In the time of COVID, has your customer call volume increased, decreased, or stayed level with was in Before Times?* I encounter all three of these scenarios about equally often as a customer service and customer experience consultant at Micah Solomon and Associates, from my client companies.
However, there is one clear pattern, across the entire swath of industries I work with, whether volume has risen, dropped, or held steady: increased emotional content in the inquiries from and interactions with customers.
Here are seven suggestions for how to respond to this new reality.
1. Change up your metrics to allow time for empathy. Even in the Before Times, Zappos’ contact center was intentionally running at just 60 to 70 percent agent occupancy rather than following the industry norm, which is somewhere in the 80s, according to the latest figures from contact center specialist Colin Taylor of Taylor Reach.
Agent occupancy is the percentage of time that call center agents spend—or are predicted to spend—handling calls, as a percentage of the time they are on the clock, and a lower agent occupancy allows for more time to spend with any caller whom you sense may benefit from spending such time. While Zappos takes this approach in good times and bad, I’d argue that for all of us, in the face of COVID, it’s important to emulate this way of doing business.
2. Take the long view. Supporting customers in lean times can lead to lifetime loyalty. Anyone who has lived through previous recessions knows this to be true: the vendors who eased credit, the companies that went out on a limb, the human beings on the phone who lent an empathetic ear even when a customer didn’t have much money to spend, were the ones who succeeded in nurturing relationships that lasted, and deepened, for years to come. Likewise, the customers you stand by now may prove to be your company’s backbone, and your brand ambassadors, after good times return. This reality means that the utility of doing your best for customers extends beyond altruism.
3. Connect based on the commonalities of your situation. I hear from my customer experience consulting clients in technology/information services/IT that most every call they get these days includes a segment that’s simply the caller looking for a bonding moment related to WFH, aside from whatever bona fide customer support question ostensibly drove them to call. Don’t consider such portions of your customer support conversations to be a waste of time; see them as a chance to draw the customer closer to you via your shared scenario.
4. Help even when you can’t help. I think it’s fair to assume that Zappos isn’t having a banner season when it comes to selling shoes or apparel. (Me, I’m still wearing the very same pair of New Balance walking shoes I bought from them in December. Though I have, you’ll be relieved to hear, changed my socks.)
So Zappos has expanded the mission of their famous Customer Loyalty Team (i.e., their contact center) to include offering themselves as a “Customer Service for Anything” resource, where there’s not only no purchase required, there’s no purchase expected. While this may seem extreme (and only do-able when you have the deep pockets of Amazon behind you), I feel that every business can lend a sympathetic ear even when we can’t literally improve the situation of the customer we’re interacting with.
5. The right words matter; they can set a customer at ease, while the wrong ones can raise hackles or cause offense without you having any negative intention at all. One of the first things I do on a customer service (CS) or customer experience (CX) turnaround initiative is create a small lexicon for my client company of words and phrases I recommend and those that I discourage. Have you done the same at your company or for your department? I highly recommend it.
6. Expect conflicts to arise–and train yourself for them before they erupt. With so many things going wrong in the rest of your customers’ lives, frustrations and anger are bound to spill over into how they view (and treat) those of us in customer service, leading to misunderstandings, frustrations, and perceived betrayals. The best solution is to train yourself on Customer Service Recovery (the art of working with upset customers) before you’re in the heat of the moment with such a customer. (If you don’t already have a customer service recovery framework you’re using, you’re welcome to my proprietary MAMA method, which consists of four steps to deploy the very moment you encounter such a customers. Email firstname.lastname@example.org and I’ll hook you up.)
7. Strive every day, every call, every text, and every email to keep your attitude fresh. Even if the issue that is causing your customer distress is the same one you’ve already heard 20 times this week, do everything you can to freshly view it through the eyes of this customer, the one you’re interacting with right now.