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COVID customer service trends

IN THE recent past, we have witnessed reduced economic activity at global and country level due to the global pandemic; consequently, there is a general call to businesses to innovate, adapt and ditch the business-as-usual cliché in order to survive the turbulent global economic conditions.
Thus, to stand a chance of thriving during the COVID-19 pandemic, businesses must utilise customer service delivery as a tool to maximise their competitive edge. The way businesses are interacting with consumers now has a huge bearing on their growth and sustainability during and after the COVID-19 pandemic. The relationship built now will determine their success or failure.
COVID-19 has overwhelmed households, communities and businesses in our country. You will agree with me that any mention of social distance, mask up and sanitising is a constant reminder that we are living in very unsettling times. Therefore, in the current situation, a true measure of exceptional customer experience is how businesses respond and deliver services that meet customers’ needs with empathy, care and concern.
Social distancing has led many businesses to significantly reduce their store capacity. There are restrictions placed to ensure the safety of customers and thus only a few customers can be accommodated at a particular time, leading to long queues of customers who are just trying to get into stores for a service.
The picture is real on the ground. Walking down the corridors of Cairo Road and some selected shopping malls, it’s common to find meandering queues of people in masks outside service centres patiently waiting to be attended to. This sight presents a troubling and stressful picture for business leaders and customer service staff.
According to Harvard Business News, an artificial intelligence (AI) analysis of more than one million customer service calls showed dramatic increases in customer anxiety and frustrations, and customer service staff were struggling to respond effectively.
The emotional state of consumers and service staff remains a challenge to the effective delivery of customer service whilst improving customer satisfaction. In these times, individuals are battling with feelings of fear, uncertainty and frustration, which presents businesses with both new risks and opportunities.
How should businesses adjust?
Despite these challenges being faced by businesses and consumers, there are many things that they can do to improve customer experiences and build trust and loyalty. I will share a few ideas that can be adopted by businesses.
Respond timely
We live in an era where instant gratification is the norm. Subsequently, today’s customers want to get responses quickly and easily. Long periods on hold or phones ringing out and endless queues are simply not acceptable today.
A psychological fact states that: “Known waits feel shorter and are less unpleasant than unknown waits. Simply by establishing a relatively accurate wait time expectation, you can make customers feel better about the act of waiting.”
Businesses must set clear expectations on customer service lines and provide updates where applicable. There is nothing more frustrating than being at the end of a queue. Personally, it makes me feel exposed, and sometimes I wish business could do well to hire back fillers to give cover to the last person in the queue. The key to bring this under control is to constantly communicate and assure customers that they will be assisted as quickly as possible.
Live stream video tutorials to deliver Q&A self-help content, chatbots, omni-support system and use of AI in improving customer experiences are some of the current trends being employed by some businesses today.
Keeping up to speed with these customer service trends may seem a challenge to some businesses. Moreover, no one anticipated that COVID-19 will stick around for this long. The focus for business is to build meaningful and personalised customer experiences at every touchpoint. Therefore, neglecting emerging trends is not an option. To stay competitive in a fierce business landscape, they have no choice but to embrace and implement these trends strategically.
Long wait times can cost a company business and subsequent loss of revenue. An alternative is to provide alternative resources to satisfy customers’ needs. This could come in the form of clear, intuitive online stores to facilitate online ordering, and immediate delivery of goods to customers. It’s imperative now for businesses to invest in risk mitigating technologies to help them become more flexible to the needs of their consumers.
Additionally, companies can partner with courier services so that the process is effective, but this will require sufficient investment in technology to ensure that online trading does not drive clients away.
Improve digital engagements
With the onset of the pandemic, restaurants shifted to take-away, and gyms and schools started offering online lessons. A year down the line, it seems like the end is not in sight and businesses must come to a realisation that customers are not so keen on patronising stores in the new normal.
Omnichannel support functionality is a tool that can be utilised. It eases human resource constraints by allowing service staff to handle multiple queries simultaneously. Furthermore, a simple all-inclusive, clearly written and well-organised set of FAQs can help customers avoid the lines and get answers to basic inquiries.
Finally, providing compassionate service is the answer to generating an enormous increase in positive brand perception and customer loyalty during and after the pandemic. On the contrary, inaccessible, ineffective or uncaring responses are likely to drive customers to the next best competitor.
The major call is for business leaders to make timely and informed decisions that will support customer service staff whilst maintaining the loyalty and trust of their external customers. To achieve this, managers should arm customer service staff with specific techniques through training for reducing customer stress, heighten virtual coaching, and use collaborative tools that allow service staff to utilise peer knowledge and experience seamlessly.

The author is a customer care expert.