The coronavirus has changed the landscape of the world today and its long-term effects on individuals as well as societies at large appear hazy at best. The pandemic and the government efforts to contain it have already had a fundamental impact on the economy and on individual businesses of all sizes and across every industry.
Many organizations are now scrambling to balance the need to protect their customers and employees with the imperative to continue providing much-needed services in a way few have been forced to before. In many industries, working remotely is simply not an option. In those sectors of the economy where it’s possible, meanwhile, organizations are faced with the reality of their team members having to suddenly balance working from home with life under stay-at-home orders for their entire household.
Understandably, this has put tremendous pressure on teams responsible for managing customer interactions — all at a time when those customers may need more assistance than ever before.
But the most important element in taking care of customers during this crisis, as with any unforeseen event, is not inherently complex. In times like this, you want to be able to assure your customer, “Hey, we’re here for you, you are taken care of.”
Many brands that we interact with on an everyday basis have done that for all of us already. They’re taking a proactive approach, communicating on a weekly or even daily basis. These brands are looking to continue to interact with their customers, offering them a level of comfort that’s going to pay dividends in the long term.
On the other side of the spectrum are organizations that are struggling with their staff working remotely, leaving customers looking for answers — often in already precarious circumstances — without a response. No matter what type of organization you have, if you can’t reach people when they have an issue, they’re probably going to choose a competitor. As a brand, that’s ultimately what you risk by not being there for your customers.
In times like these, you can’t sacrifice your day-to-day interactions with your customers in any sort of way.
So how do you assure customers that you’ll be there when they need you?
The basic first step is to assess, realistically, how you can provide customer service in these circumstances. Then, you’ll be able to determine the next step: What are the means?
Organizations need to be realistic about their capabilities in a situation where their teams could be drastically reduced in their capacity to work. Managing customer expectations, however, is the ultimate goal.
The solution will depend on the level of complexity you’re prepared to initiate across your organization in a trying time. Essentially, you need to be able to tell the customers, “Hey, we’re not going to get back to you until this time, and our promise is to get back to you by then.”
There are tactical differentiators between various cases in what customer agents are able to do during these time, but there’s also a simplified view of what an organization must be able to achieve once it takes an honest appraisal of its current capacity.
Here’s an approach to one hypothetical case:
“Hey, look. Let’s make it really simple. We’re only going to have 12 people out of the two dozen that we usually have answering customer interactions, and we’re going to shift everybody to digital.”
The solution in this case is about facing reality.
Focusing on a Few Key Channels
The subsequent steps have to do with focusing on key channels in order to support the customer load. By limiting the channels to those where you can deliver predictability, you’ll be able to avoid a chaotic mess arising from trying in vain to serve customers across all of them.
Particularly with so many people around the world working remotely, it’s important to be able to leverage from the web. You can change your web page, or set up a special landing page that has a customer communication element, or at the least instructions on how they can get in touch with you. Web chat is key, as is ensuring there’s agent staff from a web chat perspective.
The Right People for the Job
In this regard, organizations will need to have a clear assessment of their customer service staff. When deciding how to allocate team members, the first step is to understand the skill set of your agents across the whole pool. You don’t want to throw someone into something they’re not used to doing — because it will fail.
Some people, after all, are not comfortable taking phone calls. Others, meanwhile, may not have the best grammar or spelling skills, or may have difficulty thinking of solutions on the fly without a heavy knowledge base of information they can pull from. For an organization that decides to go mostly or all-digital, the solution presents itself: agents who are good at writing can typically handle any digital interaction, no matter what it is. Organizations that want to continue operating phone lines will need to be more selective.
And regardless of the channels your organization decides to focus on, it also helps to have a little assistance from smart technology.
Bring in the Bots
In the communications industry, the use of artificial intelligence and bots has been a topic of tremendous interest for years — and some firms are able to deploy such systems already. Organizations that have been able to bring forward artificial intelligence have an advantage during these time, as they’re often able to meet the needs of the customer before the conversation has to go to an agent.
Integrating artificial intelligence and bots allows for assisted self-service at the beginning of a customer interaction, which can reduce the load on the agents. During periods of uncertainty in particular, that could be key to ensuring enough agents are available to address more complex issues.
You can solve a lot of your problems with the chatbot getting into your knowledge base, pulling all the relevant information and solving potential problems. Then, when the conversation gets to a level of live interaction, the bot will escalate the issue following the rules which you’ve already structured based on a level of priority. And at that point, you’ll be able to tell the customer, “We’ll get back to you within these timeframes.”
If you have the automated systems and machine learning capabilities in place, you’ve basically already built out your ability to triage and make customers feel like you’re there for them — even though it’s being automated. What’s more, you can typically retool a chatbot in a more agile fashion than you can retool an entire customer contact center or organization.
AI and chatbots allow organizations to leverage their agents’ talents while augmenting and streamlining the customer experience. What’s more, these technologies make it possible for brands to tap the talent pool they already have, playing to their agents’ strengths and filling in where needed.
Learning from Experience
The coronavirus pandemic is devastating on many levels and its end may be nowhere in sight — but this too shall pass. However, this will not be the only disaster that an organization may experience.
There will be times when organizations have to get shut down because there’s a water pressure problem, or the toilets don’t work or any other issue where they have to send everyone home. So what do you do in that instance? What if it’s more than a day? What if there’s a bomb threat?
There are all sorts of things in our environments today that are going to really make CIOs, COOs, CTOs, IT leaders and businesses in general rethink what we’re all experiencing today. Hopefully, this experience will be a learning one and will help companies truly grasp how they’re going to service their customers — because that’s the lifeblood of their organization.
Originally published Apr 10, 2020, updated Aug 27, 2020