How many times over the past year-and-a-half have you run into some kind of customer service that wasn’t up to scratch and was excused away as a by-product of the COVID crisis? And how often have you shrugged your shoulders, remembered that ‘we’re all in this together’ and not made a fuss about something that in ordinary times would not have been acceptable?
It’s a phenomenon that I’ve noticed as the pandemic has been cited as a reason for lack of product availability, hideously long waiting times on customer support lines, slow delivery of purchases etc etc. And in large part, particularly in the earlier half of last year, the ‘it's all down to COVID’ excuse has been justifiable, although there are also plenty of examples of firms clearly hiding behind the virus to excuse away their own operational deficiencies.
A case in point for me was trying to deal with a mobile telephone operator whose systems broke down completely into silos following a handset upgrade and resulted in the firm not processing my payment correctly. Trying to get this fixed involved multiple calls, no updating of records across those calls and finally the go-to statement, ‘We’re all working from home, you see, because of COVID’. Yes, but you’re all also looking at the same online customer record I am - or you should be, especially after nearly 18 months of working this way.
The question now, as we enter the Vaccine Economy, is how long consumers will tolerate the pandemic being used a catch-all ‘blame hound’ for poor service? That was part of the premise for a new study by Freshworks entitled Meet the post COVID-19 consumer - going local and out of patience.
For many parts of the world the ‘post COVID-19’ element of that title may still be a tad optimistic, but as the US and Asia Pacific and parts of Europe open up, the study - based on responses from 10,500 adults from Australia, Brazil, France, Germany, India, the Netherlands, Singapore, Sweden, UK and US - provides some interesting pointers of where we might be heading.
Patience running out
Jumping out from the results is a warning sign for all customer-facing organizations - consumer patience with the COVID excuse is indeed wearing thin. While half of all respondents say they were tolerant of companies during the pandemic, they’re in no mood to put up with poor service as the so-called ‘next normal’ takes shape.
Some 31% of consumers said they’ve been more forgiving of brands when things have gone wrong, with 32% claiming they’ve been more patient about things like slow fulfilment over the past year, but that’s changing. And the bad news for companies citing COVID as cover for their own shortcomings is that there’s increased skepticism among consumers about how valid these excuses are. Less than half (49%) of respondents still believe companies are genuinely sincere in their pandemic messaging, but 28% have their doubts, while nearly a quarter (23%) aren’t buying it at all. Trust levels vary globally, with Europeans firmly the most skeptical.
One interesting trend that emerges from the study is that nearly a third of companies (32%) that were known to deliver good customer service pre-pandemic were felt to have deteriorated during the crisis, while 24% of firms seen as not at the forefront of best practice are perceived to have improved. The pandemic has clearly levelled the playing field to some degree.
Regardless, consumers emerging blinking into the light of the Vaccine Economy are not only less willing to accept COVID-related excuses, they want to see their pandemic patience rewarded and are likely to demand higher standards of customer service when they run into problems. Asked what they’d require to forgive a brand following a bad experience, 38% want the problem fixed once and for all while the same percentage will be looking for a discount or refund. An apology is only going to cut it with less than a third (31%) of respondents.
The other theme of note in the research is that of localization. During the pandemic, retail giants such as Amazon, online grocery firms like Ocado and delivery aggregators, such as Deliveroo and Uber, have seen their businesses thrive as consumers have become dependent on their services for day-to-day tasks.
But it’s interesting that 41% of respondents to the Freshworks study say they tried to shop more from local businesses during the pandemic, businesses which in the main have had to re-invent themselves in order to ‘keep the lights on’ as their real world shop doors closed. Half of respondents reckon that small business customer service improved during the crisis as over half of such firms (52%) began offering online ordering and delivery.
The good news for such local firms is that 94% of consumers say they want to keep up their engagement with them in the Vaccine Economy. The question now is, will SMBs keep up the momentum that they’ve seemingly gained during lockdowns and build on that goodwill?
I spoke to Stacey Epstein, Freshwork’s Chief Marketing Officer, to get her take on what she saw as the main learnings from the study. It’s a changed world, she told me:
That willingness to accept longer wait times, longer hold times, poor service - that's gone. We're back to, 'Everybody better respond quickly'. I don't want to have to pick up the phone and sit on hold waiting for an agent. I want to be able to chat on the website and I want you to know what order I'm talking about when I just put my name in.
It puts those 'Main Street' local businesses in a position of having to compete. They have that preferential treatment now and that empathy from consumers, but they can't now fall down and not continue to drive digital transformation so that they can act like a big company and meet those increasing consumer expectations.
My main takeaways are (a) we’ve all been very patient in a time of crisis and lowered our customer service expectations accordingly and (b) that patience is running out, if it hasn’t already run out, and as part of the wider COVID ennui, our expectations are rapidly rising once again. My own mobile phone experience referenced above saw me actively threatening to switch provider as the COVID excuses were trotted out. I only stayed ‘loyal’ once a very senior complaints resolution manager stepped in and fixed the problem, but it was a close run thing.
For local businesses, the digital transformation acceleration that COVID has driven across all industries and organizations of all sizes should be read as a sort of silver lining for those that have ridden out the storm. I know of several small firms in my orbit which have had to up their online and customer service game and benefitted in the process. Now is not the time to take the foot off the digital pedal. SMBs need to keep engaged with transformational tech to take them to a level where they can compete with the Amazons of the world. The consumer goodwill is there, but once the ‘next normal’ establishes itself, it will be all too easy for us to slip back into the embrace of the retail giants, for example. For SMBs, a deep focus on digitally-enabled customer service is going to be critical.
One last point of note is that consumers have a new expectation to lay at the feet of many of those global giants who ‘had a good war’ with COVID - the Amazons, the online grocery brands, the carrier firms etc - and that is, 'It’s payback time!'. Nearly three-quarters of respondents (71%) think that companies that did well out of the pandemic ought to give back to consumers, via discounting and lower prices, and to the community and society as a whole. How they do - or do not - do this is likely to shape brand perception in the Vaccine Economy.
In the UK, there have been a number of grocery firms which have paid back government support money on the basis that their business inevitably soared during the crisis and the support wasn’t in fact needed as events played out. Such firms have received highly favorable commendations from politicians, the media and consumers. On the other hand, there are those firms which still can’t bring themselves to pay a decent amount of local tax, let alone be giving money back. Perhaps it’s finally time for there to be a reckoning?