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Research reveals reputational impact of COVID customer support


Research has provided fresh insights into how consumers viewed customer service channels during the pandemic, with poor accessibility and a lack of human interactions negatively impacting providers’ reputations.

28th Feb 2023

A new report has taken a deep dive into COVID's impact on customer service and provided a definitive rating of how well customer service strategies adapted during this period – with some sectors coping a lot better than others.

Despite it being over three years since the start of the pandemic, many companies continue to cite COVID as a contributing factor to their customer service struggles.

And whilst it cannot be disputed that some of the effects of the pandemic are still being felt today, research conducted by Paragon reveals large discrepancies from sector to sector – with some areas only experiencing minor issues compared to pre-pandemic figures.

The report, which surveyed 2,000 UK consumers, explored how they experienced customer service in four key sectors: retail, financial services, utilities, and telecoms.

As you can imagine, given the nature of the pandemic and remote working, a major aspect of a sector’s performance came down to how well they reverted to digital services.

If your business had a mature digital model, it was easier for you to cope. If not, it stood out like a sore thumb and customers were quick to see how far you were lagging behind your competitors and businesses within other sectors.

Sector differentials

Of the four sectors explored within the report, utilities experienced one of the greatest upticks in customer service interactions. This was due to the fact that ordinarily, consumers engage with their utility providers much less frequently than they do with retail companies, for example.

However, the pandemic created conditions in which consumers depended on their utilities more than ever. This led to customer service interactions increasing in this sector, while consumers engaged with almost all other sectors less frequently.

This increase in interactions during a period when it was more important than ever to be able to contact the providers of these essential services, undoubtedly played a large part in utility companies’ struggles.

The below graph highlights the ease with which customers were able to interact with companies/sectors both before and during the pandemic – with a clear and unsurprising pattern emerging.

A graph showing the ease of interactions before and during covid

For utilities, the average ease of interaction fell from 7.2 to 6.6 out of 10 – the lowest of all the sectors surveyed. In addition to this, utilities was the worst-hit sector when it came to the impact COVID had on how consumers received services from their providers.

25% of respondents found that COVID had a negative impact on their interactions with utility providers. This is 15% higher than the least impacted sector, and 10% higher than the average across all sectors – clearly highlighting how customer experience was a key problem area for the utilities sector.

For utilities, the average ease of interaction fell from 7.2 to 6.6 out of 10 – the lowest of all the sectors surveyed.

Predictably, the retail sector also saw ‘ease of interaction’ decreases across all types of retail.

Whilst supermarkets were one of the few stores able to remain open to in-store customers, this was still under strict safety precautions. Department stores on the other hand, were deemed non-essential; whereas independent retailers lacked the resources to respond to large, unforeseen circumstances like COVID.

The one area that was best placed and best prepared to deal with the impact of the pandemic was online retail. However, it performed only marginally better than the other retailers and still suffered a drop of 7.7 to 7.2.

Of course, part of the reason that online retailers struggled was undoubtedly due to them being one of the few sectors that saw their interactions increasing, which could have resulted in websites becoming slower and longer waits for customer service agents.

Yet this does still demonstrate that despite how crucial digital solutions were during the pandemic, they are still not a universally accessible option – many customers still require human interactions.

Missing a human touch?

The lack of human interaction was something that many struggled with during the pandemic – be that the inability to visit family and friends, or missing the in-person catchup with work colleagues on a Monday morning.

Interestingly, this issue was also very prevalent within the customer service sector, with limited human customer service during COVID actually impacting the perception of certain industries.

A graph showing the impact that a lack of human customer services had on customers' perceptions of a provider

As highlighted in the above graph, the sector that saw the biggest dissatisfaction among their customers when it came to a lack of human customer services was telecoms, with 30% of those surveyed admitting that it gave them a negative impression of the provider.

It is highly likely that this was the primary cause for the decrease in ease of interactions that telecoms suffered, as they were one of the sectors that received fewer interactions during COVID.

30% of customers stated that a lack of human customer services gave them a negative impression of the provider.

The report suggests that this frustration with a lack of access to in-person customer service was likely to be felt more acutely by telecoms customers because if, for example, they were having issues with their phone signal, but lacked the ability to resolve this in person, it would be more challenging to get in touch with telecoms providers remotely.


In conclusion, the report argues that the key takeaway from how different sectors managed to cope during the pandemic, is that flexibility and adaptability are crucial.

Businesses survived never-before-seen levels of disruption because they were able to think on their feet and form a solid communication strategy to meet the changing needs of their customers.

Ease of interaction decreased on the whole across verticals, but by small amounts. This suggests that customers are adaptable and flexible, often willing and able to change the way they engage with businesses. Ultimately, flexibility is a two-way street: customers demand it, and businesses need it to survive.

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