Customer Care: Dealing with a crisis you couldn’t plan for
Customer Care Managers are used to dealing with regular surges in demand. Most customer care centers (also referred to as contact centers) have an established process, planned months in advance to ensure they cope adequately and maintain the customer experience. The stakes are high - one bad experience is enough for customers that loved the brand to shop elsewhere.
32% of all customers would stop doing business with a brand they loved after one bad experience
- Future of Customer Experience, PwC1
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Don’t take routine for granted
For example, anyone working in retail knows that peak demand is the holiday period straight into January as customers make purchases, need to return or exchange items, and rush purchases in the sales as they hunt for a bargain. To accommodate this, surge recruiting in retail is typically done from late summer into September, followed by training in September-October, and a ‘system lockdown’ is put in place to prohibit changes to existing software and processes until at least January.
Or if you work in tax then the time to expect a surge in demand is slightly different, but a repeated process nonetheless. Whether you work in the public sector collecting tax, or in the private sector ensuring businesses record tax accurately, you expect the surge through February and March before the final April deadline.
This is routine - the holidays don’t change, tax submission dates remain the same every year. A structured process, and easy to plan for.
The new “normal”
So what happens when there is a sudden surge in demand from your customers you didn’t plan for? Are you resilient enough to cope?
Whether you’re public sector or private, these surges happen every so often - it may be an unusual weather event, a change in company structure - or a global public health emergency.
What is unusual about the current surge is that it is unprecedented - just about every organization everywhere in the world is affected, and their roadmap for the year ahead is having to be re-written. The sudden mix of top-down and bottom-up changes has caused greater uncertainty too. A global travel ban has meant business has gone virtual; many employees are required to work from home - often for the first time ever; and changes to consumer/citizen behavior mean that organizations are needing to adapt quickly in order to properly serve them.
The results can be drastic. 3 hour wait times to speak to your airline, an entire customer care center working from home with only one member of staff routing calls through, and a global urgent demand for toilet roll.
During a severe surge in demand, most of the weight is borne by your frontline staff - they will be fielding contacts from stressed and upset customers and where the situation is constantly evolving, may not have the answers they need to fully resolve customer queries.
Without the right tools for success, the outcome is an unsatisfied customer and a higher cost to serve at the end. But aided by technology, this can be avoided - and agents can be set up to truly make a difference to their customers and the organization.
Technology isn’t at the expense of humanity
The relationship between technology and humans is simmering. Since the dawn of time, there has been a belief from some aspects of society that technology cannot match the experience that humans provide. In modern-day terms, they’d rather talk to a human than a chatbot. Whilst it is true that human interaction holds more importance in some industries than others - particularly highly complex or high-risk areas such as healthcare or financial services - in reality, technology has only ever existed to facilitate customer needs.
This is no different for your customer care center, because done right, technology can help to elevate and preserve that experience during a surge in demand. Right now, the human cost of not doing so is huge. It results in unhappy, frustrated customers, and in high-risk areas service failures can be devastating - unable to collect unemployment benefits or handle medical bills. It’s the same story inside the customer care center too, because overwhelming pressure and lack of support inevitably leads to low agent engagement and high staff attrition, exacerbating the issue at a time when your agent’s product and customer experience is undeniably valuable.
Adding automation such as Interactive Voice Response (IVR) recordings, chatbots, and auto-responses to your customer care center adds vital resilience to your customer care center in times of surge.
Why? Because by automating simple, every-day queries that can be easily solved by directing customers to the information they need through digital self-service channels - including website FAQ’s and chatbots, this frees up your agents to work on priority issues which need full human interaction.
Like the best customer care centers, instead of firefighting, you’ll make your customer care team solutions-focused and enable your staff to positively impact the whole business.
When helpers are thanked for their efforts, the resulting sense of being socially valued is critical in encouraging them to provide more help in the future
Solutions breed results
The payoff for doing this is huge. By utilizing digital self-service channels, and reducing stress levels on the frontline, you’ll:
- Ensure the experience remains at the level your customers expect of you.
- Happy customers mean a happy workforce. Instead of dealing with menial tasks, they’ll be more engaged to make a positive impact. By creating an enjoyable and rewarding employee experience, you’ll reduce your employee attrition rate too.
- Whilst you’re helping customers, you’re helping the business too. Adding self-service channels is scalable throughout the organization, reduces the strain on your most valuable asset - your people, and can lead to higher customer satisfaction which has additional benefits of loyalty and spend.
During a surge, high employee attrition becomes a particularly acute problem as frontline staff are under huge pressure, and if they leave there is simply no time to recruit and train replacements. To help combat this, go beyond utilizing self-serve technology and make sure you appreciate that the only way you will deal with a surge in demand is with the help of your people. So take the time to recognize your staff, as they are critical to maintaining your institutional knowledge, product and solution know-how, and ensuring your organizational culture remains intact.
The actions you take, or lack of, when dealing with a surge will be remembered by your customers for a long time to come. So how do you plan ahead for something you can’t plan for?
- Do we have a pool of staff to call on if we experience a sudden surge?
- How do you handle the relationship with staff who have left? Is it possible to call on some of them for help as they may not need as much training as a brand new starter?
- Do we have the physical facilities to add more staff? In the office or so they can work from home?
- How can we help our agents be more efficient by promoting the right channel for the right query?
- Can we nudge customers towards more automated self-service options for some of the most repetitive, everyday queries? Perhaps improving our FAQs, adding chatbots to our digital channels, or using Interactive Voice Response recordings to help deflect calls?
- And where that’s not possible, can we use live chat or social media where an agent may be able to manage multiple interactions simultaneously?
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