CX During a Pandemic: 3 Ways to Empower Agents and Meet Your Customers Where They Are


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It is obvious that the global coronavirus outbreak has caused customer experience teams worldwide to rapidly adapt amid support ticket spikes, event cancellations, service disruptions, and a heightened level of uncertainty. In fact, according to Zendesk’s Benchmark Snapshot report, which uses customer service data from 23,000 companies, there have been increases in companies’ average weekly ticket volume since February of this year ranging anywhere from 6 to 24 percent per week, making managing customers’ needs even more unpredictable than before.

Of course, impacts vary even more widely across industries. Grocery companies saw the most dramatic increase in support requests (133 percent uptick), followed by remote work and learning companies (up 85 percent), and food delivery businesses (up 33 percent). And how users are reaching out is evolving too. Customers are increasingly turning to the fast and convenient channels that they typically use to interact with friends and family – like WhatsApp, chat, and social media messaging – to interact with businesses. 

Regardless of industry, how companies meet the immediate and near-term challenges and engage with their customers during this crisis will significantly influence how they fare in the long-term. 

Customers will remember the interactions they had with businesses (both positive and negative) during this time, and the companies that rise to the occasion will be best equipped to thrive when things swing back to a “new normal.” Rather than cutting resources or pulling back on customer service, now is the time to double-down and meet customers when and where it suits them.

Here are three ways you can meet your customers where they are and empower your support agents.

1. Give Customers What They Want – Move to Their Preferred Communication Channels

With the spread of the global pandemic, our data shows that customer requests have spiked across channels like WhatsApp (101 percent), chat (34 percent) and social media messaging (30 percent).

Certain industries have experienced significant increases in ticket volumes across these channels. For example, in March when cases of COVID-19 first started to spread rapidly around the world and businesses had to shift their operations seemingly overnight, remote work and learning companies saw customer requests through their native messaging channels increase by a whopping 600 percent, and customer requests through chat increase by 220 percent. And for airline companies that are now corresponding with customers who urgently need to cancel or postpone travel plans, ticket volume increased by 65 percent via their messaging apps, and by 940 percent via chat.

The popularity of chat and messaging indicate that what customers truly need during this time is fast, convenient access to answers. While customers may not be keen to wait for phone support from agents, they are reaching out through these other channels for more immediate resolution – which means agents need to be ready and able to meet them there. A truly omnichannel support strategy is now more important than ever. Brands who consistently deliver in this regard will come out on top – throughout the crisis and beyond.

2. Deliver on the Need for Speed with AI and Self-Service 

With ticket volumes at record peaks, technology and automation are becoming essential in streamlining communication with customers. More companies are using artificial intelligence (AI), such as chatbots that instantly reply with relevant self-service articles, so that customers can get answers they need without any wait time. The number of support requests handled using AI has increased by 88 percent since the beginning of the outbreak, from late February to mid-April. 

Many of the online platforms and services that keep businesses operating, consumers entertained and communities connected have been quick to scale their service capabilities through automation. Gaming, remote work and learning, and telecommunications companies, in particular, are solving significantly more requests with AI, which takes some of the pressure off agents and allows customers to find what they need, as soon as they need it. Zendesk’s Answer Bot, for instance, now solves 88 percent more tickets for gaming companies than it did in late February. 

Not only can AI help scale service to meet growing customer support needs at times like this, but it also ensures that agents can focus their attention on more complex issues that need a human touch. What’s more, self-service makes for more satisfied customers, which can be tough during a crisis. According to Gartner, having relevant and quick self-service increases customer satisfaction by 12 percent.

All organizations should look at how AI solutions can work alongside their support team to get customers answers they need right away. The impact of COVID-19 is still unclear, so all industries – whether they’re in the hot seat now or not – should be prepared to face higher support volumes in the future.

3. Preserve Your Company’s Heartbeat by Supporting Your Agents 

Customer service agents are at the heart of every organization. They’re the first touchpoint customers interact with when they have questions and need support. To meet customers when and where they are in need, you must have a support workforce that is ready and enthusiastic to help. Agents can’t do this if they’re feeling depleted, overworked or unequipped with the right tools, especially now as they are under immense pressure from both the volume of service tickets and heightened expectations from internal stakeholders. 

When customer service agents feel their systems or tools enhance their ability to handle customer issues and simplify their day-to-day work, their productivity can increase by up to 20 percent, which in turn can drive customer satisfaction by 11 percent and decrease customer effort by 9 percent, according to Gartner. Needless to say, empowering agents with the right tools – such as remote work capabilities, systems for the support team to come together virtually to solve customer challenges, solutions for seamlessly providing service across channels, and more – can make or break the customer experience now and as the crisis evolves.

Equally as important is for leaders to practice empathy and take intentional steps to support their frontline support teams. This can take shape through conducting regular employee pulse surveys to understand how agents are faring, starting up workplace wellness initiatives, providing mental health benefits, and implementing more flexible work policies, among other programs. Understanding the needs of your agents and taking action to mitigate challenges will empower teams to put their best foot forward in each customer interaction.

Remote work may be here to stay as this crisis redefines what the new normal will look like. Take the opportunity to rethink your organizational structure. Rigid, hierarchical organizations struggle in this environment whereas empowered smaller teams can thrive and deliver exceptional customer results.

Companies across the board are feeling the pressure of this new COVID-19 reality. To stay relevant, businesses must be alert to how consumer behavior is changing and invest in tools and programs that help agents better serve customers – not pull back on service investments. It’s time to assess your support strategy and meet your customers where they are.

Teresa Anania
Teresa Anania is vice president of customer success at Zendesk where she is responsible for the management and development of the company's global client base, including all customer segments from SMB to enterprise. Her remit is to ensure Zendesk's customers are realizing maximum business value across the customer lifecycle, which ultimately results in their renewal, growth of lifetime value, and customer satisfaction. Prior to Zendesk, Teresa was the senior director of customer success at Autodesk where she drove both scale and tech-touch success motions across all market segments.


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