How brand support teams can navigate the COVID-19 customer storm

How brands are ensure their contact centre and support staff meet changing customer needs in the current crisis environment


Tapping data and insight

Customer data and insight are key vehicles here helping brands better navigate the extra demands on support centres triggered by COVID-19.

“Insights based on interaction analytics can guide to the right support decisions and set up pre-emptive response mechanisms,” Srinivasan says. “For example, if analysis of cross-channel contacts over the last few weeks can lead you to the top questions customers have, that will enable brands to be more proactive about how they address them. They can use insight to formulate proactive outbound messages or leverage in-app messaging to help users with those specific problems.”

For example, Katsabaris notes the importance of listening to customers for major grocery retailers.

“By listening to feedback across different channels, these businesses learnt elderly and at-risk citizens were being severely impacted by low-stocked, overcrowded grocery stores,” she says. “They were able to quickly come up with a solution that showcased their ability to respond quickly and aimed to put their customers first.

“But they also needed to be able to understand how the new solution was being received by customers and keep up with changing customer needs.”

Technology helping here includes AI text capabilities, sentiment and speech analysis. Katsabaris says these capabilities can also help a call centre quickly escalate customer issues and requests that mention COVID-19. She cites certain brands automatically routing refund requests or requests for help to case managers based on such analysis as cases in point.

“This is minimising wait times for customers and also helping to triage the most important cases to special response teams, which helps create a better CX in an otherwise challenging environment,” she says. 

“Being able to prioritise actions not only ensures a stellar customer experience, it also alleviates a lot of admin work for call centre teams. In some industries, this is essential to be able to respond to the most vulnerable customers.”

Likewise, insights gleaned from service and support teams can benefit the rest of the organisation and help you make the right automation decisions, Srinivasan says.

“For example, airlines could realise a large volume of their contacts are ‘cancellations’ and enable a virtual assistant/widget that will only handle cancellations, and do so very effectively,” she says. “It’s not no automation, but automation that is strategic that’s also empathetic and relevant.”   

Bringing in the soft skills

As for pivoting the way call centre and support teams, processes or initiatives operate to cope with the COVID-19 crisis, the advice is largely to ‘get innovative’.

“Every contact centre has had to get more creative in how they manage their available employee pool,” Srinivasan says. “Initiatives for safe transit and safe work premises have made contact centres rethink their travel policies, seating arrangement, and so on. Contact centres have also tried to create common pools of employees and reallocate resources on outbound campaigns to manage inbound volumes and provide basic support.”

When it comes to the priority skills required in a COVID-19 context meanwhile, soft skills such as empathy and kindness are top of the list.

“In most cases, call centres are not really able to resolve customer issues like travel amendments or cancellations, so the ability to build rapport, empathise and be more creative in presenting options is becoming an important skill set,” Srinivasan says.

All of us are dealing with so much negative news every day, coupled with social distancing measures, and it’s taking its toll, Katsabaris notes.  

“A call-centre employee has to deal with that on top of the added pressure of non-stop calls learn during this time is active listening. When agents are listening to their customers’ problems they need to respond with certainty. It helps the person on the other end feel more certain too,” she says.    

“Providing a dynamic call-centre script for agents to use in relation to COVID-19 can also help teams to prioritise the most important requests. It ensures agents capture the right customer feedback needed to be able to triage the critical requests.”  

Harrison advises looking for indicators of vulnerability within customers calling and developing relevant queries either in real time or historically to intervene and support those customers more effectively.

“Sometimes we miss those cues to our detriment,” he says. “It’s particularly critical when it comes to brand association and customers feeling they’ve been connected to with a large organisation going out of their way to connect them to things like support services.

“Even simple things, a bunch of flowers to the old lady that was really upset who is by herself – it’s those gestures that can be a make or break connection moment and are so important.” 

The role of marketing

Then there’s the question of the role marketing leaders can play in supporting their service and support teams. Greater Bank’s marketing automation efforts are a great example of how marketing can complement work done by call centres during this time.

For Srinivasan, marketing leaders are in a good position to champion the channel, customer advocacy and expectation management for the contact centre. “Marketers can also work towards bring contact centre and martech data closer to be able to map end-to-end customer journeys. This will be critical to make insights work for them,” she says.

And this will inform customer experience in a post-COVID-19 world. Katsabaris urges brands to be seen to be acting and responding quickly.  

“Before all of this, there were times the industry seemed to relax about responding to feedback. That’s now changed - brands need to show that they are listening now and acting fast, because the brands who don’t aren’t going to survive,” she adds.   

Related: 4 brand leaders building the bridge between marketing and customer service

Verint Ian Harrison’s checklist of contact centre musts to get through COVID-19

Community engagement for agents is key: Having the ability to stand up some kind of community or crowdsourced resource for all agents is ideal in the transition to remote workforces.

Understand the major call drivers: Run speech analytics to understand what’s going on and what your main call drivers are. What are the things driving the biggest handle call time blowouts? Are there things that are really not value-add the IVR or chat solution is being taken up with?

Embrace analytics: Analyse your performance around productivity and compliance. How do you set the balance between being productive and caring for the vulnerable, while being compliant?

Speech analytics is your friend: Use this to understand conversational trends, and what wording are people using around COVID-19. Verint has issued a lot of query algorithms so our customers can look up various terms and not have to build themselves, so they can tap that library and come quickly up to speed.

Adopt a virtual assistant: These are a way to more rapidly detect lower-priority calls to free up capacity. These are also key to knowledge management more broadly and how to build a knowledge repository fast. These days, it’s reasonable easy to stand up this if you have AI running behind the scene and can interrogate the data.

Quality monitoring is a must: Beyond speech, we do a lot of call quality monitoring. Rather than just analyse queries, we routinely have monitoring software listening and recording calls. We want to make sure quality of agents is measured in the right way. We have people looking at calls so you can set and forget, and focus on empathy, sensitivity, brand engagement and value instead of having to focus on ticking compliance boxes.

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