As unbelievable as it’s been, COVID-19 continues to disrupt business operations around the planet on an unprecedented scale, from world-class event cancellations to local shops and restaurant closures. In many cases, business sales numbers have declined from double-digit figures all the way down to zero.
The level of uncertainty surrounding this global pandemic is high, and this has caused anxiety about how much longer the situation will last. I have no doubt that humanity will eventually overcome this crisis, but I also think it is important to accept the possibility of future disasters that will shock businesses again. We can start now, during this time of unprecedented vulnerability, to take steps to safeguard our future and our livelihoods.
The continuity of operations in the short term is one of the biggest challenges businesses are facing, but there is an opportunity to learn from this event— to focus on re-inventing businesses so that they may become more resilient against disruptive events long term.
COVID-19 has impacted businesses differently. Some have lost their entire revenue streams, while others have experienced an unprecedented surge in demand. Both of these outcomes are devastating to businesses.
While a surge in demand may seem like a good problem to have, the abnormal rate of increase is actually detrimental to business operations because it causes massive pressure and frustration for employees, as well as agony for customers who cannot be served.
During the COVID-19 debacle and lockdown ordinances, employees have not been able to travel to their main place of work. Disaster recovery and business continuity plans involving moving employees to offsite locations have not been helpful, as the spread of the virus has reached almost every city across the planet. The only viable option left for companies is to mobilize their workforce and enable them to work from home.
In order to work remotely, though, employees need access to all business resources, such as software applications, databases, and communications systems over the internet. This is not something that can be achieved overnight, and businesses that still utilize legacy applications and systems are being impacted the most. Without physical resources, operations are being suspended with no support for customers and employees during the pandemic lockdown.
On the flip-side, organizations that are completely digital and run their entire operations in the cloud have the flexibility to mobilize their workforce and continue business operations.
Business communication is arguably one of the most important factors for business continuity. Without receiving customer inquiries, there will be no sales, and customers will not get support if they cannot contact businesses. To ensure business continuity, communication channels and systems must be preserved and accessible for employees who work from home.
On Prem Telephone Systems? Oh No…
Traditional telephone systems connected to physical services from phone companies (analog telephone lines, digital PRI service, etc.) are the most challenging to optimize in a time like this. Businesses that use onsite legacy telephone systems are the most vulnerable. It’s nearly impossible for the workforce working from home to connect to these systems and answer incoming telephone calls. Thus the connection between customers and employees via telephones breaks down.
Cloud-based Voice Over IP systems, on the contrary, provide great flexibility for a workforce that works from offsite locations. For example, call center agents can take workplace telephone sets home or use smart mobile devices as telephone sets (softphones) and still have full access to corporate telephony features.
Hosted cloud-based telephone services cost less than traditional legacy systems anyway. Businesses that have not made the transition to IP telephony yet, must upgrade their telephone systems to address this big problem.
Support More Contact Channels:
Businesses must support new channels of communication to improve collaboration between internal employees and connect with customers. On the other hand, business operations must be automated as much as possible for the sake of continuity of operations. Traditional methods of contact such as telephone calls, fax, and email do not fit well at all into automation plans. Not to mention that traditional channels are not preferred by today’s consumers anyways. The need to adopt preferred channels of communication, such as text messaging, social media, consumer messaging apps, and live chat, is evident now more than ever. These contact channels are also automation friendly and can be leveraged to keep business-customer communications going even without workforce involvement.
Business Automation and Conversational Platforms Dramatically Increase Human Workforce Bandwidth
When using messaging channels, customers do not have to wait in long queues for a chance to communicate their needs. Messages can be effortlessly communicated in real time. Automated systems equipped with natural language processing can intercept message inquiries and categorize them based on customer intention, then distribute them to the appropriate departments. In addition, live agents can handle written messages a lot faster than telephone calls with less pressure to handle customer inquiries.
Even better, Conversational platforms with Natural Language Understanding and Intent-Matching capabilities can conduct natural conversations with humans to understand their needs. These systems can be trained to provide services, execute tasks, and take actions on behalf of customers. Note that automated systems handle customer inquiries in real time with no human help. This is huge for businesses that desperately need a digital upgrade, especially in this time of global crisis.
