COVID-19 & The Customer Experience

Since the beginning of COVID-19 we have been tracking the ‘stress test’ that contact centers have experienced as individuals across the country take to the phone in unprecedented ways seeking assistance for the challenges they face during the crisis. From urgent calls to health care companies or financial institutions to the more innocuous tasks of canceling or rescheduling travel plans, contact centers across the country have experienced surges of epic proportions.

In fact, 38% of Americans say that they have been making more calls to businesses than usual since being at home due to social distancing. In some instances, we’ve found that this influx has meant more than 6,000 additional calls per hour above normal call traffic. The pressure this has put on agents who are already dealing with an about-face in operations is almost incalculable. Not only are agents forced to play an endless game of whack-a-mole to handle the unrelenting waves of customer needs, but as our internal data has so worrisomely illustrated, fraudsters are exploiting this chaos with their own unprecedented surges. More than ever before, an agent’s responsibility to safeguard the customer experience (CX) is compounded with the responsibility to ensure they are protecting customers and their organization from bad actors.

Recently, Next Caller commissioned a study to over 1,000 Americans in order to give brands a unique view into how COVID-19 is reshaping customer experience and expectations, not just today, but in ways that will last far into the future. 

COVID-19 LEAVES LITTLE ROOM FOR ERROR 

While companies might be hunkered down to weather the current storm, it’s important that they understand how their customer service actions today will impact their future success. We found that a staggering 80% of consumers say that the way a brand responds to their needs specific to the COVID-19 crisis will impact their likelihood of doing business with them in the future.

There’s always been a psychology behind customer service. Studies have shown that 87% of consumers report that they at least sometimes feel “more emotionally connected” to a brand when their customer service solves a problem for them. Imagine how much stronger these emotional connections become when things like physical and financial health are part of the challenge being addressed. It’s not hyperbole to say that some brand decisions have become a matter of life and death.

Naturally, this means that the inverse is also true — if a brand fails to solve the urgent needs of their customers today, they risk losing them forever. Past studies from PWC have found that 59% of American consumers say that they will stop doing business with a brand after “several” bad experiences. However, in our own survey, Next Caller found that today nearly half of consumers (49%) say that they would stop doing a business with a brand after only two or three poor customer service interactions. That’s not a lot of breathing room for brands, especially when their agents aren’t able to come up for air between interactions and customers may need to call about an issue multiple times in a short period of time. 

How Many Bad Experiences Does It Take To Switch Brands?

Most consumers can imagine the pressure that customer service agents are under today, yet 72% report having the same or even less patience for a bad experience since COVID-19 began. In short, while they may understand that these are trying times, it likely won’t offer brands much relief from scrutiny.

WHEN CUSTOMER SERVICE GOES FROM THE CONTACT CENTER TO THE COUCH

As we shared in our Fraud & COVID-19 report series, it’s not just call frequency and patterns that are having a massive impact on contact centers. In many cases, the entire operating model has been turned upside-down, including the fact that entire agent-bases have been forced to go remote all at once. While perhaps not surprising, rapid contact center virtualization presents plenty of challenges, not the least of which is the fact that agents accustomed to managing dozens of applications across multiple screens have been quarantined to a laptop exploding with frustrated callers and clever criminals. 

Naturally, this unprecedented reconfiguration has many downsides, but none as worrisome as the additional exposure it creates for agents and organizations to become targets for fraud. Fraudsters know that agents are operating with less resources and acclimating  to new processes which has resulted in the explosion of fraud attempts that we’ve seen over the course of this crisis.

And Americans are worried about how new work from home configurations will ultimately impact their own susceptibility to nefarious tactics. In fact, 44% of Americans believe that their personal information is more vulnerable to fraud with many businesses now allowing their employees to work from home. Underprepared and overworked agents are paving the way for new data breaches and fraud schemes that will only validate these concerns and undermine brand credibility. 

Under normal circumstances, agents are inclined to rush through security to avoid angering callers and damaging satisfaction scores. With stakes at an all-time high, the pressure ratchets up incalculably. Imagine interrogating a distracted parent with secret password questions to complete a grocery shipment. Or declining a wire transfer to a sick patient in need of life-saving medication because of a forgotten PIN. Or denying a stranded traveler access to their account because they can’t access a one-time passcode from the airport. And yet, each of these scenarios is also a perfect cover for phone fraud. Even the best agents are susceptible to coercion, and fraudsters rely on these small oversights and mistakes to work the system. To put it simply, the balance between customer experience and security has never been so important and our call centers have never been so underprepared.

