The year 2020 has brought with it challenges that no one saw coming. Yet, even against the backdrop of a global health emergency and a looming financial crisis, the best organizations have placed people—their employees, customers, and the wider community—at the top of their priorities.
One aspect of business that separates leading companies from those lagging in their response to COVID-19 is their quality of customer service.
With communities across the world placed under stay-at-home orders and restricted in their social and economic activities, businesses that step up and support their staff in their commitment to serve their customers and community have exemplified leadership and innovation in the face of crisis.
The Changing Landscape of Business amid COVID-19
Customer service (CS) has taken on a new strategy, deploying a range of digital solutions for a more direct and open communication with customers.
New channels, platforms, and protocols have emerged, from social media, messaging apps, and chatbots to business intelligence software that measures customer sentiment. These tools and processes usher in a new brand of customer relationship management (CRM)—a new way of connecting with communities.
Today, great customer service practices require agents to have both technical skills and emotional intelligence. The best CS teams not only point people to the right answers; they also listen more closely to the challenges faced by frustrated, angry, or confused clients and consider the impact of the COVID-19 crisis on the life of individuals and their families.
The lesson from the pandemic is about being ready to support customers. Some people may have been laid off or forced to close down their own business; others may have dealt with an illness or caring for an ailing loved one. They may be sheltering in place and have no other recourse for help except by phone or online, or they may be reporting to work in the frontlines and juggling professional duties with personal care.
All of them need help from CS agents in looking for solutions to their problems. These complexities inspire the best companies to respond to the crisis in a spirit of empathy and trust.
How Businesses Can Provide Great Customer Support
- Support your CS team first!
When you take care of your employees, your employees will take care of your business. Before organizations can engage with their customers, they should first build rapport with their own staff. The concept of employee engagement refers to people “feeling valued, secure, supported, and respected” at work, and team leaders play a significant role in making sure workers feel this way.
One study from Oxford University, for instance, shows how staff at a call center who is reportedly happy at work is also 13% more productive. They can make more calls for every hour of business and convert those calls into sales.
Team managers should advocate for their employees’ health and well-being and promote better work-life balance to foster a positive workplace. They can begin by distributing the workload evenhandedly among all employees and ensuring each team member has a chance to rest and recharge during these critical times. This is done by rostering enough agents who can handle the influx and volume of calls.
Companies that might not yet have the resources to build an in-house CS team should also consider enlisting the help of outsourced representatives who are trained to respond quickly, listen actively, and demonstrate empathy and patience.
- Monitor the crisis and develop a communication plan
Disruption is occurring at a rapid pace amid the COVID-19 pandemic. However, companies that thrive in the face of crisis often keep a close eye on developments and respond to disruption quickly.
For a cohesive response strategy, managers should help formulate a crisis communication plan for CS teams. This should cover frequently asked questions about pandemic-related changes to business policies and processes that might impact customers. It should also chart a way forward for the company, such as how they plan to continue serving customers amid stricter health protocols.
All CS employees should be equipped with the right information about the health crisis for the benefit of their customers and the greater public.
The point of having a crisis communication plan specifically for CS teams is for the frontline staff to be transparent on matters that warrant public knowledge and prudent on sensitive issues that might endanger the lives and compromise the privacy of individuals or affect the reputation of the business.
For example, a CS representative handling a complaint about shipping delays should understand how COVID-19 regulations have slowed down movements in the supply chain. With this information included in the crisis communication plan, the agent will be better able to explain the matter and alleviate the concerns of the customer without compromising the integrity of the company.
- Know your platforms and channels
Identify which channels your customers will likely use to reach out to you.
Is their concern easily solved through the templated replies of a chatbot? Does your target market hold sway over brands on social media? Are your customers keen to speak directly to a CS agent on the phone instead? Or would they rather explain the details of their concern more fully in an email or private message? Different market segments have different media preferences.
For CS teams to be effective at their job, however, they need a comprehensive CRM software that will allow them to track their interactions with customers across multiple platforms. For instance, some CRM tools will assign a ticket to the case and show the CS agent a pipeline of how, where, and when a customer contacted them and whether the problem has already been resolved.
Regardless of whether the customer posted on social media, called the hotline, or sent an email, the agent should see their overall interactions. With stay-at-home guidelines in place in some, customers cannot communicate their concerns with CS representatives in a face-to-face manner. Those who need assistance will likely call or turn to social media and messaging apps to air their grievances.
While these methods enable agents to respond to questions and complaints more promptly, such exchanges can also hurt the brand’s reputation since the concerns are aired publicly. Therefore, CS team managers should develop protocols appropriate for each platform, according to their crisis communication plan.
For example, a chatbot’s casual and upbeat language might not resonate well with an irate caller who wants to speak with a live agent. In this instance, human CS representatives are the best option for delivering expert support.
- Listen closely to customer sentiments
A report on the impact of customer service on the overall business suggests a negative customer experience is a primary reason why almost nine in 10 customers stop doing business with a company. Unhappy customers tend to share their dissatisfaction with nine to 15 other people. That’s about a dozen or so other potential customers who might turn away from the business because of one bad rap.
This is the reason why CS team managers and associates must evaluate customer satisfaction levels regularly. In an era where customer reviews can make or break brands, it’s critical for CS teams to stay ahead of the situation and listen to customer reactions 24/7.
On social media, negative reviews spread like wildfire, so some companies hire reputation management specialists to help CS teams identify, pinpoint, and respond to such comments professionally.
Sentiment analysis should also be built into a company’s crisis management protocols. The process allows business leaders to gauge how people view their brands even before a real crisis erupts. For example, news of a store closure because of a COVID-19 case among staff will typically prompt curious customers to confirm the reports with the company either on social media or by phone.
Before customers can begin posting comments to criticize the company’s response or lack thereof, CS teams should monitor public sentiments to better understand these customer reactions and be ready with an appropriate response.
Sentiment analysis can help team leaders track the effectiveness of their overall communication plans. After all, the customer journey doesn’t just end with a single phone call or comment on social media. CS teams need to remember that providing great customer support is integral to every stage of the process—and that includes monitoring sentiments before, during, and after an event.
Remember that your customer is only human and under immense stress amid the pandemic. Training agents to recognize distress in the customer’s tone of voice and see matters from their perspective will likely steer the conversation toward a more positive outcome.
Many hope the COVID-19 pandemic will end soon, but the kind of customer support that emerged during the crisis will likely remain the hallmark of business leadership decades after.