E-commerce has faced unprecedented disruptive growth during the bumpy span of the pandemic, and the surges are here to stay – beyond a vaccine and the return of brick-and mortar retail. The U.S. Census Bureau predicts e-commerce will continue to steadily gain an average 1% share of the total retail market per year. This pattern has held for several years, reflecting a gradual and predictable shift in overall buying habits.
Last year, however, was an outlier and accelerant. In Q2 of 2020 alone, e-commerce’s share of overall retail sales increased by 6% – six years’ worth of growth in just three months. And as groceries, medical supplies, beauty goods, and home entertainment products are more frequently purchased online, the World Economic Forum predicts that, when the numbers are finalized, 2020 will ultimately show growth of nearly 20% in e-commerce, while department stores are expected to decline by over 60%. That represents a large-scale transformation of buying habits that will not easily revert.
Complications & Challenges Facing the Customer Support Industry
COVID-19 created a sudden and profound growth in the demand for customer support – much greater in magnitude than the seasonal increases to which customer support teams are accustomed. Teams know to anticipate temporary seasonal surges and typically prepare by expanding support hours with more outsourced agents. There is no precedent for the way customer support needs grew during the pandemic, and looking forward, no clear model for how and when they will ebb.
The customer support industry has faced operational challenges and limitations when trying to accommodate the increased demand. During the onset of COVID-19, many U.S.-based and international brick-and-mortar call centers were forced to temporarily close altogether, disrupting customer service continuity for many businesses when they needed it most. Other centers found ways to continue operating by implementing social distancing policies and managing alternating shifts for on-site employees. Some centers opted to send a portion of their agents to work-from-home (WFH) and attempted to adjust operations accordingly, with varying levels of success. All of these methods resulted in lost or reduced call center capacity at the worst-possible time.
At first glance, a hybrid approach, with support personnel both working from home and in call centers, seems like a viable solution. However, the challenges that accompany transitioning to and managing a WFH workforce are significant and not easily solved overnight. Transitioning a team to be home-based requires transforming every aspect of a company’s operations, from recruitment and training, to managing teams for productivity, to establishing system requirements, security protocols, and technology platforms. The company’s overall business processes, policies, and company culture need to be adapted for remote work to be successful.
However, this is not what usually happens. Instead, companies that choose to adopt a hybrid model retain processes, expensive infrastructure, and real estate that are designed and optimized for brick-and-mortar environments and are sub-optimal, and in some cases irrelevant, for home-based work. These legacy processes and systems make it difficult to optimize internal technology platforms as well as the recruitment, training, and engagement of home-based employees.
Homesourcing: A Better Solution to E-commerce Demands
The temporary measures forced by the pandemic were not sufficient to address customer support needs in 2020, and businesses are challenged to find a more sustainable solution to these ongoing e-commerce trends. In the first stages of the crisis, lapses in customer support levels were frustrating, but understandable. Now, it is past time to move towards a long-term model that can provide continuous customer support. One solution that retailers should consider is homesourcing – both disaster-proof and realistic. Homesourcing requires that all of a company’s processes, platforms, tools, and culture are redesigned to support work delivered from home. The homesourcing model enables outsourced work to be delivered by remote employees anywhere in the world, while maintaining or even improving productivity and performance.
Even as the vaccine rolls out, the cultural and behavioral shifts of the pandemic will linger; the need for e-commerce customer support will remain high. By leveraging a homesourced model, retailers can activate the customer support resources they need at any time – up to three times faster than hybrid or traditional call centers. The globally dispersed nature of a homesourced workforce enables flexible scheduling based on call arrival patterns and large-scale ramping during seasonal spikes. This gives customer support providers the ability to easily pivot as a retailer’s needs change, increasing or decreasing staffing as people adjust to a reopening society.
The homesourcing model dynamically captures financial and operational efficiencies for retailers, while delivering superior customer experiences from a team that thrives in a fully remote environment. A mature homesourced organization hires agents with the personality, work style, and time management skills suited for remote work. Without the typical geographic constraints faced by traditional call centers, a homesourced customer support vendor can rapidly recruit and onboard custom-profiled experts to meet a retailer’s specific skill set, experience, or efficiency requirements. Homesourcing enables hiring exactly the right people quickly, wherever they are.
Hiring is only the first step in supporting a homesourced model – all training and resources must also be optimized for the remote environment. By investing in ongoing virtual learning, homesourced customer support providers can diversify their employees’ areas of expertise and increase overall speed to competency, providing agents with everything they need to resolve even complex issues swiftly and competently, with minimal holds and transfers, regardless of industry or specialty.
The homesourcing model is uniquely positioned to meet ongoing e-commerce customer service demands in 2021 and beyond, efficiently addressing modern customer support challenges across vertical markets that are likely to remain in a post-COVID world.
Lance Rosenzweig is President & CEO of Support.com, a leader in customer and technical support solutions delivered by home-based employees. Previously, he has been CEO of three leading business process outsourcing companies, including Startek, Aegis, and PeopleSupport. Rosenzweig is also an entrepreneur and board member, with a track record of building great companies and generating substantial shareholder returns.