Companies shouldn’t hide behind COVID-19 for poor customer experience

Profile picture for user Madeline Bennett By Madeline Bennett November 17, 2020 Audio version
Zendesk report highlights need to be agile and adapt to changing customer needs

Happy customer experience concept © Black Salmon - shutterstock

One of the recurring themes of the pandemic from a business perspective has been the huge pressure on customer service desks. Travel agents and airlines are now spending the majority of their time processing refunds or change requests rather than supporting bookings, while supermarkets are dealing with thousands more customers complaining about missing items or scrabbling for online delivery slots.

In the early days of Lockdown 1, many of us were willing to cut these organisations some slack. Due to staff suddenly needing to work remotely, we were told, please expect a longer wait time than normal to speak to an agent or have your query dealt with. However, businesses planning to carry on using this tactic as a reason (excuse?) to provide a degraded customer service well into next year - as the pandemic now looks certain to continue well into 2021 - be warned. This approach could soon have a negative impact on the bottom line, if it hasn't already.

Research firm Enterprise Strategy Group (ESG) carried out a study over the summer into the impact of customer service to an organization's bottom line. The research, carried out on behalf of Zendesk, discovered that adapting to new customer requirements has actually become more vital during the pandemic.

When the 1000-plus respondents were asked about their ability to quickly make changes in response to customer needs, almost three out of five said agility is more important now than it was before COVID-19. Speaking at a recent Zendesk panel event, Adam DeMattia, Director of Custom Research at ESG, explained:

I think a lot of this corporate messaging around - please bear with us, we are working, things are a little bit slower now than normal, we're trying to get better - is in response to increasing pressure from customers who still look for agility from the companies they do business with. Everyone is expecting digital engagements to go smoothly. Everyone needs an online presence. For organizations that weren't built to deliver that, they're likely feeling that pushback from customers and that's why they're messaging out.

I don't think customers are going to be very receptive of that excuse. People are moving on. We've seen it in Amazon's numbers. Retailers who can't provide the best digital experience, they're really going to suffer. The patience of customers to accept that response is limited.

This is where having an omni-channel approach can pay dividends, as Peter Lorant, COO, EMEA at Zendesk, explained:

The company used to say, you can either speak to us by email or web or by calling us. Now it's the consumer taking control and saying I want to speak with you maybe via Facebook Messenger, Instagram, WhatsApp or texts and then maybe I'll call. And then when they get through to you, whether it was done through multiples of those channels, they want to have that one view of the experience.

Companies that have that omni-channel approach can resolve tickets three times faster, and customers spend 75% less time waiting for the agents to respond, because we do a lot of this via the bot, a lot of the simple answers get resolved quickly without actually the need to contact an agent. So you get a lot of productivity and efficiency and better customer satisfaction as well.

Agility is key

Zendesk's tracking figures highlight the additional pressure the coronavirus is putting on organizations - and also the negative outcome of failing to respond to this appropriately. The firm has seen a 16% spike in ticket cases being raised compared to pre-COVID levels, which is often leading to longer waits for customers. Among airlines, for example, reply times have increased by 40% since the beginning of the pandemic, and this has had a direct impact on customer satisfaction scores, which have dropped by almost 7%.

For those organisations struggling with increasing pressure on their service desks and dwindling customer satisfaction, improving the customer experience doesn't necessarily require costly technology projects and months of training. Lorant said:

For organisations to move quickly, you don't necessarily need deep pockets or implement a big heavy IT system or hire expensive consultants on a six-month project. What you do need is agility and a senior management team that is willing to pivot quickly - as we have seen with several of our customers who have been rethinking how they deliver service in an online-first world.

Make sure you're doing the best you can with what you already have. With good data, you can make good decisions. Your customer experience team is sitting on a goldmine of customer insights such as hero products, potential gaps and pain points. It's crucial that businesses make it accessible to everyone, so that other teams can learn from and act on that customer insight. In turn, they will be better positioned to support the customer experience team with the right knowledge or innovations to address particular pain points.

Trusted agents

Lorant shared examples of organizations that have responded quickly and successfully to the lockdown. When Health food store Holland & Barrett was told to close its shops, the retailer took its in-store agents and repositioned them as customer support and service agents, to deal with the increase in online orders. Lorant said: 

It was great for the company because they didn't have to furlough out the employees. It was great for the customer support agents, because now they got the reinforcements from commercially focused people. And now customer success started to think - can I sell, not just support. Creating that blend of cultures was really exciting for them. Then of course the customers benefited because they got much better service.

Another Zendesk retail customer is looking to mobilize 300 stores to support online orders and go live in 10 days. Lorant added:

That's the kind of agility - looking to implement in 10 days. Just think back to the historical way of working. If you weren't in the cloud, if you didn't have a very simple, easy to use software, that kind of implementation used to take months, or even a year.

Supporting and motivating staff who are now working from home rather than coming into an office is also crucial to maintaining high customer satisfaction levels, as motivated people perform better and are more productive - and hence will deliver the best possible service. Key to this is trust, according to Tonni Buur, International VP Support at consumer review website Trustpilot. He said:

What's important from our perspective is that we have high trust in our agents. They are empowered to prioritise what is most important. Over the COVID period, we've repeated again and again, we trust in you. If something goes wrong, we are here to help you.

But it doesn't, they just take the right decisions. They have the tools that make it easy for them to prioritize. They know exactly the numbers they are supposed to deliver. Of course, we have been busy like a lot of other companies, but that has been super important for us - that we have this trust in our agents.

My take

Amazon has been one of the biggest winners of the pandemic: 175,000 new staff hires, a 40% revenue jump from the previous year to $89 billion and doubled profits of $5.2 billion. I'm certainly no Amazon fan - I'm one of the many during this lockdown who are trying to support independents and smaller high street chains by actively avoiding the Bezos behemoth. But the fact remains that Amazon focuses on keeping customers happy, whether that's making it easy to reorder previous purchases, get a refund or chase lost goods.

The advice and examples above highlight that you don't need to be a giant like Amazon to offer decent customer service, but adapting to changing circumstances now - whether that's redeploying staff or adding WhatsApp or Instagram to your customer service channels - might help other firms chip a bit from its profits in future.