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The pandemic has taught us many lessons. One of the most notable is how quickly the world can change.

With so much unknown about COVID-19 at the start, lockdowns and other precautions shut down many industries for long periods. When they came back, safety measures reduced production capacity. This put a constraint on the supply chain for many companies, and they are slowly recovering.

Speaking of the supply chain, the world received a crash course in logistics when the Ever Given cargo ship shut down the Suez Canal for six days recently. That delay caused an estimated $6 to $10 billion in lost trade as ships carrying goods waited for the canal to be cleared.

The point is that a global pandemic or a localized event can both occur with little warning. And what might seem an inconsequential event at its outset can quickly put a squeeze on an organization’s business. When products and services aren’t available due to reduced staffing on a production line or stuck on a ship half the world away, it delays delivery of products and services to customers. When that occurs, customers reach out to customer service to get answers.

Now more than ever companies must be prepared for the unexpected. Rather than wait for customer inquiries to roll in, technology and some planning make it possible to take steps to not only avoid increased volume and delays for customers but also deliver a better experience when the unforeseen occurs.

Connect the organization

Customer service is typically the last and first to find out about problems impacting customers. It’s last because customer service is not always notified when another department has identified or caused a problem that affects customers. It’s also first because those affected customers will be quick to contact customer service for assistance. Consider the Suez Canal example: the logistics teams at companies with goods on ships delayed by the blockage knew this would affect their business, but how well was the impact of this conveyed around the organization?

Digital transformation offers the means to bringing departments together to avoid such surprises. Among the many benefits of digital transformation are greater transparency into business processes across a company. While some link its beginnings to the dawn of the World Wide Web, even prior to the pandemic many organizations had yet to fully embrace digital transformation’s full potential–then sped to adapt to stay in operation. Many organizations have more work ahead to fully realize its potential. Organizations must start here to not only provide greater operational efficiency but to ensure issues can be quickly recognized and communicated across teams.

Identify proactive service scenarios

Most of the time, customer service is delivered in a reactive mode: that is, it is standing by to assist customers as they have issues. The problem with this approach is that customer service can quickly become overwhelmed by increased volumes to live channels–telephone, chat, messaging, etc.–when a major problem occurs. Only when greater communication and transparency across the organization is the norm can customer service then take advantage of opportunities to deliver proactive service.

Proactive service can take many forms. In its simplest, it’s emailing or messaging affected customers that a problem has occurred. A solution might already be available or it might be coming. Whatever means is used, the idea is to keep the customer informed and reduce the impact on them as early as possible.

Customers don’t expect proactive service because it’s not common. It surprises them, and can result in a strong, positive impact on their perception of a company. Customers appreciate hearing information–even the negative–in advance. It means a problem might not impact them. It saves them time from trying to solve the issue themselves.

Besides providing a better customer experience, proactive service has other benefits. By keeping customers in the loop when a problem has or may impact them, they are less inclined to contact customer service. This effectively minimizes the likelihood of a spike in volume and reduces the workload, which can also lessen the impact on service levels.

Be transparent

Trust takes time to build but can be lost in an instant. Stephen Covey once said, “Trust is the glue of life. It’s the most essential ingredient in effective communication. It’s the foundational principle that holds all relationships.”

Proactive service can surprise and delight. Reinforce that experience by being forthright about the problem. Inform customers what is happening, why it happened, and what’s being done to address it now and to prevent it from occurring in the future. Honesty and transparency will strengthen customers’ trust, and that trust will help to retain their business.

Reset expectations

Along with openly stating the issue to customers comes being clear on what they can expect: when service will be restored, the item will arrive, or that issue will be resolved. This means resetting expectations.

Now is not the time to overcommit because that can erode the trust built by being proactive in the first place. (Missing a deadline may also cause customers to contact customer service, negating the benefits of proactive service.) The improved insights and greater communications resulting from digital transformation can help inform exactly how customers’ expectations must be reset. Though it may cause some disappointment, most customers will understand and are less likely to complain or escalate, especially when there is full transparency.

A playbook for the unexpected

A disaster can strike at any time. It could be minor or major, and–depending how it is responded to–can have either a small and limited impact or one that is devastating and lasting. In reality, any sort of business disruption is likely to affect customers in some manner.

Rather than allow a disaster to further complicate things for customers, start building plans for how to turn service on its head. By proactively delivering transparent communications to customers during problems, a challenging situation can build confidence and trust rather than send customers running.

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