Photo by Edwin Hooper on Unsplash

Social distancing. It’s one of the key actions everyone can practice to battle the COVID-19 virus.

And where is it particularly challenging to social distance? In a contact center. Most businesses rely on internal or outsourced centers that concentrate from a few to hundreds of agents in close quarters. A reasonable amount of safe separation is nearly impossible.

The good news is that technology has made it possible to keep the lights on in customer service to some extent. Cloud-based customer service and omni-channel communication solutions mean agents can work from home, assuming they have adequate hardware and bandwidth to do so. This transition from cubicle to kitchen table may have been abrupt, but for some companies with the right technology in place, at least it was possible.

For organizations able to shift their customer service team to remote work, that was only the first hurdle to overcome. Customer contact volumes have risen for some companies. Staffing may be reduced as a result of non-technology challenges related to working from home like caring for other family members or sickness. As businesses struggle to provide some modicum of customer service, a few best practices are starting to emerge.

Safety and wellbeing

Social distancing might be addressed by working from home, but that doesn’t work in every scenario. While customer service is often thought of as delivered out of a contact center, some customer service must be performed in the presence of the customer. And with some services designated as essential during the pandemic, that means customer service must be available and serving customers that have COVID-19 may be necessary. Some guidelines exist, but this is new territory for many companies. They are quickly figuring how to adapt in-person service delivery while protecting employees.

For customer service agents accustomed to working in a bustling contact center, a sudden move to working remotely may have come as a shock. The water cooler conversations are gone. They may find themselves relying more on technology to find answers rather than asking a co-worker. To ease this transition, managers should check-in with their agents often as well as encourage them to routinely touch bases with colleagues to maintain a social connection with the rest of the organization.

Flexibility and transparency

In this age that places a high value on customer experience, most companies are focusing on delivering the best possible customer service regardless of the current circumstances. Visit the website of any business today and you’ll see how they are committing to the best experience and service to maintain long-term customer loyalty despite the issues COVID-19 has created:

  • Airlines are waiving change fees and extending expiration dates of frequent flyer miles.
  • Banks are recommending the use of apps and other online tools to open new accounts, deposit checks, and pay bills; to maintain social distancing, some offer appointment scheduling for in-office services.
  • Retail stores share the lengths to which they are providing protective gear to employees, regular surface disinfecting, and limiting store entry to enforce social distancing.

While these policy and procedure adjustments might differ based on the industry, customers are hearing a consistent message should they need assistance: customer service is busy. Companies are being very clear that customer service is currently taxed and are asking for additional time and patience in their response.


Even before the pandemic, companies have embraced various forms of self-service and automation to address high-volume and common customer service requests. Be it a searchable knowledge base, a chatbot, or workflow-driven solutions, these always-available tools were already making a difference.

That investment has paid off even further. While by no means has it completely solved the problem, companies relying on customer service automation have seen the pandemic’s impact lessened. As resources permit, now is the time to double-down on self-service and automation. And those messages noted earlier requesting patience in responding to customer issues should be followed by links to where customers can review available self-service options.

Post-pandemic customer service

Many have been talking about the “new normal” as it relates to the changes in daily life the COVID-19 pandemic has ushered in. Everyday activities in personal and professional lives have dramatically altered from what they were just a few weeks ago. Resilient businesses have responded and adapted across the board.

Though this might be a once-in-a-lifetime occurrence, savvy businesses will be looking at how these changes can be used once the pandemic has passed to deliver a better customer experience in regular times. For customer service, this means: heightened employee safety concerns and potentially more generous work-from-home policies; greater transparency with customers and flexibility with policies; and continued emphasis and investment in automation and self-service. Beyond a better experience for customers and employees alike, this will also ensure greater agility and improved response should a similar scenario ever present itself again.