The pandemic brought about changes for every function of every company. Amidst all of the change, one thing has stayed the same: The customer must always come first.

COVID-19 has shifted the way customer service is done, but it may not be clear just how it’s done so. To unpack that, let’s go back to basics.

What Is Customer Service?

Customer service is about how organizations assist people. Every time you connect with a member of the public — even if they haven’t made a purchase — there’s customer service involved.

The biggest customer service shift from COVID-19 so far is a lurch toward connecting virtually: Chatbots, virtual call centers, and Zoom meetings are the new normal. Many teams will continue to treat those channels as the first line of defense well after the pandemic has passed.

When people think of customer service, they crave a quick resolution. They want help any time of day and anywhere — and ideally, on whatever channel they wish.

Challenges of the Early Pandemic

In March 2020, Tethr completed a survey of customer service experiences in those initial weeks of social distancing. The team characterized “difficult” calls as those in which the stress levels of consumers and account representatives were elevated, or calls that required supervisor intervention.

What did Tethr find? The percentage of calls scored as “difficult” more than doubled, to over 20%. Attrition was at all time highs as well: Businesses saved less than 4% of buyers who were ready to leave for a competitor.

Many employees started working in their house for the first time, often pushing the reliability of their phone and internet services to the limit. Some of them didn’t have offices set up at home and worked from kitchen tables. In the most difficult situations, they were sharing space with children home-schooling and a spouse now working from home, too.

Customers and staff alike felt the strain because immediate help from managers or peers wasn’t available. Customers called with pandemic-related challenges, from canceled travel plans to insurance claims disputes to financial difficulties. Despite wanting to, the service staff simply didn’t have the authority to help.

The need for solutions to these issues is as great as it was months ago. The answers are both technological and organizational, meaning that business leaders need to be ready to tackle this issue from all sides.

Solutions for the New Normal

After the initial rush of pandemic responses, business leaders should refocus. Here are some key customer service strategies to implement:

1. Proactive Communication

Airlines, restaurants and stores sent emails letting people know how their business was adjusting to social distancing protocols. More than a few purchased commercial time to explain their COVID-19 response. Knowing what to expect and how they can stay safe, communities felt better informed. Proactive communication serves to build on and strengthen customer loyalty.

2. At-Home Employee Tech Support

When T-Mobile transitioned 12,000 employees to work from home, the company mailed employees their office computers and other necessary accessories. IT personnel also created step-by-step directions explaining how to set up the laptop for the newly remote employees. As the pandemic has continued, these routines have made it easier to onboard new staff without the initial responses’ headaches and stresses.

3. Empowerment of Customer Service Reps

Businesses also reassessed the decision-making authority of first-line representatives. At first, many calls needed supervisor participation for approval.

Now, companies are rewriting procedures to make things easier. Client service teams can provide more help to customers without elevating the issue to gain approval. This makes for more efficient customer interactions, and produces better outcomes as well.

4. Chatbots and Live Chat

AI-enabled chatbots can ease the burden of your support staff while still maintaining a through-line to customer service reps. The newest generation of bots can identify keywords and route the customer to the best technician available.

Customers are only just now starting to warm up to chatbots, but those who’ve used them report a 73% satisfaction rate with live chat options. In other words, balancing the two is key.

5. Supervisor Coaching

In the past, many supervisors would schedule time weekly to debrief with service representatives. The cyclical nature of these interactions can make them feel clunky and punitive, and the meetings were too disconnected to actually have an impact.

In the new remote environment, executives are encouraging managers to sit in on customer calls daily. This practice results in more frequent interactions that give supervisors genuine insight into how a worker is doing.

Some companies are doing this using what’s known as whisper technology. This allows supervisors to listen in on calls silently, enabling supervisors to talk with and coach employees without the customer knowing. Tech like this is facilitating a rise in real-time coaching.

6. Self-Serve Options

Organizations are improving the self-help options they provide customers. These may include shortcuts to specific FAQs pages, optional merchandise selections, or digital payment systems. Choices such as these allow customers to get help quickly while reducing wait time on other channels. That way, only the most complex problems are escalated to live agents.

Many of these trends were already in the pipeline, but the COVID-19 crisis mandated that they be deployed immediately. The good news is, it doesn’t really matter if people are working in consolidated locations or remotely: All it takes is understanding what your customers need, and these best practices can help you do so.