CUSTOMER SERVICE AMID A PANDEMIC - COVID 19

2020-06-23 11:57:25

Introduction

The COVID-19 pandemic rapidly spreading around the world is leaving millions of people worried about all aspects of their lives; be it business, personal or social. Humanity and business existence are being threatened.

Article By Mr. Letsogile Batsetswe and Bonno M. Motoane (BNPC Consultants)

The pandemic calls for both humanity and businesses to change their everyday way of living. Companies are forced to come up with better ways to serve and provide for their customers to ensure continuity. This is vital as the success of a company is almost always dependent on how they treat their customers. Happy customers result in more financial returns, growth and business sustainability.

It should be noted that all relationships have an emotional component and that, especially, holds true for the connection between people and brands. Business` relationship with customers is built over time, nourished by experiences along many online and physical touch points in their journey, grounded in expectations, and confirmed through repeated interactions. Unfortunately, given the pandemic, the traditional customer service delivery model is now being threatened. New and unforeseen challenges have emerged which have massive implications on how businesses interact with their customers. This article discusses the importance of customer service, highlights the challenges surrounding customer service during the pandemic and offers a few recommendations along these lines.

Importance of customer service

As alluded to earlier, great customer service ensures increased financial returns, business growth and sustainability but these are not the only reasons why customer service is important. Other reasons are as follows;

(a) Customer service improves reputation

The way customers view your organisation and your attempts to meet their expectations is very important as this helps you build your reputation and, thus, building brand loyalty. Businesses that deliver good customer service are more likely to have a good reputation. Satisfied customers give good referrals which in turn helps the organisation garner more returns and keep it in business. Nowadays customers use social media as an outlet to let others know about their experiences with organisations. They are usually quick to share negative experiences online and can reach large audiences in no time. Unfortunately, this has the ability of digging a grave and burying organisations that deliver poor customer service. Therefore, delivering good customer service is very important. Providing a positive customer experience for existing customers and new customers will lead to their rave about your brand leading to authentic and sustainable growth.

(b) Retain customers - brand loyalty

Good customer service encourages customers to be loyal. If a customer has had a positive experience with your brand, there's no reason for them to look elsewhere for what they know you can provide exceptionally well. Providing good customer service leads to satisfied customers who become devoted buyers. Customers trust previous interactions and experience provided in real time as opposed to written ideas and values of a brand that are used in advertisement to lure customers. Therefore, providing good customer service the first time one interacts with a client helps a business keep loyal customers, which is less expensive than getting new ones. These customers are important because they bring more income at less advertising cost, thus, a high customer lifetime value. Amaresan of the Hindu magazine defined customer lifetime value as the total revenue a company can expect a single customer to generate over the course of their relationship with that company. The coolest brands on business get all the fame and fortune, so aim to be among the coolest as a business.

(c) Increased revenue

Most companies measure their success or failure based on money-in minus money-out and this dictates every business decision. The aim of every business is to make profit and this drives their existence, whether it happens on the first day or day 100.-. On this note, it is important to ponder on the fact that happy customers lead to more money, hence the need to ensure customer satisfaction which results in more stable revenue and more accurate predictions. Mellissa Rosen, a lead and creator at Groove highlights that 75% of people would return to a company with excellent service and 84% of organisations working to improve customer service report an increase in revenue. Given this, it should be the aim of a business to have satisfied customers that will continue doing business with the company.

Challenges of customer service during a pandemic - COVID 19

The biggest business challenge facing customer service in light of the COVID-19 pandemic is the ability to continue creating a positive customer experience. This is because the crisis situation can limit the range of services or reduce the quality offered to the customer. Lockdowns, social distancing and travel bans have now become the norm since December 2019 in almost all countries across the world. These have posed challenges in service delivery and some of the challenges are as follows;

(1) Decline in customer experience

As indicated earlier, there is a decline in the positive customer experience because of limitations to the range of available services and reductions in the quality offered to the customer. Malls, shopping centres and walk in services centres were temporarily closed due to the lockdown imposed by the Botswana government to curb the spread on infections of COVID 19. This limit to service provision resulted in a decline in the customer experience. Customer experience can be defined as the perception that a customer has about their overall interaction with a company. It includes the interaction with the following; (i) the people that deliver the service or product, (ii) the product or service itself, (iii) the place/setting the product or service is delivered from and (iv) the processes in operation. Due to the pandemic, the customer experience is not what it used to be. Customers have to queue in long lines in order to access services. The long queues cause delays and disgruntlement. Shopping is basically not the same anymore, one has to cover their mouth and nose, wash their hands and be hand sanitized before entering shops. This has definitely put a negative dent on the customer experience. In many circumstances, customers put off going to shops resulting in a decline in sales.

(2) Remote working

Customer service is personal and direct, so it`s understandable that it`s tough to maintain former composure during this emotional and difficult time. With remote working it is probable that customers were not able to get a full range of services they required. Customer queries and needs were not fully met due to lack of accessibility to resources that are usually available in offices. Remote working has forced many people to move their social lives online so that they can interact while at home. Video chatting companies are thriving at the moment, and businesses are still making online sales. This does mean, however, that customer service representatives who were formerly unfamiliar with live chat now had to learn a whole new product. Agents started off with a learning curve and the team had to adjust itself and customers to a new approach. As such, businesses were unable to fully serve or produce goods required by customers.

