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Leading customer service teams in times of crisis

12th Oct 2020
Head of content Qualtrics
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The unprecedented nature of the global crisis we’re currently experiencing has been a wakeup call for many businesses.

Leaders of those companies have found themselves shaken awake from the dream that their organisations can skirt past catastrophe by the stark reality that crises can indeed happen to any company at any time. These crises of course cannot be predicted or controlled, but they can be planned for. Business leaders especially have a responsibility to make sure that they’re adequately prepared to lead their teams through the tough times and guide them out the other side.

This responsibility is one that business leaders should be well aware of, with a 2019 PwC study showing that almost two thirds of organisations (65%) have experienced some form of crisis over the last 5 years. The same study also shows that 95% were expecting to experience a crisis in future.

The COVID-19 pandemic tested these levels of preparation, being a testament to not only how quickly things can change, but also how disruptive a crisis can be when entered without a strategy. Almost overnight, entire divisions of companies that were historically entrenched in the mindset that the only way to do their job was to be on-site, were forced to do so remotely.

These crises rarely hit two businesses in the same way as one another, but there are some techniques and core competencies to be aware of when planning for and dealing with a crisis.

Crisis & customer services

When it comes to crises, they rarely impact just one part of your business. They can however impact one area disproportionately to others — and in most cases it’s the customer-facing areas that bear the brunt of the impact.

Those customer-facing roles suffer not only the burden of navigating sudden internal changes, but also have to guide customers through an unsure situation that they themselves may not be certain of. Questions of how, when or even if your business will remain operational result in higher call volumes, greater complexity of inquiries, and heavier workloads.

It’s also important to ensure that managers are supportive of your teams. Due to the benefits and traditions of customer services being an office-based position, many managers simply do not have the know-how to lead a remote team. It doesn’t, however, take a global pandemic to necessitate this skill set. Much more menial occurrences like adverse weather conditions, structural damage or even transport strikes can spawn mini crises that must be resolved in a similar fashion.

Strategies for team management

Every crisis impacts every organisation differently, just like different strategies to combat this won’t necessarily work for every business. There’s always some degree of trial and error involved in developing a crisis management approach for your team, so taking inspiration from other organisations who have ‘been there and done that’ has tremendous value. We’ve compiled four such tips below that may help you.

1. Create an open flow of communication

‘Out of sight, out of mind’ is a very real concern when managing remote teams. It’s far easier to ensure that there are open lines of communication on-site than it is to do so remotely. Implementing technology to mitigate concerns that teams will inevitably have about moving from on-site to remote based working is vital. Issues such as missed messages, poor communication and delays in the dissemination of important announcements among teams are all issues that can be remedied with the right technology behind you.

This also places the onus on leaders to ensure that they are in constant communication with their teams. Setting the standard and leading by example is fundamental in ensuring that your teams follow suit.

2. Lead by example

Leading by example is a powerful tool. It’s not only positive aspects that your team will pick up on though – strong emotions like panic will also spread quickly. McKinsey reported that during this current crisis 64% of people have felt anxious, this speaks to the need for business leaders to remain calm in the face of adversity.

Mark Hutcheon, Communications Director at Williams F1 Group, while speaking at the 2018 Crisis Communications Conference said, "Your core responsibility is having an architecture and framework with the ability to remain calm, not overreact, see the bigger picture and have common goals."

3. Empower teams

While it’s very possible, if not probable, that your customer service agents will not have all of the answers to satisfy every customer enquiry during a crisis, it’s paramount that those agents feel empowered to make the necessary decisions and meet the evolving needs of your customers.

James Coyle, Head of PR at Samsung Electronics UK said as much while speaking at the 2018 Crisis Communications Conference in London, “You are probably going to rip up your rulebook. Don't expect your comms team to have all the answers.”

This is not to say that your customer service agents will make the right decision every time. Think of it more as a means of establishing a strong and stable system for effective response and continuous training than a blueprint for a flawless system of response.

In this regard, the right software can go a long way. Empowering teams through improved communications, despite geographical dispersions has a positive knock on effect to time management. Enabling leads greater flexibility when it comes to delegation and task prioritisation.

4. Be inclusive

By its very nature, remote working arrangements function on trust more than on-site working does. However, it’s hard for your teams to trust in a process or plan if they’ve been excluded from the development stages. This lack of trust is detrimental not only from a productivity standpoint, but also from a customer satisfaction perspective.

Customers pay more attention to your company during a crisis than in any other situation. As the day-to-day face of your business, customers are going to pick up on when your staff are uncertain, unhappy or stressed.

Conversely, if your staff are presenting a unified message, are sure of new processes and empowered to make decisions, they present a much stronger impression of your business to your customer. This can also have a strong knock-on impact upon your wider customer experience, especially if your customer understands that your business is going through a turbulent time.

Continually adapt your crisis plan

The most important lesson to take from these tips is not to rest on the laurels of your crisis plan. There’s no objectively wrong or right way to lead a business through a crisis, it’s all dependent on the context and circumstances surrounding both the business and their customers. However, it is a big mistake to use a previous crisis plan in a new situation and rigidly follow the steps that you made before.

The truth of the matter is that your plan needs to constantly evolve. Much like how the most complicated of crises eb and flow, throwing a myriad of issues your way, your plan needs to be just as malleable. Though the circumstances surrounding crises may be out of your control, the way you lead and empower your team is very much on you.

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