The Covid-19 pandemic forced contact centers around the world to close their doors. While support agents adapted to working remotely, consumer behavior changed too. Customers did more of their shopping online, and increasingly chose to interact with brands through digital channels.
It’s clear that Covid changed the world of customer service forever. But is this a bad thing?
World-renowned author, speaker, and CS expert Shep Hyken doesn’t think so. With the right approach, he says, the pandemic could take customer support to the next level.
A shift toward remote and hybrid working
When offices closed at the start of the pandemic — some without plans to reopen — teams across the globe began working from home. Contact centers were no different.
“I talked to one company who had 60,000 employees in 62 contact centers around the world, and within one week, they were shut down and every employee was deployed to remote-type work. I was so impressed they could pull this off in one week, so one of the questions I asked was: ‘When this is all over, will you go back to the old way?’ And he said, ‘Nope, we’ll be letting people stay home, because it works so well.’
Now, there are some issues I'm concerned with. Employees are used to being able to look over to the person next to them and ask for help, or ask a manager to come over. It’s a little more difficult to do this in a remote working situation. I wonder how some of these people are going to be — because we do surveys and they are frustrated.
When they’re isolated at home and working, there’s a percentage of people who will do well, and a small percentage that will struggle. What happens is that without ongoing human-to-human interaction, we now basically have commodity employment.
I’m concerned that — just as we’re worried customers are going to view a product as simply a commodity if we don’t wrap the right experience around it — employees are going to view their job as a commodity. And the only thing that’s going to get them excited to go somewhere to work is when there’s more money. Usually, it’s management and leadership: ‘I love my boss’ is more important than an extra dollar or two an hour from a company that’s trying to steal you away.”
But that’s not the only change to CS that concerns Shep.
Cut back with caution
When customers stop buying, companies are forced to scale back costs. But there are smart ways to do this, explains Shep.
“Don’t cut where the customer is going to notice, and if you’re going to cut certain areas, make sure you fill these gaps with technology. I’ll give you an example. I use two different cable providers: one at home, and one at the office. The one I had at home was amazing whenever I had issues during this time — I never had to wait longer than a minute.
The one for my business, however, was ridiculous. I waited on hold for over an hour, only to be told I had to call a different number. Why didn’t they invest a minimal amount of money in the technology that would say: ‘Your hold time is 45 minutes, and you can choose to stay on hold or we can call you back’? That technology has been available for years.
If I experience a 30 to 45-minute wait, it’s clear a company has cut in a place that’s really noticeable. And all of a sudden they’ve lost their footing with me, because I’m going to think: ‘There have got to be other companies out there that do what they do.’”
Passing on key information like hold times is a great way to manage customer expectations in spite of cutbacks. It also helps support teams faced with anxious customers, says Shep.
Manage customer emotions with empathy
Emotions run high during times of crisis. One of the most dramatic shifts in customer support during the Covid-19 pandemic has been the volume of emotional customers that agents are in contact with on a daily basis.
A report by Harvard Business Review found that on average, the number of customer support calls rated as “difficult” more than doubled in the first two weeks of the pandemic. But these emotions are manageable with the right approach, says Shep.
“This pandemic has put a magnifying glass on the personalities of the customers. If they’re frustrated, they’re going to be even more frustrated when they’re put on hold. If they’re the type of person that’s very laid back, they’re probably going to be more forgiving and easier to do business with.
Also, I think emotions are being triggered that normally wouldn’t get triggered in customers. They have fear — fear of the unknown. And that fear manifests itself sometimes in frustration, but other times in anger. So there has to be a level of empathy that a live support agent can be able to demonstrate when they’re talking to that customer.”
Shep says that beyond empathy, it’s possible to keep the trust and confidence of your customers by providing them with information.
“Information is key. Have you ever been at an airport and the plane is meant to take off in 3 minutes, but the plane isn’t even there yet? Nobody’s made an announcement that the plane is going to be late, but you know it will be! When you give somebody information, everything gets better.”
Finally, Shep points to the human connection as key to calming customers’ tempers. He references a CGS survey that looked at more than 2,000 customers in the US and UK. The study found that 38% of respondents in the US, and 39% in the UK, stated that having the chance to speak with a live agent was a “make-or-break” factor to them having a successful customer support experience.
And we’d better get used to these adaptations, Shep says, because it’s unlikely things will go back to how they were before.
A new way of doing things
The pandemic has thrown us 3 to 5 years into the future, according to Shep. What does that mean for customer service? A lot of exciting things.
“Anytime something bad happens, there are byproducts that come out of it. There’s been an ebb and flow of high anxiety and low anxiety, and we’re getting used to that way of life now. People are going to relax once all this is over because they’ve learned what companies are doing to meet their new demands.
Customers are learning to adapt to a new way. And certain processes are being put in place that may even be better than they were before.
To me, customer service hasn’t changed. The customer has a problem, the customer needs help, has a question, whatever, they reach out to the company, and at the end, they hope to get whatever it is they’ve been looking for.
What has changed is everything in the middle. How the agents go about connecting with the customer. How the companies go about giving information to the customer. The automation, the AI, and the innovation and technology that’s taking place is really amazing.
As we progress through this pandemic, we’ll get better at AI and digital support, and work better with customers. But we have to train our customers to take those digital routes. The good news is that this pandemic forced people into adopting new forms of technology faster and better than they would have otherwise.
This pandemic has been a springboard to give us a better customer service experience in the future.”
The huge transformation to customer service during the pandemic isn’t necessarily a bad thing, for either customers or support teams. Companies that take advantage of this opportunity to get started on their automation journey — while managing the difficulties presented by the pandemic — could come out of this crisis even stronger than before.