By Ivan Moore, Jolt Consulting
Welcome to 2020, the year that has (so far), brought us unprecedented challenges, coined many new phrases, and set a standard for a “new normal,” which hopefully draws to a close soon. Regardless of the state of the world, delighting and exceeding customer expectations is still a reality. This facet of doing business was a hard-enough feat before a pandemic impacted every aspect of our lives, and now customer service agents’ jobs have only become more demanding as incoming calls become more difficult.
With travel restrictions in place and unemployment at an all-time high, these factors are adding to the difficulties of customer service. Callers might request cancellations that are non-refundable or require extended bill payments. According to the Harvard Business Review, “increased customer emotion and anxiety in service calls” is a reality that reps are now handling daily — some more effectively than others.
Increasing Pressures On Service Agents
Although state and federal guidelines are ambiguous regarding whether customer service contact centers are considered essential businesses, we know the activities these reps are performing is undoubtedly crucial. Companies had to adapt quickly to a work-from-home model, including providing the proper technology (including computers, monitors, and reliable telephone and internet access), adhering to security standards, and compliance issues, and more, according to Forrester.
Not all companies succeeded, though, in providing their reps with the tools and support necessary to grant a smooth transition. Harvard Business Review researchers found a “massive uptick in instances of both customers and reps saying, ‘I can’t understand you.” This issue comes from inadequate technology in work-from-home settings. Some companies “saw customer hold times balloon by as much as 34 percent and escalations (calls sent up the chain of command) skyrocket more than 68 percent.” This factor is precipitated by a lack of training, coaching, and pivoting during unprecedented times. Each of these factors on their own is a challenge to overcome, but the combination can make or break whether reps can effectively perform their job while interacting with customers.
Tools To Elevate Customer (And Employee) Experiences
Arming agents with the physical tools needed to complete their jobs seems straightforward, but companies must also equip reps with techniques to handle and diffuse customer frustrations. This includes updating pre-pandemic policies that might no longer hold up, baffle the customer, and leave reps with “their hands tied” during a conversation. Reps must also have access to talking points, even if they can’t make customer policy exceptions, that empower them to service customers and arrive at better outcomes.
With all these added stresses, employers need to provide support for reps to mitigate burnout. Consider the emotional toll the work-from-home model has on employees, especially when it was adapted so rapidly, and ensure that empathy, open communication, and coaching are included in the daily schedule. Another factor to consider is that some employees may continue to work-from-home indefinitely, so this “new normal” may just become the “norm.”
According to a Gartner survey, 74 percent of CFO respondents expect 5 percent or more of their workforce to become permanent work-from-home employees post-pandemic. This percentage of remote workforce can help businesses cut costs, particularly facility, and overhead expenses. However, companies must invest in IT and software solutions to make permanent work-from-home capabilities a long-term reality.
To ensure productivity remains high, and employers have full visibility around customer activities, the right tools must be put in place as reps continue to work-from-home. Companies must also make it easy for customers to contact reps, opening additional communication channels (e.g., portals, chats, etc.) that allow for real-time interactions. In addition, employees must be able to easily collaborate internally with other employees via robust, interactive tools, like instant messaging or online project management platforms, which also can lead to better engagement and a feeling of connectedness.
Although we’re nearly half-way through 2020, we’ve experienced enough change to last a decade — and we’re just getting started. Companies that survive and even excel during COVID will focus on exceeding customer expectations; conversely, those that will fail will not take the steps necessary to ensure a tighter connection with their customers. Whether companies decide to keep a remote customer service workforce, there are many decisions, policies, procedures, and more to put into place quickly. Enabling customer service reps with the right tools both physically and mentally is essential to creating a productive, engaged, and capable workforce. These components will help agents better perform their jobs, satisfy customers, and positively impact profits. While this may appear to be a daunting task and companies may not know where to start, leveraging external resources with a “blueprint” and experience can dramatically reduce the time for execution into a matter of weeks. Tomorrow’s “new normal” will certainly look different from that of today’s standards, but just how different is up to you.
About The Author
Ivan joined Jolt in 2013 as Chief Operating Officer working with organizations to better connect with their customers across the complete sales and service journey. Ivan has assisted companies across many industry verticals to improve their customer engagement with assessments of their sales and service delivery, optimization of business processes, operating metrics, and deployment of enabling technologies. Recent engagement includes a process and technology assessment for a global manufacturing company and leading a technology selection process for a large national HVAC company.
CRN, Forrester, and Harvard Business Review