How to Leverage the Disruption Caused by COVID-19 to Better Serve Retail Customers

Mark Finch, VP Sales, EMEA at Moxie

Retailers have recently faced an impossible situation. They are flooded with customer contacts and inquires that must be addressed. Centralised call centers that would normally come to the rescue have been forced to close and shift to work from home. And while it is true that many companies have quickly adapted to working from home, many are under-equipped and overwhelmed. In reality, many customer service organisations are struggling. 

The model of traditional call centers – built around a customer knowing they have an issue, proactively reaching out for help and then being willing to wait in a queue to get assistance – was already inefficient before retail shops closed. The experience of getting help can be truly awful for customers who are already facing varying pressures and frustrations. And when you lean into the phone as your primary solution—it’s no better for the overwhelmed customer service rep on the other end of the phone line. In reality, traditional call centers only help a small percentage of customers and is actually burdensome for both the customer and businesses.

With the shift to remote work, the challenge of being able to clearly understand each other has been exacerbated. A recent Harvard Business Review article shared the findings of a post-pandemic, 1 million customer service call study by Tethr. They found that both customers and agents are now far more likely to say “I cannot understand you” during a phone call. What’s worse, requests to speak to more senior agents has increased by 68%. The impacts to customer satisfaction levels and sales is evident. The same study also found that difficult interactions resulted in upsell or cross-sell revenue 6% of the time whereas easy interactions resulted in an 80% chance of additional sales.

Making the move from an in-office call center to a remote network of agents is challenging in and of itself, let alone in a pandemic. The infrastructure is difficult to replicate. Both landlines and mobile phones can be unreliable and problematic to work from. Taking credit card information over the phone outside of the office—especially when others are in earshot—puts delicate information at risk. Home internet service is much slower and surely less secure than centrally controlled business service providers. And when issues arise, the social support system has vanished for many without managers or coworkers nearby. While everyone is surely doing their best, the experience feels chaotic and disorganised. Trying to replicate what you had in the office at home puts customer satisfaction and loyalty at risk. Surely, there is a better way to serve customers.

Working From Home

Scaling Customer Self-Service with Digital Guidance

Meeting the needs of increasingly digital customers by phone was already challenging for many. But layer on the effects of the pandemic and phone alone is no longer a viable option. Imagine a future where support is built for the masses and from the ground up around automation, digital tools and proactive guidance. What if reaching for the phone was the least preferred option for your customers?

In many cases, companies can mitigate the need for customer to call you in the first place. Simply provide a mix of self-service tools and proactive guidance in the right context and at the right time. Without agents—you can help customers complete transactions; find the information they need and generally avoid the need to call you altogether. Of course, this improves customer satisfaction, but it also reduces the burden on your live agents. In place of the phone, live chat is also quickly growing as a favored effective way to guide customers without channel shifting.

Are your stores still closed? Do you offer curbside pickup? Are deliveries delayed? As best you can, communicate frequently and openly as possible about the impacts of COVID-19 on your retail business. Share changes with customers proactively and do not wait to be asked. This is quite important since retailers need to publish information where customers can find it without much trouble. If you have shipping delays or low inventory, alert shoppers on the top of your homepage rather than burying this information on an internal page. 

Customers appreciate transparency and accuracy but won’t be so forgiving if they feel your messages are unrealistic and evasive. In our experience, the following topics cause the most inbound phone calls to agents and can also be clearly addressed digitally eliminating the need for customers to call you:

  • Delays in returns and refunds customers may expect
  • Expectations around rerouting of deliveries or shipping delays
  • Any extension you may offer on merchandise returns
  • Status of in-store pick up orders
  • Rules around how customers can cancel orders
  • Notifications about out-of-stock notifications merchandise
  • Details around store closures and reduced hours
  • Information about curbside pickup
  • Requests to use in-store coupons online
  • Your protocol for package safety

COVID Information

In recent years, consumers have become increasingly comfortable with helping themselves and this is part of a broader move towards the guided economy, where businesses use digital tools to address customer needs proactively over waiting for someone to ask a question. And with COVID-19 driving urgency around the need to set expectations and address issues at scale, the shift to proactive guidance for retail has become more urgent.

The good news is that many retailers are making the transition to digital and customer self-service. You can too! Lean on your existing digital channels—websites, email and chat. Make it your priority to understand what your customers need right now and help them find it. Consider carefully what kinds of questions are frequently asked by customers and publish this information very clearly on your website. Provide ample ways for your customers to help themselves before they ask you for help – whether that is managing an order or understanding in-store policies. 

For many, you are uncovering the dependence and subsequent collapse of the phone-based agent. Even before the COVID-19 impacted our lives, there was ample evidence to show phone support could not meet the needs of modern retailers or their customers. And as you scramble to adapt to digital channels, better days are surely ahead—as customers are eager to do business with you. Transforming your customer service strategy from a passive one to a proactive approach may be one of the easiest pivots you can make this year.

Mark Finch, VP Sales, EMEA at Moxie

Published 03/09/2020

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