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19 March 2020

Coronavirus and the customer service imperative

A critical challenge in a global pandemic

By Nic Ray, BrandsEye SA CEO

Covid-19 is confronting mankind with an unprecedented existential threat. Government, business and communities all need to respond and collaborate to overcome this almighty challenge.

We know that minimising personal contact and maintaining extraordinary levels of personal hygiene are key to slowing the spread and enabling health services to cope. But with isolation comes disruption of employment and the provision of goods and services. This, in turn, leads to anxiety and creates uncertainty. People need to know and understand what is happening and how they are affected. Customers will be placing unprecedented demands on customer service organisations. A priority for many companies will be ensuring their contact centres and social media teams can maintain business continuity, serving customers responsively on digital channels, in turn keeping customers informed and encouraging behaviour that mitigates the spread of Covid-19.

The dilemma, however, is how to balance the customer need for a relevant and timeous response but at the same time ensure that agents responsible for providing this service are safe. Call or contact centres share a busy workspace which is a real health threat.

But digital technology is our friend. The use of Zoom and other digital video systems has skyrocketed. Personal face to face communication has found a reasonable substitute which avoids all the health risks. A similar solution to customer service will be achieved by harnessing and expanding the capabilities of the digital social media teams within companies as contact centres could be faced with under-resourced teams and even closure, due to valid health concerns. The social media teams responsible for community management would typically route customer service requests to the contact centre. They will now need to be better equipped and empowered to deal with service requests.

Critical to success will be the social media teams ability to accurately identify the nature of the enquiry, categorise them and then place a priority on those requests that pose the greatest risk to customers and the company. An ability to then respond directly to the customer to address or resolve the concern with some form of engagement platform is imperative.

Not all companies have this capability, but the capability does exist. Sophisticated algorithmic-based AI solutions need to be complemented with human interaction. This interaction should ideally occur remotely to avoid the health implications of crowded contact centres. Keeping these channels up and maintaining high response rates to customer queries will be crucial. Many of these will be Covid-19 -related concerns, like flight cancellation queries, but others will be ordinary requests like subscription, billing, and other day-to-day requests.

Organisations must encourage customers to stay home, and prove that without going into stores and branches, they will still be able to reliably interact with brands they buy from and subscribe to.

In these trying times for both organisations and their customers, the development of business continuity plans for customer service will be paramount. The focus should be on properly resourcing contact centres and social customer care teams and ensuring that they have systems in place to deal with a record number of anxious customers looking for support.

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