“Unprecedented demand”, “Uncertain times”, “New Normal” and “Delays in responding to your enquiries” are tedious, vacuous, insincere pronouncements we heard ad nauseam from many companies as we attempted to contact them to resolve our customer service issues. In the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic, most of us were willing to forgive. Six months on, we are certainly not ready to forget.
It has been the mother of all wake-up calls, and it has taken a wrecking ball to any concept of normality. But it is clear that many companies have slept through the alarm, and this crisis has shone an unwelcome spotlight on those businesses who spectacularly failed their customers by not adapting quickly, effectively, or empathetically.
The same old song
What is even more depressing is that many of these businesses were playing the same old tune on their websites or IVR, long before the pandemic and have now simply found this to be a convenient excuse for apathy and inaction. We have all heard, and are still hearing, the sad stories of people waiting for hours on hold to get a travel refund, to arrange for installation or delivery, and activities that have become even more important during the lockdown.
There is no question that all businesses have been forced to make huge procedural changes, adopt new staffing policies—especially remote working—and look at how they can align existing or new technology to meet fast-changing customer expectations.
Telephone and 0800 numbers have been the predominant channel for customer service, remaining widely used by default. But adding digital channels to your mix is essential to promote them so that customers know about them and use them.
I have been fortunate to meet many companies that have adopted the “survival of the fastest” as their mantra, especially when it came to communicating promptly and clearly, swiftly equipping their teams to work from home and providing customers with contact options that made sense for all parties, but above all removed as much friction as possible for both customers and colleagues.
Understanding your customer’s journey to get support is key to knowing which channel to offer at the right time to guarantee a great customer experience.
A shoulder to cry on
In times of crisis, real or imagined, we all feel better if someone can put a real or metaphorical arm around our shoulder, and in the world of customer service, notwithstanding the growth of self-service, that usually translates to a live contact either in person or via the phone.
Over the past six months, those options have clearly become less available and nigh on impossible for those companies that have lost their moral compass and organisational common sense in a thoughtless and panicky flight to furlough employees, while holding out their begging bowls for government bail-outs. But does that mean that companies can’t deliver great customer service via other channels or by providing clear and customer friendly protocols for human contact?
As I said earlier, customers do understand that the world may be on hold for some time, but that does not mean they want to be. While the answer to increased demand, with or without a pandemic, usually involves a technology intervention and modification, it is not the only element in solving the problem, and a deeper, more empathetic understanding of customer contact needs and desired outcomes is the first step.
While email, phone, live-chat, and messaging channels offer a different customer experience, they are not all managed in the same way. Customers’ expectations on response times vary with different channels. Understanding your customer’s journey to get support is crucial to know which channel to propose at the right time to guarantee a great customer experience.
If introducing a strategy based on call deflection, it must be carefully introduced to your customers. It is essential to ensure that it makes sense to the customer, and will provide high engagement and a good return on investment.
A simple solution will do
All businesses, large or small, will have myriad reasons for customer contact, but it’s likely that most businesses can identify a relatively small number that makes up the bulk of these enquiries.
Placing an order, returns, refunds, logging in to their account, or tracking a delivery. These will also have associated levels of importance to each customer depending on their individual circumstances at the time, and the company will also see them having different priorities in how they are handled. But the key here is that the response must be based on the customer’s need, not the company’s. A novel approach for many businesses, but an important distinction.
As I noted earlier, removing friction, or making it as easy and simple as possible for the customer to get their issue resolved, must be the overriding goal and, while this is definitely easier said than done, it’s non-negotiable.
There are many variables such as country, age and occupation that can determine the differences in the types of device and channels used. It is best not to assume that all customers have a recent smartphone with an unlimited data plan. Analyse the types of devices used and the data capacities to adapt to the specifics of your customers and to provide the best possible experience. A large part of this exercise is understanding your customer demographics, their habits, their preferences, and to be able to communicate with them effectively and compassionately to let them know what you can do, not what you can’t.
Be aware that attempting a wholesale move to digital interactions or seeking to drive every contact to self-service will not be successful if many customers find that medium-difficult or you have made it difficult by poor design. This is the part that we usually refer to “elderly” customers (like me!) as the ones we need to consider or pity, but it’s not just them.
Some people simply don’t like IVR, chatbots or Natural Language Processing (NLP), that is anything but natural. It’s clear that these and other technologies will play a role, but simply rolling them out indiscriminately, without user testing or organisational feedback (agents) should be resisted at all costs.
Another thing to consider is reducing call abandonment and the irritation that comes with it. Calls are synchronous interactions—meaning once the user has dialled a number, they must wait for an agent to pick up. If the call is interrupted, there is no way to resume it during the conversation, the customer must start the entire process over.
With call deflection, switching to an asynchronous channel solves this problem: the customer no longer has to wait, they can send their message at any time and be notified when the company has responded. In addition, the history of messages is saved, which helps to keep context and avoid them having to repeat themselves.
Contact deflection, not call avoidance
What we’re seeking to achieve is contact deflection, not call avoidance. While the terms may have been used interchangeably in the past, they are very different. Call or contact avoidance is what many companies are practising now, under the guise of “unprecedented demand”. Contact deflection is a carefully developed and inclusive strategy, designed to support all customers, irrespective of the channel they choose, the nature of their request, their demographic, and is designed to provide the best possible experience for a customer taking into account the operational environment at the time of the contact.
A simple example may be that if the customers have chosen a voice channel, and that is deemed to be the best option for the type of enquiry, rather than waiting on hold for an indeterminate period, the customer is offered a call back at an appropriate time, based on the contact centre. Alternatively, a call deflection to a digital channel lets you offer support 24/7 so customers can get an instant response via a chatbot or self-serve with FAQs or send in an email during off-hours.
Innovating the customer journey can reduce frustration and anxiety for the customer, while maintaining reputational value and operational balance for the company—providing the call back is made as requested. This may not be the only option available or offered to the customer. If the information requested is readily accessible, and simply presented back via an SMS or even an auto-generated email that actually answers the question, this could be a suitable and mutually rewarding solution for both customer and colleague.
Removing friction for both customers and contact centre can have knock-on benefits for your business. In truth, the best way to deflect calls is creating a reactive service that is efficient and empathetic in anticipating the needs of customers. This means taking the initiative to apply a support strategy that identifies issues in advance for customers and agents, and also minimises peaks in volumes, or at least manages them more effectively.
Use route analysis to determine how customers would approach you to get answers to their problems. Do they want self-service with a chatbot option for delivery tracking or frequently asked questions? Do they want dedicated phone numbers for issues? Or availability on digital channels to communicate with attached media to better illustrate their issue? Make their journey easier rather than complicate it.
The result you want is fewer inbound calls and more satisfied customers who are happy with their solutions and service. Developing an agile and flexible strategy with the right tools that deliver the answers customers desire where and when they want them, is key to exceeding expectations and keeping your customers.
Originally published Oct 29, 2020, updated Apr 10, 2023