Between a rock and a hard place: Navigating customer service during COVID-19

Ashley Sava

March 20, 2020

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Tethr has deployed a new set of machine learning categories on Coronavirus to assist with customer service during COVID-19. We have launched a dashboard for our customers to follow customer mentions of COVID-19, and how those interactions are being handled by agents. Use it to identify which reps are using effort-reduction skills while tracking all of the operational indicators companies need to monitor during this pandemic. If you'd like to see this new capability in action and how it better customer service, please request a demo.

Update: Data from our analysis of over one million phone calls related to COVID-19 has been highlighted in a recent post on
Harvard Business Review. Check out the article here.

Every corner of the enterprise is struggling to navigate the impact of COVID-19. Finance is grappling with tricky questions about cash management. HR is dealing with stark choices about furloughs and layoffs. Sales is trying to convince customers to continue to buy. The IT department is scrambling to support employees who lack the infrastructure and resources to be productive while they work from home.

Customer service during COVID-19: It's a tough place

But perhaps no function is being hit as hard as customer service during COVID-19. Imagine being on the other end of the phone call with a customer asking for a bill payment extension or who suddenly lost their job and is struggling to figure out how to feed their family and make ends meet until the pandemic blows over. Now imagine putting that customer on hold to flag down your supervisor to ask for permission to grant this customer request…only to suddenly remember that you’re working from home and there’s nobody there to help you.

A job that is tough under normal circumstances became exponentially harder, seemingly overnight. Customer service during COVID-19 is a huge hurdle for even the best reps.

Our data science team at Tethr just completed a study of tens of thousands of customer conversations that have taken place since the beginning of the pandemic, and we found that the pandemic (and the work environment changes it has wrought on service organizations) has created a perfect storm for frontline reps that they are ill-prepared to manage.

Effort measurement as a crisis customer service tool

Using our Tethr Effort Index, “high effort” would be defined as "Difficult" (less than 4 on our scale of 0 - 10) indicating, at minimum, we've missed some form of customer expectation. Sometimes so much so that the customer is far more likely to churn soon. According to our research, customer conversations that pertain to coronavirus-related issues often result in a much higher rate of “Difficult” than a typical customer service interaction. For example, one Tethr customer saw the rate of “Difficult” calls in coronavirus-related calls increase from 13.9 percent to 21.5 percent.

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This stands to reason since many of these calls are packed with emotion--they pertain to special refund requests, bill payment extensions and insurance coverage, among other anxiety-laden topics. But what makes matters worse is that reps are still shackled by policies that pre-date the pandemic, meaning that they end up expressing that they’re “powerless to help” far more often than they would under normal circumstances. In fact, low performers are 11 percent more likely to hide behind policy on COVID-19 related calls, relative to higher-performing peers.

Additional complications for agents

When you add to this the complexity of reps being forced to work from home, most for the first time, and you’ve got a witch’s brew of high effort. Reps often lack the technology infrastructure: good phone reception, a noise-canceling headset and a fast internet connection-- things they once enjoyed in the contact center. As a result, instances of customers and reps saying “I can’t understand you” have skyrocketed.

What’s more, reps who had grown accustomed to the support of peers and readily accessible supervisors who roamed the contact center floor are now having to figure things out on their own. The data shows that, on Covid-related calls, some call centers are seeing holds up nearly 34 percent - forcing customers to endure long periods of silence - and escalations in some cases are up as much as 68 percent.

So what can companies do to help navigate this difficult situation? We’ve identified three tactics that savvy service leaders are investing in to help reps reduce customer effort--and disloyalty--in the current environment:

1. Invest in the language techniques that enable reps to reduce customer effort

It’s more important than ever before to invest in skills such as advocacy. Now is the time to perfect proactive and positive language. Advocacy— the language that reps use that sends the customer the message that you are on their side and want to help them reach a positive resolution—reduces customer effort by as much as 77 percent. Utterances such as  “I’m going to take care of this for you,” and “we will figure this out together” can make all the difference in whether a customer leaves an interaction frustrated and disloyal or not--even when the stakes are high, such as in COVID-19-related calls. Previous research - including our own related to Tethr Effort Index (TEI) proves that advocacy language is a significant mitigator of the effort customers perceive, particularly in difficult interactions.

It’s equally important to avoid those behaviors that surge effort such as uncertainty, negative language and reps thoughtlessly routing customers elsewhere. “Redirect” is when an agent comes across as passing the buck, almost the opposite of empathy. Note: this is different from an actual transfer. Phrases such as "They might be the ones who can assist you" or "I would suggest you contact…" puts the next step on the customer (by definition, higher effort) and makes the customer feel they’ve wasted time by making the call. Low performers are 38 percent more likely to use “redirect” language on COVID-19 related calls, relative to higher-performing peers.

customer service during COVID-19 dashboard 0

2. Implement a virtual coaching model

If the current situation has shown us anything, it’s that reps who were brought up in an organization where they’re just given the answers will struggle mightily when there’s nobody around to tell them what to do. This is the time to invest in a true coaching program that helps reps develop the skills and knowledge they need to engage customers more independently.

The good news is that this can be done virtually. As Lauren Pragoff, Vice President of the Effortless Experience Service practice at Challenger, Inc. said, “You don’t have to be knee-to-knee, shoulder-to-shoulder or elbow-to-elbow to practice integrated coaching…The key is that it is still taking place as close to the customer interaction as possible. Technology enables many different ways to have immediate coaching conversations with your staff, although some can be more disruptive than others.”

Now is really the time for supervisors to step up their coaching game.

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3. Leverage collaboration tools to help reps tap into the wisdom of peers

Individual reps will never have all of the answers…but there’s a good chance all of the answers reside somewhere in the service organization. But how do you replicate the ability to tap a neighbor on the shoulder or lean over the cube wall with a question when reps are on their own? Customer service during COVID-19 must adapt.

Leading companies are leveraging messaging platforms like Slack to allow team members to throw out questions, concerns and requests for information in near real-time. One team leader we spoke to told us that the first thing he does in the morning is fire up a group channel for the reps on duty. “Knowing that your colleagues are virtually right there to get your back when you need help is a huge confidence booster. We see tons of traffic all day long on these team channels.”  What’s more, supervisors can be a fly on the wall--monitoring these conversations and flagging opportunities to update knowledge articles, policies or processes so as to help reps “at scale.”  This is also a terrific way to identify broader training and coaching needs on an ongoing basis.

How Tethr can help with customer service during COVID-19

Last week, our team built and deployed a new set of machine learning categories on Coronavirus and launched a dashboard for our customers to monitor not just customer mentions of COVID-19, but how those interactions are being handled by reps. The dashboard helps managers see which reps are using effort-reduction skills and which are not--and tracks all of the operational indicators companies need to monitor (like escalations, transfers, silence time, and long holds) to make sure they aren’t taking a naturally high-effort moment and making it worse for customers.

customer service during COVID-19 dashboard 1

To do our part in helping companies navigate customer service during COVID-19, we're offering to run a sample of your calls or chats through our customer service during COVID-19 dashboard. Request more details here.

Check out the dashboard for customer service during COVID-19 below!

customer service during COVID-19 dashboard 2

Written by Matt Dixon, Ted McKenna and Ashley Sava

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