The other day, I had a really trying conversation with an online retailer. I’d tried to purchase something and, in the crossed wires of COVID-19, the package never arrived. While the support person was helpful, their friendliness still didn’t negate the fact that I’d waited much longer than expected, with very little information, for something that never arrived. After the interaction finished, I was sent a CSAT survey.
I’ve heard stories of people trying to cancel subscriptions to premium cable offerings or streaming bundles, as a result of being laid off, only to have their “support” representative try and up-sell them during the needlessly difficult process.
We recently witnessed Ticketmaster announce a policy change that would prevent ticket purchasers from getting a refund to concerts and events that were canceled due to COVID-19. It took a New York Times report, customer backlash and inquiries from members of Congress to finally get the corporate behemoth to backtrack on this disastrous plan.
What were they thinking?!
This is a post about how to be more human in the midst and aftermath of a global pandemic, and how companies need to shift their strategies and tactics to accommodate “the new normal.”
This Is Different
COVID-19 is unlike anything any of us have ever gone through. Large scale crises, such as natural disasters, share many common characteristics. But this pandemic is an outlier.
First, it impacts absolutely everyone. Unlike hurricanes or earthquakes, there is no geography or topography that is immune. Unlike famine, there is no socio-economic class that is protected from its reach (although, per usual, the outcomes can be very different). There is no escaping it.
Second, we have little certainty as to when it will end. Economic recessions follow a somewhat predictable pattern for gradual recovery, typically aided by changes to monetary and fiscal policies. With coronavirus, there is very little precedence we can draw from. There is still no vaccine.
And finally, we have no visibility into what the “new normal” will look like. This is analogous to when the 9/11 attacks occurred. No one could envision that global travel would forever be altered, for example. Permanently.
Other crises have had maybe one or two of these characteristics, but our current pandemic is the first one that has all three. So our “playbooks” and business continuity plans will feel obsolete, or at least inadequate. Many of our business practices and norms will feel “off target”.
This realization is perfectly captured by Banafsheh Ghassemi, CEO and Founder of Tangerine Lab. She shares:
In the last couple of months, we all have received the “we are in this together” and “we are here to support you" e-mails from what seems like everyone that we ever bought anything from… airlines, banks, insurance company, water company, plumbing company, you name it. If you are one of these brands that sent one of these emails, this is the perfect time to invest in introspection. Are you truly investing any time to develop a deep understanding of your customers needs, and are you fulfilling those needs the way they expect you too? Because this is what “in this together” and “here to support you" mean.
Today, businesses are right to focus on survival. We have our hands full just trying to manage our cash flows, support our employees, and still create value for our customers. But short-term optimizations will render your brand and business at a significant disadvantage in a post-pandemic world.
It’s Time to Change. Everything.
We’re at the tail-end of an economic growth cycle, following the recession from 2007 to 2009. In that cycle, we’ve seen an increase in the drive for customization and wide-open options represented in businesses with booming success like Uber, AirBnB, and Netflix.
We’ve also seen a surge towards availability and speed that gave businesses with global supply chains and faster, cheaper options the upper hand. Companies like Amazon and Costco fully capitalized on this.
Fueled by Wall Street and Sand Hill Road, technology companies created tools for tracking, retargeting, drip marketing, intention analysis, and other forms of consumer manipulation to boost sales, reduce cart and page abandonment, and fully automate every element of “customer acquisition.”
We have sacrificed privacy, and, some would argue, humanity, in the quest for more sales, and more profits.
And, according to Kimberly Nasief, Partner at Fenix Management Group, that’s all changing. She offers this insight:
The currency of business will no longer be “customer experience”, as defined by a set of vanity metrics. Moving forward, the currency will be trust.
Banafsheh Ghassemi goes on to explain:
All brands have performance KPIs in place with varying levels of robustness for measuring impact. The KPIs are used to adjust investment levels in processes, people, and infrastructure, measure employee performance, and assess if business goals such as cost savings or sales numbers are met. In other words, more often than not, these measurements are measuring impacts on the brand itself, not the customer or the employee, the person whom you rely on to deliver the customer experience that your customer demands. Those are all worthy reasons, but they are all extremely detached from your customers' perspective.
It’s time to take a closer look at your KPIs and the metrics you value. In a post-coronavirus era, what are your customers going to value? How are you going to win them over? If the new currency is indeed trust, then how do you optimize for it?
Coming out of isolation, we will be left with an overall increase in shared empathy, as well as a sense of semi-persistent anxiety. We are likely to see a ton of shifts in preferences and the drive behind consumer purchasing. Namely, we are likely to see a premium being placed on:
- Reliability - People want to know that they can trust brands and be safe. We may see this represented in shifts like a surge in popularity for mega-hotels that can safely sanitize the entire property.
- Safety and sustainability - Consumers care about how workers are being treated, and where items are sourced. This could show up in business as companies trending towards regional and local sourcing with significantly smaller consumption units.
- Human touch - Modern buyers are going to care about who is on the other side. Instead of doing everything automatically, it will be even more important to enact personalization on a micro scale, rather than macro.
It’s time to shift away from the monetary values of tactics and objectives and move towards measuring humanity for the sake of your customers. Ghassemi puts it eloquently:
In this moment when “empathy” is the word of the day, brands should ensure their performance measures gauge their deep understanding of the customers’ needs and expectations and the brand’s success in knocking down barriers for their customers. If you are a health insurance company, during a pandemic, when the entire population and your customer base is struggling with health related anxieties, you may want to spend a few extra minutes on line with your customer to find out how they are feeling, how they are taking care of themselves.
