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Propelled by COVID-19, How We Reimagined Our Call Center Operations

by: Allen Pettis
Monday, June 01, 2020

Despite the many advances in digital customer service, cardholders already under health and financial stress reached for the telephone during the COVID-19 crisis.

As the coronavirus outbreak has persisted, it has continued to leave behind a tremendous amount of financial upheaval, with an increased need for phone-based customer support at issuing banks. Now, instead of cardholders calling to check a balance, they are asking what can be done about missed payments. Instead of calling to reset a PIN, they're questioning their payment terms or asking about hardship programs.

And when a call center goes down, customers' red flags go up. Cardholders with unique and often stressful situations are left in limbo if greeted with generic updates like:

“Please be aware that we are experiencing higher than normal call volumes."

“Consider using our online portal to answer your questions where possible."

At TSYS, a Global Payments company, we know that every step in the cardholder life cycle is an important part of the service we provide to our issuing clients. This is especially true for the telephone-based customer service we offer on behalf of issuers, as call centers have been deemed essential during the pandemic by the Department of Homeland Security.

When the coronavirus reached North America, we needed to prioritize keeping our call center agents safe while also managing longer calls and more complex customer interactions as a result of the pandemic.

The team at TSYS had to pivot quickly to accommodate these new dynamics while maintaining the focus on the service and relationships for which we're known. In a short matter of time, we have completely adapted typical call center operations to become more agile and flexible for our clients and agents.

"In a short matter of time, we have reimagined the call center to be more agile and flexible to best accommodate our clients and our call center team members."

More flexible call center operations

To paint a picture of how starkly things have changed, consider this: In February of 2020, TSYS call center operators based in Columbus, Georgia worked in one of two very large call centers. Before March was over, agents were taking calls in five different facilities. By the end of April, more than 250 agents were working from home while adhering to their standard workflows with high operational efficiency. That's more than 568,000 calls in April alone, with a 96% answer rate, many of which were handled by agents working from home. Those performance measures are right in line with a typical month, in spite of the pandemic.

At the beginning of this crisis, we had no idea just how fast we were going to have to change course. When we learned the coronavirus was spreading quickly through our communities, our number one concern was the safety of our team. Yet, if we shut down all call center operations, it would have caused massive disruption to cardholders who urgently need help with their account.

Due to information security concerns, it's rare to find call center operators working from home. And that makes perfect sense when things are business as usual. If you have people handling sensitive data like card numbers and other personal information, it's better to have them do it from a controlled environment. For that reason, for us, we chose not to utilize remote call center agents.

But as COVID-19 ramped up, we knew we needed to move our people apart in the physical sense while not sacrificing our team's ability to provide customer support.

Moving call center agents home

One way we initially pivoted was by leveraging other buildings TSYS owns or leases in Columbus, Georgia, which is home to our corporate headquarters. We were able to establish fully operational call centers in other office buildings, while increasing cleaning schedules and giving agents extra space to do their jobs. And in short order, we were able to get our agents working from home. 

Powered by advanced technology

As part of our strategy to modernize the technology we use in our issuing business, we had prepared a work-from-home strategy for our call centers but had yet to implement it. As part of that initiative, we had access to a voice-activated software solution that — once utilized — would allow us to maintain our usual quality of service with a fully remote call center team.

Our foresight to invest in the tools that enable remote access paid off. We were able to expedite any remaining approvals for the technology launch, and the software worked flawlessly. It was the perfect solution to get people working in their own homes immediately and mapped back to the overall technology modernization strategy in our issuing business. It also helped maintain the necessary levels of security and compliance our customers have come to expect.

The right people in the right roles

A large part of our agility was having the technology solutions in place that could be scaled up quickly. But another major part of our success was having the right people in the right roles.

The nature of a call center operator's job is very sensitive, as there is account information available every time they assist a customer. It requires a certain level of trust and transparency to have operators providing customer support in a remote location.

To compensate for the increased risk, we identified operators that would be working from home based on their experience and skill sets. There were strict criteria to meet the requirements. But our clients were willing to explore this opportunity with us because our call center operators were proven to be high-quality, trustworthy employees that were dedicated to customer satisfaction.

When our team focuses on the same goal, we can move mountains. There are massive mountains, like standing up several brand new call centers in a matter of days to keep our team members safe. But there are also smaller, but no less meaningful mountains, like keeping our team's morale high. This includes things like providing meals from local restaurants to every staff member who needed to come to work, or even something as simple as changing our dress code to allow hats.

When I walk through our call centers, the energy is still high. You can tell our operators know they're truly making a difference for those whose financial lives have been affected by the virus.

A flexible arrangement for the future

The times we're living in demand an extremely high-caliber team. Call center agents are more empowered than ever before to change payment schedules, reverse fees and thoughtfully explain hardship programs. We need people with not only a strong work ethic, but who also exhibit a strong sense of empathy. The calls these days tend to be longer and more complex, requiring more creative thinking and strong communication skills.

At TSYS, we know our clients rely on us to represent their brands. The ability to service a cardholder is just as important as the ability for the payment transaction to go through. It's a standard promise as part of the customer relationship. We'll look to exemplify that trusted partner dynamic going forward as we continue to find new ways to address challenges that may come our way — both inside or outside of our call centers.