Navigating the coming customer service surge

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The end of the pandemic is in sight. Two massive efforts underway will, in time, put COVID-19 in the rearview mirror.

The first is vaccinations. With three approved options in the United States (and a fourth possibly coming soon), the challenge now is getting vaccinations into arms. The United States and the rest of the world are taking slightly different paths and every region is encountering unique problems; nevertheless, there is hope. And as that hope rises, some predict if the safety, security, and newfound confidence the vaccines bring might usher in an economic boom.

In the United States, adding fuel to that prediction is the unprecedented American Rescue Plan. It expands vaccine distribution efforts and virus testing, props up several social programs, assists education and childcare, supplies aid to state and local governments, and delivers direct stimulus payments to qualifying citizens.

Between vaccines and aid, this all adds up to very positive outlook. So what does it have to do with customer service?

Plenty. Up to 70% of the United States’ gross domestic product is tied to consumers. With widespread vaccination programs opening up more opportunities to leave the house and with money in-hand, consumers will be looking to spend money they have saved and government-provided stimulus. Retail, entertainment, travel–these are just a few industries stopped or slowed by the pandemic likely to experience a renaissance. Consumer activity will stimulate other business activity, as well. This sudden demand in products and services won’t come without buyers facing issues, which means customer service must be ready.

And the most-prepared organizations will be. Those that navigated the pandemic have demonstrated the skills and devices to do it. Now it’s a matter of retooling for that coming wave, and here’s how.

Set expectations

Higher customer contact volume will lead to longer customer wait times. That wait could be to get to an agent over live channels, for a resolution if issues require research or help from a specialist, or a combination of the two.

Despite the pandemic, customer expectations remain high for fast service. During these challenging times, reset expectations rather than potentially miss them by being transparent. Keep customers informed about delays and wait times with notifications on the website, messages in telephone queues, and alerts in live and automated chats. Most customers will understand and be less likely to complain or escalate when organizations set expectations upfront.

Pro tip: use real-time analytics to keep estimated wait times as accurate as possible.

Review live service channels

Over time, many organizations find themselves with multiple live customer contact channels: telephone, email, live chat, messaging, and several social media platforms. While there may have been a business case when the channel was added, changes in customer behavior, business needs, and other factors may have led to “channel sprawl.” This in turn may make it challenging to effectively staff so many customer contact points.

Examine each channel for customer usage as well as the investment required to keep it operating. Some costs will be obvious, like software or tool licensing, with others hidden, such as the training and skills necessary to staff them. By shutting down some channels, those resources can be redeployed to augment those performing better.

Pro tip: when removing a channel, provide customers with advanced notice, the rationale, and the other available options. Allow them to provide feedback, and respond to it.

Increase self-service investments

Self-service has increasingly become customers’ first stop for an answer. With diverse options–knowledge bases, online communities, chatbots, and automated solutions–many organizations offer more than one form.

Over the years, self-service has demonstrated its worth; during the pandemic–with agents out and the workforce non-centralized–it has proven invaluable. With the potential for even greater volume to come, now is the time to further that investment. Knowledge base articles must be kept current, easily searched, and updated to reflect any changes as a result of post-pandemic realities. Leaderboards and incentives in online communities will foster participation and encourage customers to assist each other. Update chatbots to address the high volume issues of the day. Automation should be used to instantly address common issues and to route complex customer requests to the departments and specialists who can assist.

Pro tip: keeping existing self-service channels in-tune with customers’ needs is critical to usage and success. With that accomplished, evaluate if additional self-service options make sense.

Optimize the workforce

Live service channels require staffing. Workforce optimization uses analytics to understand current and past channel activity and performance as well as to simulate how events like twenty percent higher volume may impact service. It also helps identify which employees are more efficient, both overall and by channel. Workforce optimization can assist in building an optimal schedule to maximize service levels using available resources across channels.

Pro tip: monitor work to identify coaching and training opportunities. Making employees more efficient and skilled in their work leads to higher customer satisfaction.

Utilize workflow

The pandemic upended the traditional workplace. Fellow customer service agents are no longer nearby and supporting teams have been scattered. Many organizations have not completely resumed in-office operations as return-to-work evaluations continue. In addition, until widespread vaccinations have occurred, workday disruptions such as caring for family members will remain common.

Workflow solves this conundrum. No matter where employees are working, it reliably and repeatedly moves work between customer service agents and the departments who assist them. Time- and location-based challenges are effectively negated because tasks are detoured to agents or teams available, ensuring customer issues aren’t lost or stalled. In addition, the status of a customer’s issue is always available and accountability is maintained.

Pro tip: workplace uncertainty will remain as the pandemic sunsets and future disruptions are always possible. Continually identify and prioritize customer service processes where workflow can ensure business continuity regardless of where employees work.

Deliver proactive service

One way to short circuit any spikes, especially sudden ones, it to jump on issues that have the potential of affecting large customer segments. Customers appreciate hearing any information–positive or negative–before it affects them. It can save them time from trying to solve the issue themselves or waiting to speak or chat with an agent. When a solution is not yet available, knowing it is coming might also encourage them to not contact customer service, reducing workload.

Organizations offering digital products and services can use tools to monitor status and inform customers preemptively of an outage. Similarly, real-time analytics can identify customer issue trends from contact center activity that can drive proactive customer outreach.

Pro tip: An added benefit of proactive service is that it often surprises customers, resulting in a strong, positive impact on their perception of a company.

Riding the next wave

Attempts to end the pandemic–the virus itself and its economic impacts–are gathering strength. These efforts are gargantuan and their impacts will be considerable, but it’s unlikely things will completely return to normal in the near-term. That said, they do have the means of changing societal and economic behaviors in a significant manner. And that means customer service must be ready.

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