Exploring the Impact of COVID-19 on Customer Behavior

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What do mattress sales, wildlife populations, and peak customer service times all have in common?

These seemingly random data points have all been impacted by COVID-19. Mattress sales have skyrocketed thanks to people spending more time at home—and discovering new sleep challenges as a result of the pandemic.

Meanwhile, wild animals are appearing during daylight hours while also thriving in number due to less commuter traffic and tourism—an impact scientists have dubbed the “anthropause.”

And, finally, remote work and evolving sleep habits have shifted traditional contact center communication spikes from pre/post-work hours to the middle of the day.

It’s this last phenomenon we want to dig into more. COVID-19 has significantly impacted customer behaviors and expectations. In fact, in a survey from Noble Systems, almost 54% of respondents claimed to have noticed behavioral changes in their customers over the last 12 months. It’s created a paradigm shift, which is both fascinating and frustrating, especially when it comes to forecasting and workforce management.

Contact Volume

Customer behavior that affects contact volume isn’t altogether unpredictable when viewed through the filter of a pandemic. Industries deemed more essential to living and working in the confines of your home are naturally the ones who have seen increased volume.

Sectors like online grocery and retail, networking and cybersecurity, and healthcare have all seen significant growth throughout the pandemic. This inevitably translates to higher contact volume in the customer care realm. Backed up orders, ticket back logs, and overwhelmed websites will all lead consumers to their phones, whether it’s to make a direct phone call or to scroll through self-service options.

On the flip side, it’s obvious how sectors like travel and tourism have suffered over the last year—and that means dwindling contact volume. We’ll talk more about forecasting in a minute, but it’s clear how this (hopefully temporary) lull throws a wrench in future projections about volume.

Arrival Patterns

While volume fluctuations weren’t entirely surprising, changes to arrival patterns were somewhat unexpected. Because the world has never before seen a shift to remote work this substantial, we could have hardly guessed how this change would overhaul the routine of people’s days.

For many, working from home comes with two distinct advantages that aren’t as prevalent in the office: privacy and flexibility. No longer did people have to wait until that 5 ‘o’ clock hour to make that phone call to customer service. With self-appointed breaks and no nosy coworkers to overhear them, customers have single-handedly shifted the peak call hours for many customer care operations across the globe to daytime hours, often between 9-5. Some companies have seen traditionally quiet hours of the day, like the 2pm to 5pm period, switch drastically to being the busiest time of all for customer calls.

The sudden onset of worldwide lockdowns also impacted people’s sleep patterns. As we mentioned, this led to a surprising increase in mattress sales. But it also made an impact on customer behavior, particularly with self-service customer care. Whether from the newfound freedom of working from home (read: sleeping through old commute times) or from insomnia-inducing anxiety, people’s night-time behaviors have drastically shifted. They’re picking up their phones at all hours of the day. 8am-8pm self-service peaks have evolved into 24/7 requests.

Omni-Channel Patterns

The vast majority of contact centers and companies in general already had some level of omni-channel customer care infrastructure in place prior to the pandemic. As such, it was interesting to see just how much the patterns of use among customers shifted.

The aforementioned Noble Systems report saw increases across the board. 44% saw an increase in email communication, 29% saw an increased use of their IVR, 26% saw a greater use in their online livechat tools, and 20% saw more text/SMS use.

In general, it’s clear that customers are increasingly more comfortable with online options – from sales to payments to self-serve customer care – than they were before the pandemic forced them into isolation. Omnichannel in general and digital channels in particular give contact centers a unique opportunity to mold the customer experience in alignment with both the company brand and evolving consumer expectations. The pandemic, then, has opened an advantageous door in this respect.

Future Forecasting & Workforce Management

When all of these trends converge, regardless of the opportunities they give rise to, there are inevitable challenges in how to forecast future customer communications.

For industries whose contact volumes significantly shifted—whether up or down—the question becomes, how long will those trends last? We can guess that, eventually, travel and tourism will return to pre-COVID levels, at some point in the next 12 to 24 months, and the associated customer care volume will follow suit. On the other hand, online grocery, which spiked massively under strict lockdowns, may never return to pre-COVID levels as customers acquired during 2020 now consider the ease and convenience of the service a part of their lives.

In these cases, what strategies can contact centers use for forecasting? The typical tactic of using past data to predict future trends gets complicated when the current factors influencing your short-term forecast won’t be repeated in the future.  For some industries, 2020 metrics may never be seen again. Going back to 2019 data may not be the answer either since both customer behavior and employee behavior shifted dramatically. For instance, in our own company, attrition rates were at historic lows in 2020. Will those revert to 2019 levels as the world re-opens – or will new ways of working continue to keep attrition low for the coming year? What is true of contact volume is also true of arrival patterns and omni-channel needs. Leaders in workforce management must determine how many agents are needed, when they are needed, and which channels those agents must be spread across.

How have your customer care tactics shifted over the last year or so? Have you noticed big changes in customer behavior? How will that impact you going forward? What will inform your forecasting for 2021 and 2022?

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