The pandemic has changed and catalyzed many aspects of customer service. That’s not news.
But as we (slowly, cautiously) emerge from isolation and re-enter the real world, what is the actual news, from a customer service perspective?
We got all the lowdown from our very own Chief Customer officer, Guido Schenkel, who is an expert on all things changing and trending in CS. We asked him how customer expectations have been impacted by Covid-19, and how businesses can adapt in both the short-term and longer-term.
Spoiler alert: the importance of lasting customer relationships is here to stay.
How have customer expectations changed as a result of the pandemic?
The pandemic has undoubtedly amplified existing expectations of what makes good customer service. While customer service experts are always discussing concepts like tone and empathy as key elements of good customer service, and while those concepts are definitely relevant for some scenarios, the reality is that the vast majority of customers care mainly about two things when they initially contact customer service: resolution and convenience.
In other words, customers’ primary expectation is to have their issue solved, or their questions answered, fully, quickly, and with as little effort as possible.
The pandemic or, more to the point, the restrictions on every-day life as a result of the pandemic have heightened those expectations in a number of ways. For instance, with many physical businesses closed and people staying home as much as possible, we currently all rely much more on online shopping than ever before.
More importantly, many of us now rely on it for very essential purchases that we would probably not have bought online before. That doesn’t just affect the number of customers, it also affects the urgency — perceived and real — when something goes wrong with their order. There’s a difference whether the delivery of my new nose hair trimmer is delayed, or whether it’s groceries or an order of diapers.
When online shopping effectively becomes an essential service, ensuring smooth, reliable experiences becomes all the more crucial. And that’s exactly the way customers expect businesses to look at it.
How have companies adapted their CS and their relationships with customers this past year?
That’s actually not an easy, straightforward question to answer, because how companies have adapted, and were forced to adapt, their customer service operations depends very much on which industry you’re looking at. The pandemic has affected different businesses in very different, even diametrically opposed ways.
Take the example above: ecommerce and logistics have absolutely boomed as a result of more people working from home and being either unable or less willing to shop at brick-and-mortar stores for even the basics. For the bottom line of these industries that’s fantastic, of course.
But for their CS teams, it also presents significant new challenges. Many have had trouble coping with the massive increase in demand over a comparatively short period of time, with even BPOs — for many companies a mainstay solution to the problem of becoming more flexible and adaptable to changing volumes — reaching their limits.
At the same time, the main customer expectations have not changed. Customers still want their issues resolved quickly, conveniently, and to their full satisfaction. Therefore, these businesses have had to find ways of ensuring that those expectations can still be met in the light of significantly higher volumes, and heightened urgency.
Read more about developments in CS
On the flip side, industries whose business has been negatively impacted by the pandemic are facing very different challenges. For many travel and hospitality companies, for instance, their revenues have shrunk as a direct result of the limitations in these areas necessitated by the global health crisis. At the same time, however, their customer service volumes have not dropped. In fact, especially in the early stages of the pandemic, as incomes in these industries plummeted, customer inquiries skyrocketed. And even a year in, the decrease in business has not nearly been matched by an equal decrease in customer contacts.
Both then and now, what customers inquire about in these sectors has changed a great deal. Precisely because travel and hospitality have been so hard hit by the pandemic, most customers are now asking about how that affects them. From cancelled flights and hotels to postponed events and paused gym memberships, various businesses are faced with the challenge of doing damage control while still providing positive experiences in order to retain their customers through the pandemic.
At the same time, many of these businesses, especially smaller ones, have been forced to reduce their workforce as the result of decreasing revenues, just to stay afloat at all. So, they are effectively trying to address more new challenges with fewer resources.
In the short term, how can companies rise to these new challenges and continue to foster strong customer relationships in the process?
At Ultimate, we have already been able to help a lot of different businesses master both increased and changing demands over the past year. Our intelligent automation solutions have not only enabled many of our customers to cope with spiking volumes faster and more efficiently without sacrificing customer experience in the process; they have also empowered other businesses to quickly adapt to sudden shifts in what their customers need and expect by using our Intelligent Virtual Agents to deliver fast, reliable solutions for new topical focus areas, while freeing up their human agents for more complex, and less repetitive issues.
This combination has proven very successful because it allows businesses the flexibility to continue catering to their customers’ central expectation — having their issues resolved quickly and reliably — while giving them the breathing room to adapt and expand their processes in line with the new realities, for themselves and for their customers. All in the face of increased volumes and a higher sense of urgency, and often paired with fewer resources.
In the longer term, what should companies be doing differently to foster stronger, more lasting relationships with customers?
While we are all confident that things will keep getting better, as vaccines permeate and society adapts, it’s unlikely things will simply go back to the way they were before. It’s much more likely that some of the new habits formed during the pandemic are here to stay and will impact customer expectations for the foreseeable future.
The flexibility that successful businesses have shown under the 'unprecedented' conditions will continue to be expected by their customers going forward, and this will be part of how they judge their customer service experience. That entails not only the ability to adapt to new and changing demands and situations quickly and effectively, but also things like a focus on new channels of communication to align with customers’ daily routines and ensure the highest level of convenience.
Over the past year, we’ve done a lot at Ultimate to empower companies on all of these fronts. Because businesses are faced with the necessity to make long-term changes to their CS processes and workflows in order to deliver the flexibility their customers have now come to expect, we’ve put an especially strong emphasis on delivering and improving specific tools that make this as easy as possible.
“In addition to expanding and optimizing our integrations with support channels that have been seeing growing demand, like instant messaging, we’ve completely revamped some key parts of our product to make it even easier for businesses to incorporate automation into their CS strategy.”
- Guido Schenkel
For example, our Dialogue Builder, which has always been at the heart of our virtual agents delivering answers to customer questions not just quickly and accurately, but also in a fully customizable way, has been almost completely reworked to make it both more powerful and more easy to use, lowering the learning curve and allowing businesses to get started with automation faster.
On the other side of the automation equation, we also released a brand-new version of our CS Automation Explorer, which harnesses the power of our market-leading AI even more to support businesses in frequently assessing what their customers are actually asking and reacting to changes essentially on-the-fly.
And, last but certainly not least, most recently we launched a brand new product: Ticket Automation.
Even with channels like chat and messaging on the rise, email still remains a crucial support avenue for many businesses. So, it didn’t really come as much of a surprise that a lot of our customers have asked us if our AI-powered solutions could help them provide better customer service for email tickets, as well. And since making our customers’ lives easier is what Ultimate is all about, our amazing Product team went back to the drawing board and delivered a solution in record time that now enables customers to automate even more of their support channels, all seamlessly and conveniently from one dashboard.
Overall, the role of automation in addressing new challenges will only continue to grow as customers continue to expect businesses to deliver the same high level of customer service regardless of changing circumstances. Finding the best, most impactful way of integrating intelligent automation into CS processes is key to ensuring strong, long-lasting customer relationships, now and in the future. At Ultimate, we have made it our mission to empower businesses to meet that challenge successfully.