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Customer Experience

Lessons from crisis managers: How to lead a customer service team in times of crisis

As the world faces new challenges created by an unprecedented global crisis, many businesses are waking up to the reality that business change can happen anywhere, at any time. And while organizations may not be able to control crises, what they can do is ensure they’re prepared to effectively and efficiently lead their teams through those difficult times, emerging stronger on the other side.

Crisis situations aren’t quite as rare as they may seem. Last year, professional services network PwC reported that 65% of organizations had experienced some form of business crisis within the previous 5 years, with 95% fully expecting to find themselves in the midst of a crisis in the future. And, of course, these 95% were correct, with the COVID-19 pandemic having an impact on practically every business.

The pandemic has highlighted just how quickly things can change. Businesses have been forced to switch from traditional on-site operations to remote working policies almost overnight, and the truth is that many organizations, and in turn many managers, have been completely unprepared for these changes. Crises can’t be predicted… but they can be acknowledged, and they can be prepared for.

Crisis & customer service

Every area of business operations is vulnerable to potential crises. However, as COVID-19 has demonstrated, customer-facing areas can sometimes receive the brunt of the impact. This is due to uncertainties over how or even if businesses will remain operating during a crisis, and this can result in significantly increased call volumes, greater complexity of inquiries, and heavier workloads.

Of course, managers are there to support their teams throughout it all. Or are they? There are multiple potential crises that can make it unsafe or challenging for customer service teams to continue operations from the office. Unknown viral infections aside, adverse weather conditions, structural damage, and even transport strikes can mean that managers are faced with supporting their teams remotely.

Customer service has long been an office-based task. And there are reasons for this. Having a team all together enables managers to conduct valuable on-the-job training, analyzing real-time calls to inform and educate employees. It allows for customer service agents to learn from each other, and to collaborate to address and resolve issues quickly for improved customer satisfaction and reputation.

As such, many managers do not know how to lead remote teams. It’s something that they’ve neither had to do before, nor particularly wanted to. But sometimes, there isn’t a choice. As the situation in 2020 has shown, massive change can happen rapidly, and there is an urgent need for businesses to ensure they are prepared to handle change if they want to not only survive during a crisis, but continue to thrive.

Valuable lessons in team management

Not every management technique will work for every leader. There will always be some degree of trial and error involved in developing a remote leadership plan. However, what may be useful is to look to other organizations for guidance, learning from crisis managers who really have ‘been there, done that.’

Empower teams

“You are probably going to rip up your rulebook. Don't expect your comms team to have all the answers,” says James Coyle, Head of PR at Samsung Electronics UK, speaking at the 2018 Crisis Communications Conference in London. While customer service agents may not have all the answers, leaders can empower them to make necessary decisions to do more to meet evolving customer needs at this time.

The right software solution can empower your teams to do great work through improved communications with geographically dispersed colleagues, better scheduling, and superior time management. It enables leaders to be more flexible and delegate effectively which is vital during a crisis, with Deloitte stating that ‘reducing the number of reporting tiers can improve efficiency’ during COVID-19.

However, it’s important to remember that customer service representatives may not always make the right decision every time. Try not to introduce crisis communications as a way of creating a flawless method of response. Instead, crisis communications and empowered teams should be introduced as a method for establishing a strong and stable system for effective response and continuous training.

Communicate constantly

“Try to conduct your meetings via video, and not just by phone. It will help all of us feel more connected during this global change, wherever we are in the world,” says Alexandra Nation, from Qualtrics Technical Sales Team in San Francisco. As touched upon above, even when teams are working separately from different locations, the right software can help to maintain high levels of communication during a crisis.

And the truth is that there’s an even bigger need for effective communication when leading remote teams than there is when managing an on-site team. ‘Out of sight, out of mind’ is a very real concern when leading remote teams, and so it’s essential for the left hand to always know what the right hand is doing. There is an urgent need for managers to introduce remote technologies as friends, not enemies.

How can leaders do this? By introducing technology as an effective tool for addressing some of the biggest concerns that teams will have about working remotely. These concerns may include lost communications, missed messages, or a failure for colleagues to share important information or announcements. By communicating regularly, leaders can help their teams remain closely connected.

Lead with calmness

People act with their reflexes. Emotion is turned up high, and logic is turned off,” says Sameh Abadir, Professor of Leadership and Negotiation at the IMD Business School. The truth is that panic spreads, and it spreads easily. Throughout the COVID-19 outbreak, professional services network McKinsey reported that 64% of people felt anxious. Good managers need to be able to lead with calmness during crises.

Effective customer service teams must act with the 4 C’s: compassion, confidence, competence, and calmness. "Your core responsibility is having an architecture and framework with the ability to remain calm, not overreact, see the bigger picture and have common goals," says Mark Hutcheon, Communications Director at Williams F1 Group, speaking at the 2018 Crisis Communications Conference.

While crises may be difficult, and while there may be numerous uncertainties and worries, panic breeds panic. Managers operating under crisis must lead with calmness, and must lead by example. During difficult times, employees are likely to look to their managers for guidance on how to behave. By remaining calm, customer service agents are motivated to remain calm too when talking to customers.

Include everyone

Ask a lot of questions and encourage more questions! We have weekly AMAs and sessions where we talk to each other and ask questions,” says Krish Subramanian, Founder of billing software Chargebee. During a crisis, more than ever there is a need for a strong unified message. And a unified message can only be developed by including all team members in a plan for crisis management and communication.

By involving everyone in decision-making processes, by asking for everyone’s opinions on leadership approaches, and by encouraging all team members to communicate, managers can show employees they are supporting their needs and that they’ve got their backs. Ultimately, managers can’t lead remote teams effectively unless the leadership approach has the full support of all team members.

Supporting the needs of employees isn’t just important from a production perspective - it’s important from a customer perspective, too. Customers pay closer attention to businesses during crises than ever and they look to the businesses they buy from for guidance. During a crisis, it is imperative to lead with employees’ needs at the forefront, demonstrating a commitment to the workforce, not just customers.

Don’t stop once the crisis is over

These four lessons from crisis managers can go a long way towards developing a new generation of empowered leaders with the knowledge and understanding needed to support teams through challenging situations and uncertainties. However, one of the biggest mistakes that managers can make is only drawing upon these lessons during times of crisis. Effective crisis management isn’t a one-time thing; it’s a continuous process that ensures leaders are ready to handle whatever’s thrown at them.

The truth is that while these lessons can be effective guides, there’s no right or wrong way to handle a crisis situation; it all depends on the individual circumstances of both the business and the customer. The most valuable thing that managers can do is to acknowledge and learn from the strengths and weaknesses of their crisis management plans, and continually adapt to lead with confidence every time.

There’s a big difference between theory and practice, and COVID-19 has demonstrated a number of practical flaws in theoretically sound plans. Some situations are outside of your control. How you lead through a crisis isn’t one of them.

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