The COVID-19 pandemic has shaken up our world like nothing before, and customer service is no exception. Businesses have faced the need to step up and support consumers who have many of the same needs as before. Combined with health anxiety, economic insecurity, social isolation, and a host of other issues, things like late packages and changed travel plans have only intensified exponentially.
For the most part, companies and customer service teams have done their best to meet consumer needs and adapt their services. Some attempts have worked, while others have fallen short. Each of these COVID customer service trends represents a chance to learn about what customers need, both in crisis and beyond.
1. Missed opportunities to connect
In a survey conducted by television providers NBC and Telemundo, 75% of respondents said that customer service had gotten worse during the pandemic.
Tellingly, a similar number of consumers—78%—has needed to contact companies multiple times to address a single concern. The majority of customers had contacted a company two to nine times. One person reported encountering recorded messages that looped in circles, never getting a human being on the phone. In the end, almost 55% of people didn’t get their concerns resolved.
It’s easy to see the potential reasons behind these disconnects. Service reps are working from home instead of in service centers, so their tech is completely different and they lack the usual network of on-demand help.
Still, there’s no excuse for being unreachable—especially when responsiveness sets you apart from competitors. For many brands, the solution can be as simple as adopting callback technology, which lets customers control when they want to get in touch with an agent.
2. Excessive hold times
COVID brought about massive changes in product and service availability, and those calls prompted a dramatic increase in calls to customer service centers. Whether customers were trying to cancel their trips, defer credit card or loan payments, or track packages, hold times fell victim to 2020’s word of the year: unprecedented.
Amazon reportedly requests customers to wait at least three days after expecting a package to inquire about it. One of our clients even experienced hold times of up to 36 hours before switching to our Mindful platform. We’re looking at never-before-seen hold times. But, it’s even longer when you consider that for 60% of customers, one minute of hold time is too long.
To manage excess holds, companies tried a variety of tactics, from boosting their self-service infrastructure to advising customers to call during off-peak hours. Yet customers kept calling, and companies that couldn’t handle the call volume inevitably suffered.
Meanwhile, thriving companies have adopted callback scheduling, which 63% of customers prefer over waiting on hold. Customers can go on and do what they need to do—work, run errands, keep the house running—and representatives don’t have to manage a displeased customer who’s been on hold for half their day.
3. Increased escalations and redirects
In April of 2020, researchers found that the number of escalations in contact centers—problems sent up the chain of command—went up by a whopping 68%. Analysts attributed this change to the fact that centers were processing more than twice as many “difficult” calls, often while also trying to figure out how to coordinate service with everyone working from home.
Calls like these are more stressful for representatives and customers. The more people a customer has to talk to before someone can resolve their issue, the more likely they are to give up. Setting up the best agent for the call can be difficult through IVR, but giving a choice of intents to a customer scheduling a callback online can link up the right people on the very first call.
4. Changes in customer protocols
Brands and customers quickly realized the limitations of pre-COVID customer protocols. Many policies, like late payment charges and airline change fees, didn’t accommodate the needs of people feeling COVID’s impact.
As time went on, people became more in need of help, and a stark difference arose between COVID customer service teams that accommodated people and those that didn’t. According to the same researchers who studied the effects of escalations, low-performing representatives were 27% more likely to use customer protocols as an excuse for being “powerless to help.”
High-performing reps succeeded because they focused on finding solutions. Of course, for that to happen, several things had to be in place:
- The rep had to be willing to look for alternative solutions or ask a supervisor for flexibility.
- The supervisor had to give their reps enough agency to circumvent policy or request exceptions.
- The company had to acknowledge the limitations of policy and either allow exceptions or change the policy entirely.
The rest, of course, is up to the customer service team. When they can communicate potential solutions, their customers feel heard and served.
5. Better anticipation of customer needs
As service expectations rise, it’s no longer enough to respond to feedback. Customer needs during COVID change fast, requiring companies to stay ahead and anticipate.
Enter advanced data and analytics, tools in which 57% of C-suite executives invested throughout the pandemic. Another 21% invested in artificial intelligence and/or machine learning, which work alongside data analytics to provide key customer and operational information.
Source: West Monroe
These tools became popular after the rapid COVID impact took so many brands by surprise. Data analytics provide the anticipatory information that companies need to do many things better, including understanding what their customers need and what they want to see from a brand during a public health crisis.
McKinsey & Company believes this reliance on customer data and analytics will be a hallmark of customer service post-COVID. Brands will continue to see the benefits of anticipating customer needs, as one airline has done using a predictive customer satisfaction system.
By taking action based on predicted customer sentiment, reaching out to high-need customers, and focusing service on those at risk, this airline achieved a decrease of close to 60% in churn and an 800% increase in customer satisfaction.
This is one of the main reasons why we added the Executive Summary data dashboard in Mindful.
6. Demand for personal connection
For many people across the world, isolation has been one of the toughest side effects of the pandemic. With this isolation came an increased appreciation for connection, in any way people could get it.
The result? A greater demand for personal customer service and human interaction.
“The focus has to be on building relationships,” Hiver CEO Niraj Ranjan told MarTechSeries. The COVID customer experience—the COVID CX, if you will—needs to involve personal interactions, especially if the customer has a question that the typical FAQ page can’t cover.
In response, there has been a major shift toward the kinds of automation that can support, not replace, one-on-one conversations. Messaging automation is still a hugely important tool, but it’s become a means to an end rather than a way to carry out entire conversations.
Today, brands are increasing their investments in technologies like callback and customer-in-control solutions, automating more mundane requests and streamlining responses to more complex needs.
7. More empathetic service
When the world was in the intense, early stages of COVID, McKinsey & Company issued this advice to brands:
In times of crisis, a customer’s interaction with a company can trigger an immediate and lingering effect on his or her sense of trust and loyalty. As millions are furloughed and retreat into isolation, a primary barometer of their customer experience will be how the businesses they frequent and depend upon deliver experiences and service that meets their new needs with empathy, care and concern.
A fall 2020 Hiver survey confirmed that customers agree. More than 80% of surveyed consumers said that COVID customer service needed to be more empathetic and responsive than it had been before.
Successful brands began to focus on customer needs versus wants, making changes such as:
- Replacing marketing messages with messages of support and understanding.
- Emphasizing company values and how safety policies reflected those values.
- Giving customers more opportunities to access products and services, from contactless pickup to multiple options for digital communications.
- Letting customers receive a callback if hold times are long.
As companies put customers in control and show respect for their time, they build trust and the kind of relationships that last.
Each of these COVID customer experience trends relates to the other. A focus on customer needs has prompted companies to offer callbacks instead of leaving customers on the line. Inflexible protocols have given way to company values to drive closer connection. It all comes down to meeting customers where they are, anticipating their needs, and offering solutions.
To get there, brands need to invest in technologies that improve the customer experience across the board. Callback and SMS text messaging are two great options to start with. They instantly communicate your respect for customers’ time, and they start interactions off from a better place.