(3) Low Liquidity of companies

The lockdown for many companies have posed the challenge of employees receiving full pay/salaries because companies are experiencing low liquidity. The low liquidity is likely to cause a layoff of many employees in the long run irrespective of the government`s 50% wage subsidy and the six months no retrenchment policy. This will result in a decline in sales because customers are now faced with tight budgets that are continually drying up due to the unpredictable future of business. In this case, customer service teams are having to work overtime trying to convince customers to buy. Essentially, the low liquidity of companies and the possibility of layoffs affects the mental frame and the morale of the employee. Unfortunately, this may have negative implications on the employee`s ability to deliver quality customer service.

(4) Slow uptake of online services

Even though shops are coming up with alternative ways to ensure customers have access to goods through initiatives like online shopping,this has had a slow uptake due to trust issues as customers trust more face to face transactions. It should also be noted that most Batswana do not have access to internet services and the necessary infrastructure such as smart devices that allow for online shopping. Hence, the reason why only a few have probably responded positively to this platform.

What needs to be done?

There is no easy solution for customer service in this situation, but managers should act quickly and work out a strategy to overcome this crisis. This should include the following; .

1. Taking care of employees and agents

This is a critical time for organisations to take care of their employees so that they remain healthy, engaged and able to continue supporting customers. There is an urgent need to understand the workforce` mindset throughout the disruption period as this will ensure that any impacts on the employees lives won`t undermine optimal customer service. The organisation should start by being open to receiving feedback, listening even more closely to employee`s suggestions, and being present. Businesses are strongly advised to enable the workforce with the latest information, ensure frequent communication of daily changes that have customer impacts, and make time every day to celebrate jobs well done. A happy employee is better positioned to ensure the delivery of great customer experience. Richard Branson, the founder of Virgin Group notes that "Clients do not come first. Employees come first. If you take care of your employees, they will take care of the clients." .

It is also critical to remember to engage even more with outsourcing partners. Site visits are out, but with online video and chat you can "be there" virtually. .

2. Improve Data, workflow and analytics

The time is now for companies to take interest on how customers are able to access their information online. Companies have to educate customers to increase the uptake and improve customer experience on the alternative of online shopping. .

As COVID-19 runs its course, now is also the time for companies to take full advantage of their data to predict the changing needs of customers and the internal workforce. There is no better time to ensure that your knowledge management system and knowledge base are current and relevant. It is vital to do the work differently by utilising more collaboration tools, delivering field service virtually with the use of photos, chat or video chat and creating more guided help and proactive communications as policies evolve. Engaging front line staff, smart developers, and customers is the best way to create knowledge that helps.

3. Perfect Work at Home

The COVID-19 has meant that nearly every company and agency has had to scramble to enable their employees to stay at home and support customers. The cornerstone of the work-from-home model is the right secure technology. To create a consistent customer experience, companies must (where possible) replicate the contact center technology environment at home. Demands on networking infrastructures will be unprecedented. Companies must be ready to address failures in the distributed network environment that may lead to performance issues and/or outages.

Beyond technology, companies must also address several people and process-related issues. Getting people rapidly up to speed will require virtual training and change management programs to educate workers on the use of new technologies, processes, policies and collaboration toolsets. This will enable employees to better serve the customer even while working at home. Leaders will then have to define new methods and rules for collaboration to maintain high customer service delivery and productivity.

Caring for the workforce must be balanced with business continuity efforts and servicing customers. Leaders must realise that this is an unprecedented situation and unique considerations must be accommodated.

4. Augment and automate service: Virtual agents

The expression "The best service is no service" is critical during this difficult time. This encourages businesses to have systems that allow customers to serve themselves.

Some industries are experiencing new customer intents specifically related to COVID-19. But volume increases are not limited to the virus alone. The continued disruption of daily life is driving spikes in other types of inquiries, such as payment extensions, travel cancelations, late fees, unemployment benefits and stock inquiries each with varying levels of urgency.

Artificial Intelligence (AI) channels for customer service have never been so critical. Virtual agents, built using AI technology, offer customers instant, on-demand service. They provide automated support, deliver a conversational experience, and can handle the same intents as human agents. They can both understand and satisfy individual customer needs. Regardless of their maturity, organisations can still harness virtual solutions to relieve the pressure on contact volumes.

Conclusion

The response to this crisis is likely to accelerate the future of customer experience in categories such as agent agility, real-time workforce management and prevalence of Artificial Intelligence (AI) virtual agents. And while experts don`t know how long it will take to contain the virus, leaders must prepare for the short-term, while developing new capabilities and ways of working that could seamlessly enable longer-term operational changes.

COVID-19 has traumatized millions, and will forever impact the way we perceive our environments, the way we work, the way we engage customers and the way governments plan for the future. One thing has been made clear; not being agile or ready for anything can be a huge danger. We must learn to move quickly and in understanding the new customer experience mindset, as we will continue to have customers. Companies have to (1) improve how they treat their employees for them to deliver good customer service, (2) they must educate their customers on how to use their online platforms, (3) provide the necessary infrastructure for employees to work from home as this is possibly going to be the new norm and (4) automate their services. All these will guarantee the delivery of customer service to the customers that are bound to always be there despite any pandemic.