Caring for Customers During a Pandemic


The impact of the coronavirus pandemic has been multilayered, creating widespread fear and stress over health and safety, income, finances, child care, elder care and the economy. In just a matter of weeks, lifestyles were dramatically altered, businesses shuttered and global markets tanked. Contact centers abandoned carefully structured strategies and processes in the scramble to set up work-from-home customer service staff to try to stem the flood of calls. Some sectors fared better than others, but even with all hands on deck, callers complained of hold times that had mushroomed from seconds to minutes, dozens of minutes and even hours.

It’s not surprising that emotions have been running high for customers and frontline staff alike—or that COVID-19-related worries have been seeping into customer conversations. During a crisis, we all feel the need to connect with other humans. Yet social distancing mandates are isolating people at a time when they most need human compassion.

As customers seek comforting words in their time of need, many are finding allies among the customer service and support staff of the companies they do business with—and vice versa. As a result, many centers are experiencing longer-than-normal handle times.

Adam Walton

It is a theme that CallMiner Chief Operating Officer Adam Walton has heard from quite a few contact center clients recently. “There is a huge amount of mutual empathy being shared around the current situation, often initiated by the agents,” he explains. “A significant part of the conversation focuses on the challenge that everyone is facing at this time, coupled with increasing call complexity. Issues are coming up now that weren’t being talked about three months ago because they weren’t relevant. Agents have to learn how to handle new situations that would have been rare in the past.”

Speech Analytics Provides a Pandemic Pulse Check for Fast-Changing Conditions

The business world was mostly caught off guard by the speed of the virus outbreak and the ensuing disruption of normal operations.

Steve Chirokas

Contact centers with speech analytics capabilities benefited from timely insights into callers’ concerns. Members of CallMiner’s Engagement Optimization Community, an interactive online peer-to-peer community, began to identify Coronavirus and Covid-19 references in customer calls early on. “By March 5th, we had launched the Coronavirus Customer Think Tank, a community within our Engagement Optimization community that is focused on coronavirus,” says Steve Chirokas, CallMiner Director, Product & Channel Marketing. CallMiner’s Coronavirus Customer Think Tank is open to both customers and non-customers. It provides contact center and speech analytics leaders a peer community for asking questions and sharing operational and service-related best practices. The Think Tank also offers free, downloadable customer-contributed and CallMiner-built speech analytics categories designed to uncover what matters most for callers and agents during the COVID-19 pandemic so that organizations can respond more efficiently, sensitively and effectively.

Having the foresight to align business processes to callers’ needs in near-real-time is critical, says Walton. For contact centers, “the pace of change accelerated exponentially in the space of a few days,” he adds. “Agents transitioned to working from home. Many of the business processes that our customers execute changed almost daily to reflect the new normal of the crisis.”

For instance, in the early days of the pandemic, the Think Tank identified a need for empathy training among agents, Chirokas says. He points to one reference, which said that “many COVID mentions were met with great uncertainty from agents, with very minimal if any empathy and clear direction. ‘Here’s what we can do’ is almost nonexistent.”

However, as more agents began working from home, there was a shift in the other direction. Agents became almost too empathetic. In one company’s case, it was the agents who were seeking reassurance and discussing the situation at length when customers were short on time, Walton says. The company was able to intervene with additional coaching for agents.

As the COVID-19 crisis escalated, the Think Tank community feedback illustrated the timeline of issues impacting contact centers—from the earliest mentions of coronavirus to the more recent issues around managing remote staff.

“There was a heroic effort by IT to get agents up and running in their homes, but then a lot of companies realized that they didn’t think about the management or security issues,” Chirokas recalls. “We have a work-from-home category segment that has identified situations such as how agents should take customers’ credit card information now or how to manage agents if they’re stuck in a tough situation. We even have categories that talk about things like dealing with noise from a neighbor mowing the lawn and situations that you would never have had with an on-site agent.”

Pandemic Research Says Actions Speak Louder Than Words for Customers

Having frontline staff that are trained to deliver empathetic service during a crisis is essential, but equally important to customers are the actions taken by the organization. All eyes are on leaders to respond in a manner that reflects the company’s values, builds trust, and demonstrates their care and commitment.

In the post-pandemic world, customers will most certainly remember which companies were guided by empathy for their customers and employees. Recent research into consumer attitudes has revealed how the COVID-19 crisis has altered customer mindsets.

