An open letter on customer service during a pandemic

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It’s an understatement to say we are living in interesting times. Now declared a pandemic, the novel coronavirus COVID-19 is impacting everyone’s lives. A visit to any grocery or drug store illustrates the panic buying taking place as worried consumers stock-up. Every check of the inbox brings new COVID-19 emails from companies assuring their customers of the precautions they are taking. “Social distancing,” with its many considerations, is a new concept we should all be practicing. And in an attempt to combat the spread of the virus, countries have restricted travel and imposed quarantines.

To put it bluntly, things are not normal out there. Lives will continue to change in the near term but life also must go on, and in our daily lives we are both customers and representatives of a business in some manner. During this difficult time in our roles as customers and companies, we must work together to get through it–and that includes how we interact in the realm of customer service.

Start with patience, kindness, and understanding

Companies, behind the scenes you are undoubtedly doing everything you can to address and mitigate the higher volume you might be experiencing as a result of COVID-19 with what resources you can muster. For hard-hit businesses, set expectations on customer service telephone lines and provide updates on websites, such as this notice on the American Airlines website:

Our phones are busy. We understand it’s frustrating to wait, but if you’re not traveling in the next 72 hours, please wait until closer to your trip to call. You can cancel your flight online now and call when you’re ready to rebook. Please contact your travel agent for help if you didn’t book directly with us.

Assure customers they will be assisted as quickly as possible and allow them to leave voicemail messages, send emails, or use social media channels where they will receive future follow-up. Also consider changing policies in light of this extraordinary situation, as Airbnb has, to help reduce inquiries on certain topics. Know that even despite best efforts, some customers will still have unreasonable expectations.

Customers, know that contacting customer service–waiting on-hold or in the chat queue–is going to take longer, especially with hard-hit companies like airlines. Recognize that companies are doing their best to respond to everyone, but might be experiencing additional challenges like employees out sick or piloting a hastily-started work from home program. Remember there are other customers with issues (some much greater than yours) that also need assistance. When you do get in touch with someone (bearing in mind it could take hours or even days), continue to demonstrate that grace when the agent apologizes for the wait you experienced. In general, expect everything–be it ordering something or asking a simple question–to just take longer.

Be resourceful

Companies, with increased customer service volumes and potentially fewer staff, now is the time to double-down on self-service. While not necessarily the best time to start something new, ensure what is in place–knowledge bases, chatbots, communities, and automation, for example–are all operating well and providing up-to-date information. If additional solutions can be added and supported by existing channels, do so. Remind customers waiting on telephone lines and in chat queues of these instantly-available resources.

Customers, before you pick up the telephone, start your search for answers online. Most companies today have listened to the trends and offer a variety of self-service options. These tools are available around the clock and provide solutions to most common issues. When you use them, it provides a faster resolution and means you free up a live agent to address other issues.

Help others

Companies, now is the time to step up your service and really assist your customers in the ways only you can. This is not an opportunity to peddle your wares but instead to help keep society moving forward. Some companies have already answered this call, with examples such as:

Customers, realize these companies will be taking a hit in some form to provide these products and services to everyone in need. Take a moment now to thank them; and when the pandemic has passed, continue to support them. If you have the time and knowledge, help provide answers on companies’ online customer service communities. And don’t forget to be helping out in your own community: consider donating blood and volunteering to help others.

Getting through this together

Pandemics have been an issue humans have contended with throughout history–and we have persevered! COVID-19 has already sparked debate on what it might mean for the future. While what was considered “normal” might never return to some parts of society, some new (and better) norms are likely to emerge. And despite the uncertainties that lie ahead, companies and their customers must recognize the unique period we’re in, take a breath, and work our way through it together. Now go wash your hands.

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