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Has the humanity been stripped from customer service complaints?

COVID-19 has altered the dynamic between customers and customer service staff - especially when it comes to the complaints handling process. 

15th Oct 2020
Editor MyCustomer
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Robot fight

“One customer told me in no uncertain terms that coronavirus was all my fault, and that I’d ruined his year. It was savage. All because I had explained that things were a bit up in the air and I may not be able to resolve his issue as quickly as he wanted.” 

For this London-based travel firm contact centre agent, who wished to remain anonymous, tales of hostility from customers were par for the course when COVID-19 forced the globe into lockdown, bringing all forms of tourism to a screeching halt and throwing almost every industry into chaos.

For the sector in question – travel – March through to May represented what Chattermill research described as “an influx of concerned customers looking to cancel, reschedule and request refunds on upcoming trips”, whilst many customers were, “being met with misinformation, long delays reaching customer care agents and difficulty finding appropriate contact channels”.

And as our contact centre agent source explains, “Those months were the most challenging we’ve ever had to experience. There was an anger and resentment directed at us that we’d not had before, and we weren’t able to offer much to help ease people’s concerns.”

The travel sector may have been first in the firing line when COVID-19 hit, but it wasn’t alone in feeling the wrath of angry customers dismayed at having their lives thrown upside-down and searching for an outlet to vent their frustrations.  

Insurance companies and financial services have also had to endure increases in difficult customer complaints. Even the hospitality sector – which has experienced one of the most forensically-analysed re-openings in the UK since restrictions were eased in July – has felt a change in consumer attitude directed towards its service staff.

As explained in an article for Wired, an Essex-based restauranteur said that in one particularly unsavory incident, a customer screamed at them for 10 minutes in complaining that they’d been given the wrong flavor of ice cream for dessert.

Those months were the most challenging we’ve ever had to experience. There was an anger and resentment directed at us that we’d not had before.

Humanity lost?

Whilst tales of inhumane customer complaints may have increased in the immediate aftermath of COVID-19, the UK’s Ombudsman Services proudly declared in August that complaints were, in fact, at an all time low across the country, and that contrary to belief, consumers were becoming more ‘tolerant’ with brands and their staff as a result of the pandemic.   

Ombudsman Services complaints data


Source: Ombudsman Services

41% of consumers surveyed said they had become more tolerant of poor service during lockdown, with only one in ten (10%) saying the opposite.

65% of those surveyed also said that their potential complaints went unreported to “culpable product or service suppliers” during lockdown.

However, the UK’s Financial Ombudsman Service suggests that, whilst people may believe they are being more understanding, in reality, the unprecedented nature of COVID-19 has dramatically shifted people’s behaviour without many of us even realising. 

“Covid-19 has given rise to many new and complex questions of fairness. Since the early days of lockdown in March 2020 – to the time of publishing in August – we’ve heard from consumers and small and medium enterprises (SMEs) about situations we couldn’t have anticipated before the pandemic,” an article by the FOS explains.

“While some of the cases we’ve seen turn on issues and circumstances not seen before – many are issues we’ve seen before, that have been made worse by the pandemic. For example, we’ve long been able to look at complaints from people who find themselves unable to repay a loan, but the pandemic has meant people who’d not previously faced financial difficulties are now doing so, while some who were already struggling are finding things even more difficult.”

This point was highlighted in a stark OpenDemocracy byline by Adam Ramsay and Caroline Molloy, who stated that tension from customers towards service staff was heightened, in many cases, by business processes and complaints procedures failing to recognise the unparalleled human effect of coronavirus – on both customers and staff.

As one call centre representative was cited: “Customers call up distressed because we have cut off their phone and they need to contact vulnerable family members. I have cried and had to leave my desk because I felt so ashamed that we had barred their phone”.

The tech effect

Technology has clearly played a huge and beneficial role in people’s live since COVID-19 hit earlier in the year, but it can also be attributed to some of the adverse behavior changes associated with customer complaints.

