How to prepare your customer service for coronavirus
What are the key ways that customer service could be impacted by coronavirus, and what contingency planning should be taking place?
Coronavirus, or COVID-19 to give it its proper title, continues to spread around the globe and while it is important that we don’t over-react to something that - at the time of writing – is being fairly contained in many countries, there are steps that organisations can take to protect their staff, customers and service operations.
In the following article, we explore some of the key ways that customer service could be impacted by coronavirus, and where contingency planning should be taking place.
How coronavirus could impact your supply chain
Firstly, there is the impact on the supply chain. As a result of the virus, global manufacturing contracted in February by the most since 2009, with production taking its biggest plunge in almost two decades. The outbreak is straining the just-in-time supply chains on which many businesses around the world are now dependent on.
Nick Lindsay, director of Elemental CoSec Limited, explains: “We work on a global balance of supply and demand. Temporary factory closures in China allied to panic buying and stockpiling of certain products has severely upset that balance. It may take some time for the effects to feed through and indeed even after the threat of pandemic has faded we will still see ripples of delay feeding through the supply chain. This may be obvious to business, less so to customers.”
Therefore, if you anticipate that your service will be impacted by supply chain disruption, you should ensure you keep customers informed, warning them about potential shortages and providing potential alternatives. At the same time, organisations have a duty to ensure that they don’t encourage panic-buying or add to the climate of fear, so the use of language in communications will be key.
During a crisis, consumers will need and demand a rapid response to their queries. Some of this will be reactive - i.e. inbound queries - so you need to ensure that your service staff have the information to field questions.
But it would also be wise to be proactive with your customer communications. Waiting on hold in a long queue on a phoneline will only add to the stress, so anticipate what questions would be asked – or better still, find out by asking customers themselves what it is they want to know ASAP – and then proactively share this information through a variety of platforms, from self-serve FAQ knowledge bases to emails to social posts. Ensure that these communications are regularly updated.
Remember, providing customers with a trusted source of timely information can have a massive impact on customer perceptions of a brand. Help to provide solutions, rather than being part of the problem.
Gartner’s Augie Ray notes: “Be proactive now with information for customers. If you wait for customers … to grow concerned and start demanding information from your brand, you’ll already be too late. If you have not yet, start working on a proactive and reactive communication plan.”
How coronavirus could impact your service staff
According to the UK government’s latest plans, up to a fifth of the workforce may be off sick during the peak of the coronavirus epidemic in the UK.
Even if staff are not ill, health and safety may dictate that employees are kept away from work. Lindsay says: “Company directors have a legal duty of care not only to their employees but also to customers and the wider public. If in their best judgement this requires taking measures such as restricting access to premises or asking individuals to work from home then they should not hesitate to do so. Here again this could have a knock-on impact for customers who may experience slower turn-around times or reduced service levels.”
Again, customers should be kept updated about service levels and expectations set, or alternatives (such as self-serve channels) recommended or provided where possible.
In terms of staff welfare, you should work with your organisation’s HR team to to communicate accurate and up-to-date information on preventive measures, travel, remote working and quarantine. If your business has a policy on contagious infection, it’s best to look there as a starting point.
Whether you have a policy or not, Dr Adrian Hyzler, chief medical officer at Healix International recommends the following:
- Don’t allow presenteeism. The culture of a company can impact the extent of spread of contagious infections like the coronavirus. If you have managers who expect their team to ‘power through’ any illness, or workers who come in even when sick because they don’t have sick pay and can’t afford to take leave, managing the situation could be problematic. Clear and direct communications to managers and employees on the importance of staying home when ill during an outbreak of this contagious infection is essential.
- Employers should be active in disseminating clear and comprehensive information to all employees.
- Measures should be put in place to allow for employees to work from home in cases where self-isolation may be necessary.
- Suitable wash stations with soap and hot water and alcohol rub dispensers should be available in the office.
- Employers should also use this opportunity to re-educate employees about the benefits of the seasonal flu vaccine, not to prevent this novel coronavirus, but to help to prevent seasonal flu, as well as the potential for ‘flu’ symptoms to be mistaken for the coronavirus.
How coronavirus could impact your customers
“With each passing week, brands will be made unequal based on their preparedness, communications, priorities, and actions,” predicts Ray. “This event, just like any that alters consumer expectations, activities, and motivations, will impact the customer perception of different brands in different ways. Keep in mind our opportunity to excel (or fail) for customers is greatest in instances when emotion and needs are running high versus in regular periods when everything is going as expected.”
If the virus continues to spread, there is a growing chance that it will negatively impact your customers. But steps can be taken to assist customers during a potential crisis, which could actually result in a strengthening of the customer relationship in the long-term.
Lindsay recommends the following ABC steps to minimise disruption and assist the customer.
- Anticipation. One of the benefits of ‘Big Data’ and existing relationships is that you know what your customers are likely to require and when. By anticipating that requirement and looking for alternative sources of supply businesses can help to mitigate any shortages. At the very least businesses can work with customers to identify and source acceptable alternatives if possible.
- Being honest. If there is a supply chain problem or members of the team are unavailable then be honest and acknowledge this to your customers. This is a case where overpromising definitely doesn’t work, if it ever does. Being aware of the precise situation enables customers to make their own plans and manage their workflow.
- Communication. Above all, communicate. Maintaining an open dialogue with your customers not only helps to strengthen the relationship but also means that you can work together to help them to deliver their own customer service levels as far as possible.
Adding to this last point, Ray advise that organisations don’t just consider what your brand wants to communicate, but also think about the kinds of questions that customers may ask your employees and how you can help.
He says: “It might not seem, for example, that a retailer needs to address how customers can keep themselves safe in a pandemic, but conveying what your brand is doing to ensure a safe shopping experience in physical locations can earn trust (and business).”
Therefore, over and above questions relating to how your delivery and support may be impacted, Ray suggests that customers may also request information such as:
- How do I keep myself and my family safe while using your product or service?
- Should I alter any behaviours, actions, or buying decisions to minimise my risk?
- Does your brand recommend I do something today to prepare for the future?
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Neil Davey is the managing editor of MyCustomer. An experienced business journalist and editor, Neil has worked on a variety of newspapers, magazines and websites over the past 15 years, including Internet Works, CXO magazine and Business Management. He joined Sift Media in 2007.