What does it take to deliver a customer-centric experience amid the coronavirus pandemic? The same qualities it took to deliver a customer-centric experience prior to the outbreak.
Make no mistake: the current climate will require tactical changes. Brands may have to focus on different product lines. They may have to implement new customer service policies. They may have to reshape their sales and marketing messages. They surely will have to harness digital and remote work capabilities.
The fundamental philosophies that signal customer centricity, on the other hand, remain as they always have. That is the beauty of customer centricity: it should be as evident in times of challenge as it is during times of fortune.
Granted, it is easier to “fake” customer centricity in a favorable economic climate. When customers and employees are feeling upbeat and confident about their finances and prospects, brands can get away with half-measures. They can look customer-centric (and agent-centric) by virtue of offering great products or providing fun office environments without necessarily being customer-centric at their core.
During less favorable times, the facades fade away. Brands cannot use superficial offerings to mask flawed philosophies. If they do not possess the truest qualities of a customer-centric brand, challenges like coronavirus will hit especially hard.
Since many were able to get away with a more superficial approach to customer centricity, the business impact of the coronavirus will feel especially intense. These previously complacent companies will feel pressure to make major transformations as opposed to tactical shifts.
As they undergo these transformations, it is important to ensure they espouse the fundamental qualities of customer centricity. Not simply useful for navigating today’s challenges, these competencies will ensure brands are always ready to adapt - and successfully engage customers - in good and bad times.
No, customers do not have a right to whatever they want whenever they want it. Customer-centric brands do, however, accept that customers have a right to know why they can’t get it.
Transparency between businesses, employees and customers is a fundamental tenet of customer centricity, and it is garnering particular attention during the pandemic. As businesses close down and/or adjust their practices, their employees and customers will be affected. Customer-centric brands are being transparent about these changes.
They are being realistic about potential downsizing to help employees prepare for the potential financial burden. They are also letting customers know how services may change in the coming days and weeks.
In the latter case, this may involve letting customers know whether flights or hotel reservations will be canceled - and how refunds will work. It may involve retail stores letting customers know that their “return policies” have been frozen, so that someone who bought an iPhone last week still has an opportunity to exchange the product if unsatisfied. It may involve gyms letting customers know how membership dues will work in the wake of mandatory closings.
Granted, few businesses have all the answers right now. No one really knows how the pandemic will evolve in the next few weeks, which means no business has likely arrived at a definitive, unwavering policy. But just being open about the thought process - about the aspects of the business that might be affected as the situation evolves - goes a long way in building customer relationships.
Although “proactive engagement” is a very popular topic for customer contact professionals, it is often dismissed as a “nice-to-have.” The pandemic is reminding the industry that it is actually a need-to-have.
Proactive engagement simultaneously allows brands to demonstrate appreciation, reduce customer effort and minimize inbound volume. All ambitions are pivotally important, particularly in times of crisis. With customers uncertain about so many things in their lives, the last thing a brand should be doing is adding effort, ambiguity and concern to their plates.
Brands should not only be offering the aforementioned transparency regarding things like workforce changes, store closings, cancellation fees and membership dues - they should be proactively communicating this information to customers. If they can develop a workable proactive communication strategy during times of such uncertainty, they will surely be able to mitigate agent and customer effort during times of good fortune.
Is saying no to a minor refund or make-good worth losing a long-time customer?
The Coronavirus pandemic is creating a new spin on this famous customer contact question. Stores can let certain customers “buy out” their toilet paper supplies to ensure they maximize sales each day. Restaurants and e-tailers can increase prices (and particularly delivery fees) to capitalize on closures and social distancing. Companies can subject customers to long wait times or impersonal support knowing they may not have “better options” at this point in time.
Customer-centric ones, however, look past these short-term “wins” -- and focus on building long-term relationships. They limit customers to “one toilet paper roll per person” to make sure as many customers as possible can get one (and feel gracious toward the store), even if at the (very slight) risk of not selling out on a given day. They are not only refusing to gouge prices but actually lowering delivery fees to show goodwill and introduce their product to as many people as possible.
The idea of “building relationships” rather than “processing transactions” - a common contact center cliche - goes beyond being nice during support interactions. It also means making big picture decisions about pricing and product strategy. Decisions that may involve trading short-term cash for long-term success.
When talking about the role of the contact center agent in the automation age, thought leaders often focus on the idea of empathy. Empathy is a decidedly “human” characteristic, and therefore something on which we will need to rely on human employees, not chatbots, to deliver.
Unfortunately, the idea of empathy notoriously eludes contact centers and their agents. They may say sorry from time to time. They may apologize for inconveniences. But few express sincere empathy. Few think critically about the cascading effect of canceling a particular service. Few consider why a shipment arriving one day late or a plane departing 2 hours behind schedule may, in fact, be the “end of the world” for a given customer. Without that empathy, they are unable to reassure customers of their support. They certainly cannot take necessary actions.
Empathy is particularly important in today’s climate. With closures and general market sentiment leading to reduced spending and layoffs, employees and customers may need a helping hand. They may need a brand to go the extra mile in terms of locating a particular product or delivering a shipment on time. They may need some forgiveness for an outstanding debt or late payment.
Brands that can deliver will prove they understand and care about their customers. In doing so, they will build more meaningful relationships.
Much like proactive engagement, brands have long accepted the value but often downplayed the urgency of “remote work.” Even amid all the talk of the changing workforce dynamic and the need to look beyond the local applicant pool to find great agents, few contact centers have truly embraced a fluid work option.
Many that have, moreover, have only made superficial overtures to a remote work program. They may let certain at-home agents handle certain calls in certain situations, but they have not really considered how they fit into the overall corporate dynamic. They have not determined how these roles will evolve - and consistently integrate into the overall contact center function - over time.
And even if they have mastered at-home agents, they doubtfully have mastered the broader art of business continuity planning. They have not implemented the necessary technologies, resources and processes to seamlessly adapt to surges in volume, staggering losses in demand or marked changes in customer expectations.
With Coronavirus forcing contact centers to leverage these alternative options, it is putting the importance of a business continuity plan into the limelight. It is establishing agility as a fundamental quality.
Although contact centers play a big role in building agile environments, agents themselves must rise to the occasion. Those who cannot quickly adapt to unexpected customer demands or unexpected changes in workflow may not be right for the contact center of the future - even in a more fruitful marketplace. Customer-centric contact centers will address this through better recruiting and training.