Market research agency Kantar recently surveyed 25,000 consumers across 30 markets to find out how COVID-19 is influencing their behaviors, attitudes and expectations. The study found that 77% of respondents expect their brands to be helpful in what has become “the new everyday life.” The findings revealed that 75% of consumers feel brands should be informing the public about their efforts to combat the situation.

In addition, the study found that consumers are advocating for frontline employees right now. Consumers are choosing brands that are putting their employees’ welfare first, with 78% of respondents urging companies to look after their employees’ health and 62% favoring companies offering employees flexible working.

According to an online study of more than 700 consumers by Influence Central, the companies and brands that positively stand out to consumers are focusing on their consumers’ needs during a difficult, unprecedented time. The study found that:

  • 61% of respondents want customer support from companies and brands;
  • 58% are impressed by brands providing a necessary service; and
  • 55% value brands making changes to their normal business to help their consumers.

Consumers also said that what they value most from companies and brands is:

  • 58% responsible messaging.
  • 54% charitable contributions by the brand.
  • 50% brands addressing coronavirus concerns.

What customers don’t like or value: Companies or brands going silent. Twenty-nine (29%) percent of respondents said they feel discomfort when a favorite brand has remained silent during the coronavirus outbreak.

How can companies demonstrate their commitment to their values throughout the crisis? Two essential actions that customers will remember:

Be Human

Show customers that you understand what they’re going through, the impact that COVID-19 is having on their lives and their families, and their fears and concerns. Focus on the relationship and not profits.

A survey of 12,000 consumers by global communications firm Edelman found that consumers feel strongly about how brands are responding to the pandemic. Seventy-one (71%) percent of participants said that brands and companies which place profits before people during the crisis would lose their trust forever. Further, one-third of participants said that they had convinced other people to stop using a brand that they felt was not acting appropriately in response to the pandemic.

As the report points out, consumers are looking to companies for solutions, not selling. Some are responding by producing products to help their customers meet pandemic-related challenges. In fact, the majority of participants in the Edelman survey (89%) said that they want to see companies focusing some of their resources in this way. One example is Seattle-based Wyze Labs, which creates smarthome cameras and devices. The company shifted its efforts to produce items for its customers that were in high demand but difficult to obtain, such as disposable face masks and no-touch thermometers.

Other ways to focus on solutions detailed in the report include partnering with government and relief agencies, keeping people informed with reliable news and instructional content, and finding ways to connect people (e.g., online communities) and offer social support.

Champion Your Frontline Agents

As the studies have shown, customers are watching to see how you treat your frontline employees—whether you’re acting in their best interest (for instance, allowing them to work remotely), and how you’re investing in their welfare.

There is no doubt that frontline employees are the unsung heroes of the coronavirus pandemic. Many contact center agents have gone above and beyond to help customers and provide service and support throughout this difficult time.

Publicly recognizing frontline staff and showing appreciation for their efforts will not only help to humanize your company, but it’s also the right thing to do—especially with so many agents working from home for the first time and feeling isolated and detached from their teams. Many BPOs already have been celebrating individual agents working from home on Twitter and Facebook, and company websites and blogs.

Emerge from the Crisis with the Best Potential for Recovery

News reports are already speculating on potential long-lasting changes in customer behavior and business operations from the coronavirus pandemic. The recovery will take some time and routines will eventually resume, but let’s face it, people tend to come through a crisis changed.

Take the retail industry, for example. Post-pandemic, it is likely that a high percentage of first-time online retail and grocery buyers will convert permanently to e-commerce. Likewise, for Gen Z and millennial shoppers who were used to on-demand shopping and one- to two-day deliveries, the impact of perpetually out-of-stock products and panic buying will probably last for a while, according to the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, which predicts that bulk buying is a trend that is expected to stick around for a while.

What about contact center operations?

CallMiner’s Walton sees the work-from-home model continuing for the long term. He states that: “A significant proportion of agents who now have worked from home may never come back into the contact center.”

What can contact centers do in the new distributed world to ensure that they emerge with the best potential for recovery? Chirokas offers the following advice:

  • Be cognizant of the new infrastructure. You may have flaws in your infrastructure that you’re unaware of but which are causing problems for agents.
  • Don’t overlook work-from-home supervisors’ needs. “Don’t assume that supervisors know what to do in these changing situations,” he says.
  • Reevaluate your key performance indicators; set new benchmarks for the current environment. Be sure to train agents on the new KPIs and how they will be evaluated.
  • Review your security infrastructure, policies and procedures to ensure that your work-from-home agents are PCI-compliant.