Firstly, the nature of how people communicate has becoming predominantly digital since March. In the Zendesk MyCustomer report, How to deliver customer service in a rapidly changing world it was revealed that 51% of contact centres have reported an increase in email use since the start of the coronavirus outbreak in March 2020, with 47% reporting increases in webchats and 37% reporting an increase in social media use.

Average global online support tickets were up 19% at the beginning of June, compared with 2019, whilst WhatsApp, widely regarded as a relatively new brand engagement channel, had seen service queries rise by 148% since late February. 

And complaints about tech have also dominated – in May, a survey by Evaluagent found that video-conferencing issues (e.g. being unable to enable video or sound during conference calls) and internet outages made up two of the top three most customer complaint topics in the UK.

And it seems, whereas before coronavirus, most studies usually revealed that human customer service (and picking up the telephone) was often heavily favoured by most segments of the population for interacting with brands, now we are becoming more willing to be served by bots and automated services. 

"People usually say they want a human element to their interactions but Covid-19 has changed that," explains futurist Martin Ford, in a BBC article.

"[Covid-19] is going to change consumer preference and really open up new opportunities for automation."

One example of this again lies in the hospitality sector, which has been forced to embrace QR codes and online app ordering systems in order to adhere to the government’s strict social distancing measures.

Yet, as a restauranteur explains in the aforementioned Wired article, this has further led to people losing sight of the human element of customer service that still remains:

“I don’t know if people have forgotten how to go out to eat or something, but I’ve never felt more like a servant than in the last couple of months. I don’t know for sure what it is – lack of human interaction, maybe – but there’s definitely been a shift.”

Empathy rules

Whether the nature of customer complaints has changed or not, the onus is on brands to make things much easier, and in turn, more human – for both their customers and their staff, and that when they apply policy to ease common complaints, there’s no ambiguity that may lead to a heightened tension for complaint handling staff.

As example, airlines such as BA and Easyjet were lambasted in September for introducing voucher schemes to ease the pressure on their call centre staff caused by having to cancel swathes of holidays at the start of coronavirus, only to create a second wave of fury by making vouchers near impossible to redeem when the industry reopened later in the year.

And beyond company procedure, the need to ensure empathy feeds through all of a business’s service channels – whether human or digital – is now more important than ever.   

“The crisis has significantly impacted the mindset of many consumers,” explains Peter Dorrington, founder of XMplify consulting, in the MyCustomer research report Empathy in customer service - a consumer survey. “By May, much of the populace were showing increased levels of uncertainty about both their physical health and financial futures, which resulted in a heightened sense of anxiety. At the same time, it was increasingly difficult to interact with businesses, compounding the levels of stress that consumers were feeling.

“You need empathy to deescalate a stressful situation – people need to feel that they are being listened to and that all their needs are being understood and considered, whether those needs be practical or emotional. Empathy helps the agent and consumer relate to each other and establish rapport.

“We need to remember that, whilst most consumers have now become more familiar and accepting of using digital channels to self-serve, or at least instigate a service call, this is not to say that this is the consumer’s preferred choice – it can occasionally be a reaction to necessity.”

Leigh Hopwood, the CEO of the Call Centre Management Association, also believes empathy is key, and says the contact centre industry is working hard to ensure empathy feeds through to both customers and employees.

“Contact centre advisors are definitely demonstrating increasingly more empathy with customers [as a result of Covid-19]. Conversations have been more real, rather than script driven, and on a more personal human-to-human level.

“Those in complaints management in customer contact should be listening to how others are dealing with the changing situation – networking with their peers and sharing good practice. Gathering ideas from peers and hearing how a new process or response has worked, or not worked, will help those organisations navigate these strange times.”

For our travel sector contact centre agent source cited at the start of this article, navigating through recent months has been made possible by simply highlighting to callers that they have shared struggles.

“I’ve been working from home since the end of March. The anger has certainly eased and there’s more camaraderie with customers again, even when they’re making a complaint. I make a point of explaining to any caller very early on that I’m working at home and I apologise for any abrupt or unexpected noises in the background from my one-year old daughter; that sort of thing. I find it acts as a bit of an electric shock for the caller, and reminds them there’s a real person on the end of the line.”

Empathy in customer service

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