ICS study highlights the need for fewer customer service excuses and more empathy from brands


Consumers are no longer willing to put up with the ‘COVID excuse’ for poor customer service and want more compassion from brands during digital interactions.

8th Jul 2021

COVID is being overused as an excuse for brands to continuously fail their customers and has led to a record rise in complaints, says the Institute of Customer Service.

According to a survey of 10,000 consumers conducted by the ICS, many UK brands are flouting their commitment to offering satisfactory customer service.  

Complaints in the UK specifically targeted at poor service have risen in the last six months to be their highest since 2009.

25% of the people surveyed by the ICS said organisations they had interacted with had “used Covid as an excuse for poor service”.

"Saying 'because of Covid' is not a good phrase," said Jo Causon, chief executive of the Institute of Customer Service, speaking to the BBC.

"Organisations must not hide behind this blanket statement."

The sectors singled out for having the most issues were transport, local public services and telecoms, according to the survey.

Tolerance waning  

The research from the ICS is a warning for many brands that consumers are losing their tolerance initially handed out to brands following last year’s coronavirus pandemic.

The Contact Centre Managers Association (CCMA) also notes a similar trend in its recent Evolution of the Contact Centre research.

“Faced with severe constraints in many aspects of their everyday lives, many customers were gratified that contact centres were still open for business and were content with longer wait times,” explains the CCMA research.

“In fact, many contact centres reported skyrocketing customer satisfaction ratings due to lowered customer expectations…[but] ratings are now mostly reverting back to normal levels.”

Part of the blame has been placed with the rapid shift to digital channels by many brands, in the wake of the pandemic.

Indeed, a recent study by CMO Council stated that 65% of consumers felt digital experiences were not exceeding expectations, while Contact Babel’s The 2020-21 Customer Experience Decision-Makers’ Guide indicates that 65% of UK businesses have had operational issues which have impacted on customers during COVID-19.

And while there was some tolerance for this at the beginning of the pandemic, by the end of 2020, customers felt that organisations had had time to “get their digital ducks in row”.

“In 2020, we saw digital transformation happen at breakneck speed,” stated Amy Scott, founder of Sedulous Consulting, in a recent MyCustomer post.

“Customers at the beginning of the pandemic were forgiving of companies’ shortfalls with regard to the service they received, as we were all swimming together in uncharted waters. However, as time has gone by many customers are beginning to feel a bit fed up with organisations using COVID as an excuse for poor service.”

Empathy needed

A new study from Genesys has found that consumers feel brands’ digital channels lack the expected emotional and empathetic feel of human interaction, leaving many feeling unsatisfied with the customer service experiences.

Surveying 11,000 adults across the UK it found that 31% believe customer service quality has worsened since Britain’s first lockdown, and that interaction with service representatives via digital platforms often let them down and felt ‘fake’.

However, even in the case of human interaction, the survey found that over one in four UK consumers felt customer service representatives weren’t ‘personable’ enough.

Helen Briggs, senior vice president and general manager EMEA at Genesys believes now is the time for businesses to focus on their approach to empathy within customer interactions.

“While brands are always looking to improve how they interact with customers, they need to look beyond efficient resolution of problems as the primary measure of effectiveness,” she said.

“When consumers were asked to rank important aspects of customer service in our study, empathy trumped speed. People want to feel heard and know that their issues are being taken care of – they don’t simply want to be read a script. Trust and loyalty are essential for building and maintaining successful businesses today, and while it may sound obvious, helping staff show empathy now plays a critical role in that process.”

A 2020 study from MyCustomer and Genesys found a empathy gap currently exists in many businesses, with nearly three-quarters of customer expressing the belief that compassion and empathy are vital traits during customer service interactions, yet over a third of customers stating that their emotional state was neither understood or acknowledged by brands during their customer service interactions. 


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