Difficult customers in COVID times

Customer service can be difficult at the best of times. But when the customer is currently living through a global pandemic, perhaps confined to their home, then your product or service takes on greater significance – interactions with the ‘outside world’ are rarer, there are less opportunities to spend, and goods and services are more difficult to access. Add to this, the customer’s potentially frayed patience and shortened temper. Then add the fact that your customer service representatives are living and working in the same circumstances.

Our survey says…

Just before the summer, a machine learning company, Tethr, surveyed around a million customer service calls (all of them made after the coronavirus was declared a pandemic by the WHO) across 20 companies in a variety of industries. Using an algorithm to measure the ease of dealing with the calls, just two weeks saw the number of ‘difficult’ calls double in number due to heightened customer anxiety and emotion.

The difficulty is undoubtedly increased because most customer service representatives were working from home during the survey – a non-ideal environment with alternative technology and tools; it’s not only the customer’s nerved that are frazzled…

It doesn’t matter whether it’s not your fault or not

Customer conflict and dissatisfaction aren’t exactly rare, of course. Whatever the circumstances, however professional the representative, some customers will not be happy. The situation may be outside of your control, but you still have to deal with it. The fact that it’s ‘not your fault’ doesn’t matter.

The received wisdom is that a problem that is satisfactorily resolved makes for a much more loyal customer than a seamless transaction. Thanks to the coronavirus, all transactions are now potentially problematic, which means customer service is now a much more exhausting job; and also that if you deal with the ‘problems’ you may just come out of the pandemic with an even more solid customer base.

But how to do that?

Avoid conflict situations by preparing for them

Mismanaged customer conflict is a lose-lose scenario, waiting to happen. Usually, a lot depends on your representatives ability to think on their feet. The chances are, many of the complaints or difficult conversations with your customers  fall into a few broad categories; e.g. complaints about delayed deliveries, or less-than-instant refunds, or just customers previously unused to buying via phone or the internet.

You can anticipate your common scenarios, work out solutions or (where necessary) policy positions, and then carry out some conflict management training or coaching for those specific circumstances.

Don’t over-promise, but do (over-)deliver

In a sense, this is just good, traditional customer service sense: promise only what you can (and will) deliver, then do it (or ideally, do a little more). However, it’s worth being aware that the customer reaction if you do the opposite is likely to be exaggerated in the current climate.

Update your policies, where necessary

In a sense, the classic ‘losing move’ in customer service is to hide behind the policy – whether the customer’s request is reasonable or not, they’ve almost certainly lost faith in you and you’ve lost them.

That’s not to say that the last resort isn’t sometimes necessary BUT do make sure that your policies and terms and conditions reflect the reality of what you can offer, and how quickly. If you have to hide behind policy, at least make sure it’s bulletproof!

Speaking of updated policies…

If your business involves face to face contact with customers (e.g. retail) then there’s probably a requirement that they wear face masks and observe social distancing rules. Even if the rules are the same for all retail situations, you can’t leave it to the government and the press to promote them. Your customers deserve clear communication from you and that’s what you should give them, including what sanctions (refusal of service?) will result from non-compliance.

Then, without exception, back up your customer service team when they enforce such rules.

Finally, as always, ask for suggestions from your customers. They see a side of your customer service that you cannot directly see and engaging them in the process of updating how you provide that service is an especially good strategy now, engaging the customer as a collaborator, making the whole thing more of a team effort.

Let’s face it, in the current circumstances, customers may be quicker than ever to anger and much slower to forgive. In uncertain times, trust can be eroded. To prove your business is trustworthy, stick to your stated values, review and then deliver on your promises, and involve the customer wherever possible.

Arguably, it’s never been more important to back up your brand.


If you want to know about delivering excellent customer service, even during difficult times, check out the options on our website (many of them available in online webinar format), or give us a call on 01582 463464; we’re here to help.

Categories: Customer service

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