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As the COVID-19 virus spread, federal, state, and local governments in the United States looked for ways to slow it down. Social distancing proved helpful but quickly proved inadequate. In response, state governors began issuing more strict “stay-at-home” orders in mid-March. Though not covering the entire nation, by the end of March about 95% of Americans were living under a directive to only leave their homes for necessities like groceries, doctor visits, and exercise.

Stay-at-home actions also included orders for non-essential businesses to temporarily close. Essential businesses could remain open with the expectation they continue to operate in a manner that is safe for both employees and customers.

For those businesses still able to function, work changed dramatically across all operations. For customer service, staying open and safe may have meant suddenly implementing a work from home program for agents. Complicating matters may be loss of staff from business-related reductions, illness, or challenges working from home.

The United States is now about one month into these directives for citizens to remain at home. The initial rush and confusion has passed, and the “new normal” has set in. With about thirty days of operations and learning under their belts, now is a good time for companies to be examining how things are working under these new conditions and how to maximize effectiveness.

Staff perspective

Under normal circumstances, working from home means having everything needed to successfully complete job tasks. When whole contact centers must hastily make the move, some corners were likely cut to make the move while trying to disrupt customer service as little as possible. Agents probably received a little bit of guidance and used a lot of their own instincts in the transition.

With some time and experience behind them, agents have now settled into a pattern of work. And by “settled,” that means some accommodations may have been made by employees in the interest of getting work done. It’s time to learn what those might be.

Many at-home agents are sharing space and bandwidth with roommates or family members. Some may be caring for sick or spending the day part-time teaching their at-home children. Do work times or job responsibilities need to be adjusted to match the home life situation?

What about the actual work being done? Are there any issues related to technology or processes that may work fine in the office but are challenging to complete or outright fail when remote? Examine any barriers that might exist preventing agents from being effective and look for workarounds.

The bottom line is to understand what is working well for those working from home and what can be improved. Maintain open lines of communication and solicit feedback and ideas. By reducing agents’ stress, they will deliver the best possible customer service in the current situation.

Self-service execution

Uncertain times create questions, and those questions create higher inquiry volumes for customer service. Some industries have been hit harder than others, as the pandemic creates new problems for customers. Most recently, customer service departments at banks have been besieged by customers concerned about paying mortgages and credit card bills as well as with questions or issues related to stimulus check deposits.

This is the time to further invest in self-service. Use analytics to identify the issues driving the higher inquiry volume and ensure self-service solutions exist. For example:

  • Document answers to new high-volume questions in knowledge base articles
  • Expand chatbot response capabilities to address these new issues
  • Develop automated tools customers can access themselves to query systems and processes available to customer service agents to find answers

Don’t wait for the issues to develop, though. The stimulus checks began impacting banks as payments started rolling out. The March stay-at-home orders eliminated spring break plans and affected the travel industry. The actions being taken to control the outbreak will continue to have an impact across many industries, and customer service must quickly consider the consequences and adapt self-service channels to respond.

Measuring performance

The fundamentals of customer service have not changed. Customers have questions or issues. They contact customer service using telephone, chat, or self-service channels. However, some elements have changed, like the availability of agents, the most important issues to customers under current conditions, and the temperament of both customers and agents.

The point is it’s not quite business as usual.

The metrics used to measure customer service must change to reflect this. Customer satisfaction will always be important, but things like complaints due to wait or resolution times might not be worth measuring right now. At the macro level self-service usage might be skyrocketing, but at the micro level are there places where it could be working better? Agent productivity is likely quite different as a result of remote work, new types of issues, and the emotional states of customers. These are just a few areas to consider.

That’s not all. Continue to adjust what’s measured as customer service evolves with the return to normal. While metrics are helpful to navigate a route to improvement, the business environment will continue to change, and with it the route to delivering the best possible customer service. Periodically reevaluate what is measured until regular operations resume.

Returning to normal

COVID-19 has radically changed both personal and business lives. What isn’t obvious is how long this period will last. Even less apparent is what a post-COVID-19 world will look like.

The path ahead may not be entirely clear, but that doesn’t make it insurmountable. For customer service, it means keeping a steady pulse on things. Check-in regularly with staff. Monitor issues in the contact center and those in the world and adjust self-service options as needed. Modify the metrics to reflect what’s important now, and be prepared to change them. Open communication, flexibility, and creativity will be critical as we chart our way through this.