WHEN IT COMES TO TECHNOLOGY, SOMETIMES LESS IS MORE

Brands are once again turning to technology in an attempt to harden their defenses and push beyond the inherent risks that come with being a human agent. And while some of these technologies are indeed mission-critical, others can have  unintended consequences for brands.

Take for example, technologies such as chatbots and voice assistants that were already experiencing a significant increase in adoption pre-COVID-19 as enterprises turned to them for their ability to automate and scale conversations. Pre-crisis estimates from Salesforce saw the use of chatbots by service teams growing 136% by 2020.

But while this technology once promised to end the frustration of getting stuck in a call center’s Interactive Voice Response (IVR) system, consumers came to face the annoyance of a circuitous conversation with rules-based bots that aren’t quite equipped to handle the nuances of human interactions. At a time where the increase in emotion and urgency behind consumers’ needs is incalculable, patience for these robotic experiences is dropping while the desire to talk to a human is rising inversely. In fact, 54% of Americans say they are now less willing to engage with technology like chatbots and automated systems than they were before the start of COVID-19. 

What does this mean for brands? Emotional intelligence is as equally important as new features and functionality. The needs that consumers are facing today are more complex than ever, which in many cases is compounded by the emotions propelling them. Systems that are unable to seamlessly navigate service interactions in an empathetic way may simply be creating frustration more efficiently. The savviest of organizations will adopt technology with an understanding that superhuman customer service means enhancing the human element in the call center rather than trying to replace it. That is to say, while AI and Machine Learning can provide data-driven suggestions that help brands become proactive and predictive, sometimes less is more. Focusing on the pain points for customers can be a faster, more impactful fix. For example, a frictional authentication process has long been reported as one of the most frustrating aspects of customer experience over the phone; spelling one’s name, answering knowledge-based questions, or remembering pins or passcodes, to name a few of the biggest culprits. Implementing Automatic Number Identification (ANI) matching, for example, can instantly connect a caller to their account if they are already a customer. When paired with ANI Validation technology (the ability to verify the call is coming from the device that owns the number), a business can remove at least 2 steps for callers during the identification process before they even speak to a live agent.   

THE SERVICE GENERATION

In an age where customer experience leaders such as Amazon and Netflix are continuously reshaping our expectations, the demands and preferences of younger generations are ever-evolving, and the need for tools and methods to elevate the experiences we provide is unprecedented. Lackluster customer experience is simply not an option. 

Customer service has always been a crucial underpinning of CX. However, the wide-sweeping impact that the crisis has made it more important than it’s ever been. Consumers are changing their purchase behaviors and habits, and they are also rethinking their priorities when it comes to deciding what brands to do business with. Nearly one third (32%) of consumers say that customer service is more important than price when it comes to deciding between two companies with similar products. With so much uncertainty abound, perhaps it’s telling that consumers are less concerned about paying more for a product if it means that the company behind it will be there to help them solve any challenges that arise. Implicitly, consumers are also putting their money behind their ability to trust a brand when it counts. Similar studies in the financial service industry further illustrate this shift finding that effective customer service is so important that 28% of consumers would seriously consider switching credit cards for superior service.

Brands have a massive opportunity to install customer service functions that build consumer trust and loyalty. However, it is important to note that changes need to be made must be done expeditiously even if the results may only be felt long term. As call volume surges continue to parallel the crisis itself and the related response from the government in the form of stimulus packages and other relief, we find ourselves in the calm before another storm.

As more individuals and businesses face the reality of prolonged financial hardship, other less obvious issues lie in wait that will certainly require more phone communication, like loan or mortgage defaults, bankruptcies, and life changes resulting from health issues. In fact, 80% of Americans worry that they may face future COVID-19-related health or financial loss. When this happens, contact centers will see subsequent surges of callers not just looking to solve their own problems but potentially evaluating which brands they trust enough to support in the future. In this regard, it’s time to get to work.

The crisis has reinforced the importance of reliability, accountability, and trust. As a result, consumer preference for brands that prioritize these qualities will continue well into the future and no function is more equipped to demonstrate them than customer service. There isn’t a moment to waste. With the ever-changing nature of the crisis and the extent to which it may impact an individual at any given time, each phone call has the potential to be a new first impression. The brands that are prepared to meet or exceed expectations will establish a bond that even a pandemic may be unable to break. 

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