Let’s talk about what that looks like in practice
Honesty (and safety) is the only policy
There are tons of excellent examples of companies doing this right, but perhaps the best is Patagonia. For the sake of honesty and transparency, they shut down all of their brick-and-mortar stores, and all purchasing through their website. Rather than choosing to put potential profits from online sales over the safety of their people, they chose honesty and humanity. That’s a move that will serve them well when they are able to reopen: they protected their employees, and were honest with their customers. They showed (and earned) loyalty on both fronts.
Everyone knows that things are a bit messy right now. It’s not going to hurt your relationship with your customers by being honest about the state of your business. Be transparent in setting expectations. For instance, if you’re in retail and have a long lead time for your products to be available, let your customers know. Not just before purchase, either. When you send your confirmations, let them know again how long they can expect to wait before receiving their order.
It might feel painful to admit that you’re not moving as quickly as you’d like to, but your customers will appreciate it. Knowing what to expect is a much better experience than worrying that you’re never going to hear back or receive the item that you ordered.
First Response Time (FRT)
Even in the event that you can’t get customers the full answers right away, encourage your team members to get first responses to your customers as quickly as possible. People, right now especially, want to know that they are being heard and respected. A first response lets them know that you've seen and hear them, and that you’re working on a resolution.
While it may seem tempting to use this as a drive towards first contact resolution (FCR), FRT is going to be more realistic and beneficial to your customers. This is even more true when the solution may be out of your support person’s hands, such as is the case with many retail supply chain issues.
No More Drip Marketing or Macros
How many emails have you gotten letting you know that the company sending the message isn’t a “money business, but a people business.” We should all be people businesses, and we shouldn’t have to send out mass emails to let everyone know. This is not an original message and will, instead, just leave a poor taste in the recipient's mouth.
Sending automated email campaigns projects the message that your customers are little more to you than a number. Put down your macros, canned responses, and marketing email drip campaigns. Use this opportunity where you likely have fewer prospects looking at your site to reach out directly and connect in a human way.
No More CSAT/NPS
How can you judge your employees’ performances on things that they have no control over? Poor CSAT and NPS scores can come from anything (and they rarely correlate with quality): supply chain issues, the customer having a bad day outside of reaching out to your company, product bugginess. None of those things should reflect back on the performance of your support team. Similarly, there’s nothing more frustrating than having a difficult conversation and then being prompted to share how you feel.
What is happening is not your team’s fault. It’s a global issue that is affecting everyone from tiny mom-and-pop shops to giant conglomerates. CSAT and NPS are great opportunities for customers to vent about their frustrations, both in and outside of their experiences with your team. Instead of treating CSAT as a metric by which to judge your performance, let it be a safe space for customers to let off some steam instead.
Pause all Win-Back and Anti-Churn Games
People are being laid-off at record levels. This is not the time to shame someone into keeping their subscription for your monthly boxed goods product. If their credit cards decline (and many will), re-examine your messaging and approach. Perhaps this is not the time to try and up-sell someone or add to their sense of financial panic.
Maybe be generous, to the extreme, and do something for them that is unexpected. Make cancellations as easy as possible, with no shame or guilt. Don’t send them an “are you sure you want to go” message. Once they leave, let them go. Don’t pester them to “please come back!”
Forget About Handle Time
Have you ever gotten on the phone with a loved one that you haven’t spoken to in a while and discovered that, when you looked up from your phone, you’d already been talking for an hour? That’s going to be your conversations with many of your customers during this time. Right now people are isolated. Maybe they need to be heard, or interact with another human. Maybe they need reassurance from another person, or just to feel like they are so alone.
Your support people are primed to do this. They’re empathetic, they’re caring. Don’t push them towards the unnecessary goal of speeding every customer through their interaction. Instead, let them focus on being human and providing a human space for your customers.
Narrow Your Focus
It can be tempting to try to patch all the holes—especially if your business is suffering—but now is not the time to try to give your team tons to work on. Your hyper-empathetic support team members are already working on a lot. They’re working to figure out where their new place is, and striving to feel useful, valuable, connected and even therapeutic during such times.
Support teams feel better and more impactful when they can see the changes that they are making in their customers’ lives. According to a survey by Cigna, only about 50% of Americans have "meaningful social interactions" on a daily basis—and that’s what your support team does best. Instead of finding measures for productivity, work towards narrowing your focus to metrics that specifically indicate the value of your support people. It’s not about how much they are doing but how they are doing it.
The experience doesn’t end with support
Your support and sales teams are the first lenses through which your customers learn about your company, but that doesn’t mean that they are the end-all-be-all. Pay attention to the details in your interactions after the fact. For example, the instance that anything changes in your shipping policies, product availability, or what you can offer as services, you should be notifying your customers. Anything changing in what they can expect or the level of service that they’ve come to know and love? Communicate it with them humanly. No canned stuff allowed.
Things are changing quickly. We are all a little nervous and maybe even a little up-in-arms. It’s up to you to provide a safe space for your customers and employees to be allowed to feel that, but not succumb to it. Trim down what you’re expecting from your team members, and refine your strategies for serving your customers. With less to focus on, your support team will be better equipped to help your customers when and how they really need it.
Your customers will appreciate your humanity, especially after the swing over the past ten years towards more mass-production and “I Want It Now!” mentalities. People don’t want a canned response. They don’t want you to measure their happiness after they’ve waited for a month for a product that normally takes three days to arrive. What they want is a drop of humanity, a bit of realness and honesty in the face of something genuinely terrifying and unprecedented for all of us. Give it to them.