by Clint Boulton

COVID-19 crisis accelerates rise of virtual call centers

Jun 09, 2020
Digital TransformationIT Leadership

Call center operations have increasingly gone remote, but the pandemic has accelerated the WFH CX support trend, as IT leaders at T-Mobile and American Express attest.

virtual call center chat bot ai covid by jackie niam getty images
Credit: Jackie Niam / Getty Images

The coronavirus pandemic has pushed IT leaders to move at breakneck pace and accomplish objectives they never conceived likely, let alone possible. Perhaps nowhere has this been more acute than in the call center.

T-Mobile, for instance, sent 12,000 customer representatives located in 17 call centers around the globe to work from home in the wake of the pandemic, says Cody Sanford, the telecommunications company’s CIO and chief product officer. The shift, which took two and a half weeks to complete, required painstaking procedures to “hygienically” ship hardware and software to employees’ residences, a task Sanford describes as one of the toughest rapid-fire turnarounds during his tenure as CIO. “We had to rebuild our entire customer care operations forensically,” Sanford tells

The pandemic has accelerated the virtualized call center, which had been a growing trend facilitated by the cloud, crowdsourcing and the gig economy. Thirty-five percent of the customer experience (CX) workforce will WFH by 2023, up from 5 percent in 2017, according to Gartner, which cites changes in labor practices and business continuity planning as chief factors motivating the trend.

But when COVID-19 hit, most CX organizations did not have plans for enabling staff to work from home. Within days of shuttering call centers, companies had to have CX professionals fielding customer calls remotely. Many struggled to replicate their CX working environment, including the proper hardware and software necessary to provide call support.

The rise of the WFH call center

T-Mobile, however, pulled it off with aplomb. A crack team of IT staffers helped dismantle workers’ equipment, including multi-screen laptops, skinny servers and cables. They then sanitized the gear and packaged it up with step-by-step instructions, as well as FAQs, on how to set up the work environments at home. Call center reps either took their equipment home at the end of their last shift in the office, or, if they chose, returned to retrieve it later via curbside pickup.

One saving grace: T-Mobile reps used softphones already installed on their laptops, rather than traditional landlines. But, Sanford notes, its CX reps are hardly IT experts. Once they got the equipment home, they installed their systems, turning to a Slack channel for answers to questions about setup, VPN, system access, and other support. Eventually, support transitioned to T-Mobile’s service desk, which serves all WFH employees. 

But T-Mobile faced a scalability and resiliency challenge. The company’s huge data pipes easily handled inbound calling traffic, but its calling architecture was not tuned to support thousands of disparate remote connections. “All of the capacity was directed to our call centers and we didn’t have to think about unique routing because it was one logic pipe,” Sanford says. Working with Cisco Systems, Sanford changed the cloud routing architecture to handle thousands of calls supported by its 12,000 workers connecting remotely from various broadband providers. Calls now funnel to communities of reps dedicated to certain swaths of customers.

Finally, T-Mobile also changed its call support operating model. When reps were co-located in centers, an expert“coach” listened in on calls and offered advice on how to handle them, particularly from concerned or irate customers, and provided feedback once the call was completed. With social distancing in effect, T-Mobile switched to call coaching via several collaboration tools, including WebEx, Microsoft Teams and Slack. In the latter platform, it created a special WFH channel where reps could message coaches for help. “This is a way for the coaches to continue to be present and have meaningful and contextual collaboration on behalf of our customers,” Sanford says.

For some IT leaders, technology isn’t the biggest issue, so much as lacking the ability to control it. In most corporations, data centers or cloud providers ensure data and compute is closely tethered to serve the data that powers applications. That applies to call centers as well.

Lack of stack control causes consternation

Evan Kotsovinos learned this lesson at American Express, where the global head of infrastructure is leading the company’s tech response to the pandemic.

As at most companies, AmEx call center professionals require access to special customer service software designed for use in offices, where application data resides relatively close to the data center, ensuring speedy service and resiliency. But when staff work from home, they rely on their consumer-grade broadband connections; sluggish networks and outages can wreak havoc.

To mitigate these problems, AmEx early on added network capacity and relied heavily on telemetry, gathering data on the use and performance of apps, including processing time, crashes and other stats, which helped IT know where it needed to improve performance. Even so, Kotsovinos lamented the challenges of managing a much more complex ecosystem.

“We don’t control the whole stack,” Kotsovinos says. “The most common problems were ISP issues where people had trouble connecting from home.”

What Kotsovinos can control has served AmEx well during the pandemic: containers orchestrated by Kubernetes to deploy and run apps, as part of a hybrid cloud strategy. Employees have been able to stream from home and access other media-intensive apps to complete their tasks. “It’s the biggest stress test of the cloud you could ever imagine.”

The bold but necessary moves by T-Mobile, AmEx and other large enterprises underscore how CIOs are balancing accelerating their current digital strategies with mitigating issues that are potentially deleterious to the business.

Consequently, they’re feeling the pinch to perform, as 81 percent of 1,000 IT professionals surveyed by AppDynamics say that COVID-19 has created the biggest technology pressure for their organization they have ever experienced. And 64 percent are performing tasks and activities they have never done before, according to Gregg Ostrowski, AppDynamics regional CTO.

“This is the biggest technology pressure they’ve had in their careers,” Ostrowski says, adding that this is the first time most CIOs have had to put a virtual workforce on their backs.

The good news? CIOs who execute well under duress will be viewed more positively by their business peers, which will lead to quicker approval for budget increases and other requests, Ostrowski says.