90%. 13.5 million people.
That is the number of call centre agents worldwide who were forced to work remotely during the pandemic. This was an incomparable behavioural shift in an industry that has typically been extremely office-centric. Stephen Yap, Research Director at the Call Centre Management Association confirms “there's been more change, arguably, in the last 18 months than they were in 18 years prior to the pandemic.”
The industry initially struggled to adapt to its new circumstances. Many saw their KPIs take a hit and one contact centre even found that 22% of their agents were using ironing boards and window sills as makeshift workstations, for lack of a dedicated desk. And yet, two years on, many call centres are considering making these changes permanent.
In fact, a Gartner study revealed that 81% of service leaders believe between 30% to 80% of their workforce will primarily be working from home two years from now. This is most definitely reflected in agent demands, with 70% requesting to continue working from home long-term.
It’s not an exact fit, but it’s interesting to note that the ratio of ill-equipped agents in one study almost equals the ratio of agents who don’t wish to work from home in another study.
With the evidence pointing to a lasting remote working culture in the call centre industry, we’ve created this ultimate guide on how to future-proof your call centre and prepare your agents for one of the biggest challenges of remote work: background noise.
Why is background noise a problem?
One of the biggest challenges call centre agents face when working remotely is regaining control of their environment. Only 36% of people have access to a dedicated workspace at home. That’s a huge number of people working in shared living rooms and noisy cafes competing with other people who are also trying to work. The biggest risks of this for a call centre agent are poor communication with the customer, potentially sensitive information being overheard by other people, and coming across as unprofessional.
Background noise as an issue is obviously no stranger to the call centre industry, but the problems that arise from noise in a call centre are very different to those that come with working remotely. Whilst noise absorbing partitions and increased space between agents may help on a call floor, these tactics are hard to replicate in different agents’ homes — and likely won’t help anyway when the kettle boils or when an ambulance drives past their open window. This isn’t a minor issue either — it’s actually estimated that repetition on calls costs the industry £143m annually.
Consider this: A University of London study found that at 45 decibels (dbs) or higher, people began to experience annoyance and were less effective at whatever activity they were in the midst of doing. In the average household, a flushing toilet, hair dryer, electric toothbrush, aircon unit, vacuum cleaner, telephone, television, kettle, washing machine, dishwasher, and dryer all measure considerably higher than 45 dbs. In addition to the noise inside the home, we’re also dealing with outside disruptions like traffic, sirens, lawnmowers, leaf blowers, helicopters, and even the weather testing the average person’s patience and tolerance for noise.
At IRIS, we call this the uncontrollable environment. So how do you control it?
How to solve background noise for your remote call centre?
We think of background noise as a 4-pronged issue. You have:
- The sound your agent can hear from their end of the call
- The sound your agent can hear from the customer’s end of the call
- The sound your customer can hear from the agent’s side of the call
- The sound your customer can hear from their end of the call
Put all that noise together and you can see how quickly a simple conversation with a clear target outcome can become a disastrous cacophony of muting and unmuting, “can you repeat that,” and full-on misunderstandings leading to an outcome that’s either delayed, wrong, or non-existent.
The great news is that we have a solution to 3 out of 4 of these noise constraints. (Unfortunately, number 4 is entirely up to your customer).
Noise #1: Removing noise from your end of the call
The solution to removing noise from your end of the call will come as no surprise: get your hands on a set of high-quality noise cancelling headsets. Headsets are just as invaluable to an agent at home as they are on the call floor.
You can choose between ANC (Active Noise Cancellation) or PNC (Passive Noise Cancellation) headphones. ANC headphones cancel sound by using built-in microphones to play the exact opposite phase of incoming sound through the headphones’ speakers. PNC is essentially soundproofing; the headphones create a seal over your ears to block out the noise.
Check out this list of the top 10 recommended headsets to make the best choice for your individual situation.
Noises #2 and #3: Removing the noise each person can hear at the other end of the call
As good as your headset is, it’s a primarily ‘selfish’ solution to noise cancellation — it only removes sounds around you, for you. In order to prevent the noise from your side of the call from reaching the customer, and vice versa, prevent noise from their side of the call from reaching your agent, you’ll need to find AI-driven noise cancelling technology — like our very own IRIS Clarity.
Noise cancelling apps utilise AI to remove all ambient/background noise by recognising the ‘noise’ in an environment and prioritising the primary voices in a conversation. It can detect your standard nuisances like barking dogs, screaming kids, beeping appliances, and droning construction, as well as other voices that are clearly not the focus, like fellow agents on the call floor, general office babble, or your inevitably rowdy roommates.
Apps like IRIS Clarity operates in real-time and is compatible with VoIP platforms (e.g. Five9, 8x8, RingCentral, Vonage, Avaya, etc.), video conferencing tools (e.g. Zoom, MS Teams, Google Meet, Slack, etc.), online CRMs (e.g. HubSpot, Salesforce), and many others. It enhances the quality of any conversation taking place in a noisy environment, and, if it’s bi-directional like IRIS Clarity, it automatically works on the other side of the call, too. In our example, the call centre agent wouldn’t hear the vacuum cleaner or traffic at the customer’s end, and the customer wouldn’t hear the barking dog or siren at the agent’s end.
Noise #4: Removing the noise your customer can hear at their end of the call
‘Sorry sir/madam, you may need to stop vacuuming your house/switch off your music/lock your child or dog in another room whilst you’re speaking to me if you expect to hear anything.’
Unfortunately, we don’t know of any nifty piece of technology that fixes a lack of common sense. Only an easy-to-use template above. Feel free to slot in the most applicable wording for your situation.
The ultimate combo for remote call centre noise cancellation
As an audio technology company, we at IRIS are extremely passionate about the power of audio — both in highlighting its benefits as well as solving its deficiencies. Background noise is a huge issue for the call centre industry — 64% of call centres rank it as a problem for their agents and customers. Whilst we support the many benefits of working from home, we believe the issue of background noise will continue to hinder contact centres and agents — just in a different form.
That being said, combining an excellent noise cancelling headset with a high-performing noise cancelling app such as IRIS Clarity will greatly reduce the negative effects brought on by background noise. It’s a match made in call centre heaven which promises to improve call centre KPIs whilst also promoting agent wellbeing — particularly at a time when agents worldwide are looking to work remotely on a more permanent basis.