Customer support is more critical than ever. I talked to five customer service leaders to see the impact the outbreak is having on their organization.

COVID-19 has thrust customer service into the spotlight. Government regulations and social distancing recommendations have impacted the demand for products and services that some businesses can offer while generating unprecedented demand for others.

Industries like airlines and events are dealing with a wave of cancellation, refund and credit requests. On the other hand, meal-kit, grocery delivery and e-learning companies are dealing with a surge in demand as people adapt to a new normal.

As a result, call centers around the world are flooded with an overflow of customer service questions and requests. Agents are working overtime, often in new remote environments, leading to immense challenges for customer service teams, arguably, at a time when it has never mattered more.

Customer service is the new face and mouthpiece of the company

Prior to the Coronavirus outbreak, customer service had established itself as the new marketing, a primary way for companies to differentiate and increasingly, is what influenced purchasing decisions. American Express found that 90% of Americans use customer service as a deciding factor when choosing to do business with a company.

Now, in the wake of Coronavirus, interacting with customer service agents is one of the sole touchpoints that people have with a brand. With little traveling or going to stores, restaurants or gyms, it’s the customer care agents on the front lines, holding the keys to the customer relationship. Agents are struggling to provide the quick and effortless support that customers need as business policies remain fluid, product and services evolve and the pure volume of tickets increases.

To see exactly what’s happening at call centers around the world, I spoke to five industry leaders. Here’s what they said.

Sarah Majchrowicz, Customer Service Manager, Meats by Linz, Inc., a wholesale and direct-to-consumer meat company

“Over the past few weeks, we’ve seen our business transform significantly. We used to primarily service chefs and restaurants, but the business of operating a restaurant has shifted so significantly. As everyday consumers can’t find the protein they need at their grocery store, we’ve seen a surge in demand from our e-commerce business, which has rewritten the day-to-day operations of our customer service department. Before Covid-19, approximately 2-3% of our customer service tickets were from everyday consumers, but that has now eclipsed 85%. We had to take a step back and adapt how we work to meet this new customer base. We had to start communicating differently and address new issues. It’s been a period of new training and re-tooling for our team as we’re relying on our agents to build long-term relationships with our new customer base.”

Guillaume Lavoisier, Chief Customer Officer, Partoo, B2B SaaS provider

“We help businesses manage their visibility online, including things like opening hours on Google Mapsor Waze. With Covid-19, our clients need assistance with more immediacy and urgency than ever. Local business managers need to tell the public if a business is open or closed to avoid people taking unnecessary risks to go out to a closed business. The first week of shelter-in-place, we saw a 300% increase in tickets and we had to reorganize our team to provide synchronous conversations – whether a business owner is changing their opening hours at 6am or 10pm. We have to help them when they need us.”

Cyn Armistead, TST LLC, a provider of software and services for travel agencies

“As a result of Covid-19, our ticket and call volume more than doubled as government travel restrictions and airline and hotel company policies evolved constantly. We can’t staff up quickly as our agents are trained with a lot of industry-specific knowledge, and as a result, our resolution time went from 12 to 30 hours. In addition to increased volume, we faced challenges with a newly-remote team. Some of our agents didn’t have the Internet at home before this, and many others had distractions with kids, pets and other family members. It’s been a challenging few weeks, but I’m proud of how our team has been able to adapt and work overtime to get our customers the help that they needed.”

Sandeep Jindal, Associate Director, Customer Experience, Furlenco, a furniture rental company

“WIth Covid-19, things changed for us overnight. Our team, who had never worked from home, had to start working remotely overnight. We had to train our agents on how to keep the same level of quality and professionalism in this new environment. To further complicate matters, the issues our customers were reaching out to us had changed. We were not making new sales or scheduling deliveries, but instead, we saw increasing requests for deferred or discounted payments as some of the customers were no longer working or wanted to reduce expenses in these uncertain times. We needed to train our team to balance the criticality of issues and being empathetic while preserving our revenue.”

Marcin Jeruzal, Customer Service Manager at G2A PAY, a company that offers a payment hub for e-commerce, including video games.

“As you may expect, when people are forced to stay home, they look for all sorts of entertainment. As a result, we’ve been receiving 20% more support requests than usual since the Covid-19 outbreak, and this number is growing. We launched a chatbot earlier this year as a way to scale our support department, which has been critical during this time of increased traffic. Our chatbot acts as a buffer for our support team, gathering necessary information before passing the case to a human agent if necessary. This reduces the workload for human agents, and resolution times for all customers as a result.”

Customer Service in times of crisis

Providing excellent customer service is critical for businesses at all times, especially in a time of crisis

and uncertainty. Customer service teams are under immense pressure working in new remote environments, keeping track of evolving business policies and addressing new customer needs. Now more than ever, companies need to prioritize the customer experience and long-term value of the customer.

Anxious or frustrated customers want quick resolutions to their problems, they demand convenience and expect effortless support. AI can help companies that are experiencing a surge in ticket volume as a result of COVID-19 by offloading repeatable work from stretched human agents. AI can also assist agents with recommended responses and data to help them work faster. Customer service teams that use AI are able to scale up immediately, as customer needs change and demand fluctuates. In times of crisis, bringing the best of human and machine intelligence helps the unsung heroes on the frontlines for companies meet the demands of consumers.