Automation and conversational platforms like VCAs (Virtual Customer Assistants) and VEAs (Virtual Employee Assistants) empower employees to work in a stress-free environment while enabling customers to continue receiving service.
Head-to-Head Matchup: Legacy Call Center Versus Chatbot
Let’s compare a traditional call center scenario with live agents working from home with a modern conversational platform that utilizes chatbots.
Human agents who work from home do not have access to the key call center tools such as call queue boards and live onsite supervisors. Trying to deal with a storm of frustrated callers with minimal visibility and corporate support is a very stressful and daunting task.
However, in a well-designed conversational platform scenario, a theoretically unlimited number of incoming inquiries can be taken and handled by chatbots with minimal or no human involvement required.
Virtual Customer Assistants—a type of chatbot—can handle multiple channels of customer contact, including websites, mobile apps, social networks, messaging applications, phone trees, text messages, kiosks and more, to provide a consistent level of customer service. Customers receive the same real-time support experience whether they initiate contact via telephone call, mobile app, or Facebook Messenger.
Hybrid Environments Provide Flexibility
During a crisis such as COVID-19, callers and website visitors can be instructed to engage with businesses using alternate contact channels instead, like text messaging and website live chat. Customers receive the real-time support from an automated system that does not get tired, does not need to take breaks, does not get sick, and can handle a large load of inquiries.
On Prem Legacy Software Applications? Oh No…
It’s part of human nature. When times are good, we tend to procrastinate and prioritize our actions, putting key business decisions on the backburner. Although migration from antiquated software applications to modern cloud-based services seems obvious, many businesses have played the waiting game to avoid the short-term hassle of making changes. But procrastination has come with a heavy price, as operations halt during the COVID-19 lockdown.
Organizations must consider upgrading business software applications and running their entire operation in the cloud to provide their workforce access to business tools from anywhere using any internet-connected device.
Software applications hosted on cloud platforms provided by Amazon, Microsoft, Google and others can automatically scale up and down as load increases and decreases. This feature optimizes the cost of hosting applications while ensuring application availability during massive surges in demand.
As part of the overall digital transformation, businesses and organizations need to develop and organize their knowledge base and upgrade their business management applications to modern cloud-based software with integration capabilities. The viability of deploying conversational platforms hinges on the digital readiness of an organization. A digital business is more resilient, more flexible, and more available. A digital business can easily and swiftly morph to support new business models.
Changing Business Models in a Time of Crisis
The ability to change business models when needed adds a layer of shock absorbency to a business. When one door closes, a window opens and new opportunities are created in the time of crisis. But it requires readiness and flexibility to adjust to and take advantage of these opportunities. A dine-in restaurant may be on the verge of going out of business during the COVID-19 lockdown. But as owners try to find ways to keep the staff employed and save the restaurant, they might decide to change their business model and morph into a meal kit service or food delivery service. Now, to make this transition quickly, the restaurant should have invested in technologies and relationships like messaging apps, social media, food delivery services, etc.
Business automation and technologies such as conversational platforms and chatbots make businesses more resilient, allowing them to support different business models.
When the Dust Settles, New Battles Emerge
It’s impossible to perfectly predict the next cataclysmic event, but it’s inevitable that things will happen from time to time which impact power, telephone service, internet, etc. Businesses must support a variety of communication channels to ensure resilience against these unforeseen challenges.
Just decades ago, advanced technologies cost millions of dollars to acquire, customize, and deploy even for small businesses. Thanks to the affordability of modern cloud-based technologies, businesses of all sizes can take advantage of amazing tools such as conversational platforms, artificial intelligence, and machine learning to optimize and transform the way they do business—ready to weather even the biggest challenges that lie ahead.
How Is Your Business Coping with COVID-19? If your business operation has shut down and business communications have failed during this crisis, then it’s time for a digital transformation.
Take the next step by scheduling a consultation session with a Zebyl expert. We’ll discuss the technology and strategies available to help get your business back on its feet.
Author: Pejman Rajabian