credit card details were stolen and fraudulently used online. Another customer said of her long wait time on hold, ‘I was on hold for so long, I fell asleep... when I woke up, I was still on hold.”
This is a far cry from consumer expectations for service. According to marketing experts with HubSpot: “When they have a service question, 90% of customers rate an “immediate” response as important or very important. 60% of them define “immediate” as 10 minutes or less (HubSpot, 2020).
The increased complexity of the calls and time-to-resolution is a problem that can only be solved with better English language communication skills.
How can better English language skills improve call center response times?
If customers are going to sleep and waking up with no resolution in sight, the impact on abandonment rates, customer satisfaction, and overall experience for call centers and their customers is devastating. According to Forbes, $75 billion are lost by businesses annually due to poor customer service.
Call center employees need more than the ability to speak and write in English, they must also listen with comprehension. It is one of the most difficult skills to master, but most critical for call center success. It has been well documented that when a customer must frequently repeat oneself on the phone, frustrations rise, and the length of the call is extended. During the pandemic, key metrics like average handle time, hold times, and abandonment rates are up. First call resolution and customer satisfaction are down.
Hiring and retaining candidates with the strongest communication skills is crucial for competitive differentiation. In the article titled “Importance of English Assessment for Call Center Agents,” Contact Centre World recommends “Through proper training, agents can avoid situations in which they inadvertently affect customer satisfaction. A proper English assessment tool – combined with an excellent training tool – can mitigate the problem.”
In addition to improving the customer experience, strong English language skills amongst call center agents can increase performance for managers. The better the ability to cope with uncertainty and deploy strategic and adaptable questioning strategies, combined with empathetic tones and language, the more calls a center can address.
Solutions: Assessment tools that will have the biggest impact in your call center
While the demand on call centers has increased dramatically, the expectations of consumers have not changed. According to American Express, no matter the circumstances, 33% of Americans will consider switching companies after just one instance of poor customer service.
More often than not, “poor customer service” comes down to communication skills—the ability to express empathy, listen with comprehension, and use effective questioning techniques. These require a more advanced level of English than simple proficiency but are more important than ever during times of heightened fear and stress.
In addition to communication training interventions with existing employees, call center managers must find a method to objectively evaluate candidates that can scale with their growth. Large businesses that run call center operations for example, need to screen thousands of candidates in a short amount of time. It is not realistic to manually assess the language skills of each applicant.
Top call centers around the world turn to automated language assessments such as Pearson’s Versant language tests for scalable, reliable technology-based assessments. Using advanced artificial intelligence and auto-marking technology, Versant tests are available in a range of languages (Arabic, Dutch, English, French, Spanish) and accurately and reliably evaluate test-takers' ability to understand spoken and written language, and to communicate clearly and appropriately in that language. Scores are available within minutes and the patented AI scoring technology removes any bias and inconsistency of human judgment from the equation and accommodate scaling for large numbers of tests takers.
Backed by over 25 years of research, Versant English Tests enable companies to identify exceptional talent and develop optimal employee language skills in less time.
To find out more about Versant English tests, click here.