Customer service and its challenges during COVID-19

Customer service is a challenging job on any day, but the challenges have only increased during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Over the past few years we’ve seen a move to really prioritise customer experience. Now, 96% of customers say that customer service is important in their choice of, and loyalty to, a brand. Over half say that they expect customer service agents to know their contact details, product purchases and history when they make contact.

Customer service has lately been made more challenging by the closure of physical office spaces, a circumstance which has caused two major problems.

Firstly, the structural problem: customer service representatives have largely gone remote during lockdown, whether that means operating by phone, chat or email. Remote work is the safest option for most right now, but one of its disadvantages is that representatives don’t have access to the same infrastructure they enjoyed at the office. Some of them did not even have access to reliable platforms to enable remote work when the lockdown started.

Of course, companies around Australia have been letting consumers know that their contact centres have been impacted and wait times have increased—but for customer service staff, that means that the pressure to work harder and faster has skyrocketed. Concurrently, while we know that customer service representatives do their best work when they’re able to work cooperatively with other reps, in the current environment it has become harder than ever to collaborate.

Contact centre staff are the interface between businesses struggling to adapt under sudden, unprecedented pressure to shift to remote operations, and their panicked and anxious customers. The impact of these structural changes has been keenly felt among customer service representatives.

This is relevant to the second problem—the human problem. Difficult contact centre calls have more than doubled. Anxiety during calls is high because anxiety in the general population is high. Financial hardship calls—and, as anybody who has worked in customer service knows, these are some of the most tense and difficult ones—have increased so dramatically that some companies reported an increase of up to 2.5 times their previous average within the span of one week.

It’s highly likely that your contact centre staff are still the people who use and update much of your customer data, so maintaining the quality of that data is necessary to support the important work they’re doing.

 So what steps can you take to ensure that reliable data is what’s coming out of your CRM?

1 Streamline what you can. Simplicity, standardisation and clarity are vital to data management and can help your contact data stay relevant for longer.

Data quality management needs clear and consistent data input rules—across all of the staff, teams or departments that have access to your CRM. You should define required fields, standardise date formats and naming conventions, and delineate how and where the log of each record’s edits is maintained.

With so many staff working from home right now, it’s even more important than ever that your guidelines are clear, consistent, and easy to access.

You can also reduce the amount of manual data entry and double- or even triple-handling that your staff do by making sure you have the right integrations set up. Aside from the obvious benefit—that is, that you encourage efficiency by limiting the time spent on repetitive administrative tasks—you will also drastically reduce the opportunities to lose data quality in the transfer between systems.

2 Harvard Business Review once reported that two thirds of managers are uncomfortable communicating with employees. So while this might outwardly seem obvious, it’s best not to take it for granted: you need to communicate with and train your staff properly.

Even if you have those consistent data input rules, effective communication between a business and its employees isn’t always achieved—but it needs to be, especially now, when so many workers are unable to have a face to face conversation with management.

Staff have to know what constitutes sensitive data, how to keep your customer data updated, and how it’s best used. Good training and understanding can reduce the creation of duplicates and the loss of data, and in the longer term can avoid the instances of double- or triple-handling necessary to correct mistakes.

Quality training affects your bottom line in other ways, too. It improves employee performance and productivity. It reduces double-handling and lessens the need for supervision. It also improves staff retention, which reduces the number of new hires you have to bring on board and train all over again.

Make sure your staff are able to follow the clear rules and policies you’ve created. There’s no point in having clear, consistent rules for how you handle your data if nobody is trained in how to apply them.

3 Keep it clean! Even with clear policies and well-trained staff, data degrades. There are a lot of different estimates about how fast that degradation happens: reports suggest anywhere from 22% per year to 70% per year depending on factors like the industry, the kind of data kept, and what data quality framework is used for assessment.

This is why regular data cleansing and data validation are recommended. The frequency will depend on similar factors: what kind of data you’re using, your processes, the size of your database. With regard to those factors, however, a database usually needs to be cleaned up every 6—12 months.

About the Author

Martin Soley is Group General Manager Data Services and has over a decades experience across data quality, analytics and related technology in ANZ and abroad. Martin’s strategic insight and expertise drives commercial outcomes for DCA’s varied clients.

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