Customer Service Leaders Share Learnings From COVID-19 and Challenges Ahead

The last year has been a rollercoaster for customer service leaders, and the ride’s not about to slow down as we head into the second half of 2021. The COVID-19 pandemic put contact centers’ agility to the test. And with vaccines being rolled out across the world, contact centers are being challenged again as consumer behavior changes.

Three customer service leaders from Extended Stay America, Freshly, and Support Ninja share what they’ve learned from the pandemic, changes they’re making for the future, and upcoming challenges.

How Extended Stay America and Freshly reacted to the pandemic

Extended Stay America leveraged their business continuity plan to fill in the gaps

Like other hospitality companies, Extended Stay America saw a slow down in business at the beginning of the pandemic. However, they bounced back much quicker than others. The construction boom drove construction workers to their hotels for long-term projects. They also saw an increase in traveling nurses staying with them.

Since business was down, they weren’t running the training classes they usually conduct from January to June each year. When they suddenly experienced an increase in call volume, they were short-staffed. To meet demand until they could get staffing back up, they handled it with an extended business continuity plan (BCP). They applied a lot of their BCP logic until they could get their staffing back up to a point where they could handle all calls.

Freshly leaned into automation to service customers faster and save agents time

Freshly, a company that offers meal delivery kits, experienced a big spike in customer demand at the beginning of the pandemic. They saw an increase in customer interactions across all contact channels — not only because they now had more customers to serve, but also because there were more unique questions. For example, customers were now asking whether couriers wore masks or handled the packaged kits with gloves. At the same time, they were also moving their agents to work safely from home.

“[W]e found ourselves leaning into … automation and AI as a way for us to support our customers and support our agents and maintain efficiencies across the board,” says Megan Merrick, Associate Director, Innovation and Brand Experience at Freshly. They relied on live chat self-service during this time, and the impact was significant. Instead of having agents take roughly six minutes to help customers skip an upcoming order, they were able to automate those requests and save agents thousands of minutes each day.

Learnings from COVID-19

The technology infrastructure of your contact center needs to be prioritized

Reflecting back on the last year and looking forward to what’s to come, Matt Magnuson, VP of Call Centers at Extended Stay America, says they didn’t have the technology infrastructure that they’d need in the 21st century. The pandemic exposed the need to accelerate some technology plans that weren’t previously urgent.

Experimenting with a new contact channel can lead to meeting customers where they prefer to engage

During the pandemic, Freshly started serving customers through Facebook Messenger. This not only took some volume off of other contact channels, but Freshly also learned that many of their customers preferred to reach them through messaging. “So we started staffing our channels where the customers wanted us to be and where we knew we could flex a little bit more automation to be able to support them pre-conversation with an agent,” explains Merrick.

Customers either love or hate automation, but contact centers can make small changes so automation is enjoyable

Merrick also adds, “The other thing we learned is that when you do automation really, really well, your customers love it. If you don’t do it really, really well, your customers are going to hate it.” When they launched live chat on their website, they learned that making small tweaks to help the AI collect information about the customer or interact with the customer can change how many customers abandon the automated experience.

They also saw this reflected in customer satisfaction (CSAT) scores. “If people aren’t happy with the automation and they want to talk to an agent and they’re finding that there’s any type of friction, we’re going to see those scores tank. And when we make it easier to either get the information that you need or at least you find a sense of security, I would suppose, that you can get out of the automation and reach an agent, we tend to see that rise.”

Challenges ahead for contact centers

The battle for talent is getting more competitive

As many activities that were shut down or drastically reduced during the pandemic start up again, companies are starting to prepare for the increase in customers. The biggest hurdle to scaling customer service right now is access to talent, says Anne Bibb, VP, Global Head of Customer Experience at Support Ninja.

Magnuson agrees, as he sees the biggest risk being how competitive recruiting might get. “If you talk to most contact center leaders, they’re expanding their geos. Even folks that are staffing or recruiting domestic call centers where they might have just had a small geographical area, now that’s expanded.” Contact centers are looking for the best talent, regardless of location.

With a remote workforce, employee engagement is more difficult

With a more geographically dispersed contact center workforce, Bibb sees employee engagement becoming a challenge. You’ll need to make sure all employees are treated equally.

As employee engagement becomes a widespread pain point for customer service organizations, Bibb anticipates solutions will pop up. She predicts there will be new technology to help ensure employees are taken care of, “because employee experience and customer experience need to be equally taken care of in order to make sure businesses are successful.”

Download The Ultimate Guide to Elastic Customer Service

There’s more unpredictability on the horizon and some industries are facing pent-up customer demand. Contact centers can easily weather fluctuating demand by using AI and automation to achieve elastic customer service. Download our “Ensuring Your Contact Center Capacity Always Matches Demand” guide to see how to bring elasticity into your contact center.

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