The ongoing coronavirus pandemic has created significant upheaval to every industry – not least the customer service sector, which is simultaneously in more demand than ever whilst grappling with social distancing measures and staff shortages.

Businesses have scrambled to move their customer support functions to work from home as, despite the challenges, the need to maintain high standards of service is heightened during this period. Under normal circumstances, only twelve per cent of customers believe a company when they say they “put the customer first”. These are customers that businesses simply cannot afford to ignore or lose as we face a COVID-19 induced recession.

With whole industries in turmoil, businesses have had to deal with a massive increase in inbound customer calls and queries. While most customers will initially look online, if the answer isn’t easily available, they will inevitably reach for the phone to get an answer from a customer service advisor and the now stretched customer service teams can become easily overwhelmed, as happened last month with Canadian airline WestJet whose customers experienced waits in excess of 10 hours.

Less is not more – Put as much information online as possible

Businesses must prioritise their online customer service capabilities in order to have the best opportunity to minimise the need for the customer to speak to an agent.

Businesses need to put careful thought into the questions their customers will have and provide easily accessible information which addresses these concerns – much of this can be done by boosting AI chat functions, social media updates, updating blogs and creating clearly signposted FAQs.

A great example of this thinking in practice is UK bank TSB’s new Smart Agent Function which sits on its website and gives customers immediate access to the measures the bank has introduced during the pandemic. This not only helps to fulfil customer requirements, but also allows TSB employees in contact centres to focus on serving its most vulnerable customers or those that need essential bank services.

Safety first – Businesses need to protect the well-being of customer service advisors

It’s no secret that without adequate internal support, a call centre can be a stressful work environment– 1 out of 3 call centre staff have taken time off due to mental health and 42% have considered resigning due to workplace stress.

This already high-pressure situation will be worsened by the pandemic as staff deal with increased enquiry levels and outside factors, such as personal and family health, and financial concerns. This combination could lead to staffing issues that could seriously damage a business’ ability to give high-quality customer service. It is therefore paramount that business focuses on how it can alleviate any increased workplace stress. CS leaders should think about measures they can put in place to provide support to their workforce to ensure their well-being.   Training managers how to lead remote teams and keep them engaged is critical and training employees how to work from home and maintain their workplace friendships is also a simple action that all CS leaders can take.

Simplicity is key – Businesses need to revisit their website layouts in light of coronavirus

It is not sufficient just to put information online, it must be ordered in an accessible, straightforward way for customers to navigate.

A business could achieve this by updating its website to clearly communicate which queries call centres can and can’t answer as well as the latest wait times – and putting this text front and centre of their landing page. If staff are unavailable or unable to take phone queries, then website needs to clearly direct customers to where they can get help. Businesses also need to demonstrate an understanding of customers’ heightened stress and the fact that some people who less comfortable interacting with businesses online may be doing so for the first time.

Business leaders need to remember that building a straightforward, customer-friendly website will not only keep their customers happy but will also help reduce the workload, anxiety and pressure on their customer service staff.

Shift your communications channel mix

Businesses could also redeploy sales and customer service efforts to new online channels both in B2C and B2B enterprises. This will not only reduce the workload on call centre staff but also open up new channels of communication with customers – it may even result in higher sales.

For instance, after 40% of its stores were closed due to the pandemic, Chinese cosmetics company Lin Qingxuan redeployed its 100+ beauty advisors to become online influencers who engaged with customers virtually via WeChat. This innovative use of digital tools to support customers through this turbulent time resulted in a 200% growth of sales in Wuhan compared to the same period in 2019.

Businesses could adopt a similar tactic by setting up dedicated social media accounts or forums where customers can ask questions. This could sit separately from the customer service teams thus, easing the pressure on cs agents and instead redeploying resource from across the business to make sure that customer queries are answered in a timely and responsive manner.

The ongoing coronavirus pandemic is dramatically increasing the demand on call centres. Now more than ever, customer service teams are under a huge amount of pressure to continue to deliver the same high-quality service despite a dramatic uptick in the volume of calls and a potentially smaller, and remote, workforce. Expecting customer service teams to continue to maintain high standards in these conditions is not sustainable without concerted and organisational support from senior business leaders to help them adapt.  Any business that overlooks these risks turning customers off their business at a time when they need their support more than ever.