Zika: A Customer Care Disruption Coming Your Way. Part I

Jun 07, 2016

In the last few weeks the spread of the Zika virus has dominated news headlines. CNN, ABC news and Time magazine have all offered extensive coverage.  I am not a disease specialist or have medical training. However, I like to think of myself as a keen observer of trends…. and there are a lot of them that swirl around the contact center space. Because I travel so often to contact center sites in Mexico and Central America, I really pay close attention to (good and bad) news from the region.

As we all know, nearshore contact center outsourcing has become a popular option for U.S. companies and North American service providers. Outsourcing and the provision of customer care for U.S. consumers is an important slice of the economic pie in Latin America and the Caribbean. This would include Jamaica, the Dominican Republic, Puerto Rico, Trinidad/Barbados, Mexico, Guatemala, Honduras, El Salvador, Nicaragua, Costa Rica, Panama, Colombia, Guyana and Brazil. Remember this list of countries.

A Zika Primer

The Zika virus was first discovered in Uganda’s Zika forest in 1947. It is carried primarily by the A.aegypti mosquito. According to the May 16 issue of Time magazine, “..more than 400 Americans have contracted the virus while overseas, but with an estimated 40 million (italics mine) Americans traveling to Zika-infected countries each year (see the list above) – 500,000 of them likely pregnant women. Zika will almost certainly spread locally within the mainland U.S. this Summer.” The mosquito species that primarily transmits the virus, is present in about 30 states.

Southern states like Florida, Mississippi, Alabama, Georgia, Louisiana, Arkansas, New Mexico, Arizona, Nevada and Texas are particularly vulnerable. These are areas where the climate and geography are favorable for the breeding and growth of the A.aegypti mosquitos that carry the virus. A warm Summer could compound the problem. Time magazine adds, “Puerto Rico has already reported more than 700 confirmed cases…”

I am quickly becoming a student of Zika because I believe it has the potential to completely disrupt customer care as we know it today if it spreads. It threatens the health and well-being of frontline brand ambassadors in the U.S. and in nearshore countries; our contact center agents who answer millions of voice calls every day. Frost & Sullivan estimates that there are over 5 million contact center agents in North America alone. They deliver customer care in verticals like financial services, travel and hospitality, retail, healthcare, telecomm, high tech and government.    

What is the Federal Government Doing to Address Zika?

The White house has asked Congress for $1.9 billion in emergency funding to fight Zika. Just this past week, Governor Scott of Florida asked the President for financial help in fighting the Zika virus. However, as implausible as it seems, there are no commercial diagnostic tests. It follows that there are no commercially available drugs or vaccines for Zika. Even after testing (primarily for pregnant women who have traveled to the 44 countries where Zika has spread) Zika can be mistaken for other viruses like dengue and chikungunya. These realities astound me. Reports are that vaccine development is underway at the National Institute of Health (NIH). The CDC has activated its Emergency Operations Center (EOC) to a level 1 response. We are told to protect ourselves with long sleeves, trousers and insecticides. Removing standing water helps remove the breeding ground.

 Why Does this Matter?

I am not an alarmist, but Zika has me worried-as did potential pandemics like H1N1, the Bird Flu and the Ebola outbreak in 2014. This virus is different for some basic reasons:

  1. We don’t have enough research, testing or a vaccine
  2. The disease is spreading rapidly. Zika can be sexually transmitted  
  3. The mosquito seem to be mutating
  4. Affected persons may not be aware that they have the virus

I can only hope and pray that contact center executives take note and invest in the resources necessary to maintain customer care at minimal levels, if Zika truly goes viral. In our ‘always on’ society, every study I see suggests that consumers need more (and different) customer care - not less. I firmly believe that a laser focus on automation, virtual agents/assistants, IVRs using artificial intelligence and expanding work-at home programs might fill that gap and provide some needed insurance against the Zika virus.

As industry leaders we spend a lot of time in presentations, think tanks, blogs and discussions, talking about the customer experience, digital transformation and the rise of Omnichannel. Those things are really important, but maybe it’s time to go back to planning and preparation for a pandemic like Zika. If Zika it spreads as predicted, it is my view that this disease will become a significant disruptor for contact centers and BPOs across the Americas. It is our blind spot.

I welcome your comments, perspective and opinions. Stay tuned. Part II will be forthcoming soon….

My two cents,  

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Michael DeSalles


DeSalles has 25 years of contact center operational experience. He combines this with 10 years of research and analytical expertise in: Emerging trends, convergence, collapse and disruptive technologies in the contact center industry; Insight into site management, supervision and agent development; Customer care outsourcing; Skills based routing; BPO Near shore deployment; Home based agents

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