In the first of a two-part feature, Sarah Cook and Steve Macaulay review the customer experience in the post-Covid era
The covid-19 pandemic marked a watershed in the relationship between customers and those who provide a service to them. The constraints of staff shortages and pandemic restrictions meant a drastic reduction in what and how the customer was serviced and there was a marked change in the customer experience. The customer couldn’t but help notice this big change which happened almost overnight, with waiting times growing exponentially and sometimes frustrations growing in a similar manner.
Two years on, the customer relationship has changed markedly in character and not every organisation has adapted to this. A persistent lack of staff and new ways of working have meant that it can no longer be back to the old routines, instead organisations are having to adapt to a new normal.
We need to examine how the customer relationship and customer experience have changed and how organisations need to respond accordingly. How employees have changed also needs careful consideration and this has important L&D and HR implications which we will explore.
As customer experience changes how does it impact individuals and organisations?
Online and digital transactions
As a result of the pandemic, companies’ websites have increased vastly in importance. Contactless has suddenly leapt in popularity to meet hygiene and security needs, though it potentially reduced valuable personal contact with the customer. In the health service for example, patient frustrations are being increasingly expressed to the medical profession who are finding this hard to respond to with limited resources.
The 24/7 economy
Customers expect support to be available when they need it, which has become 24 hours a day. However, many organisations still switch over to ‘out of office hours mode’ at 5 o’clock, leaving the customer with no support for much of the time.
Lack of staff
As the recent issues at airports and ferry ports have shown, lack of trained personnel and difficulty in attracting and recruiting candidates is now an issue for many businesses.
Make the customer experience as smooth as possible and to keep the customer informed, setting the correct expectations from the start
For simple queries, artificial intelligence (AI) has become more common and helps customers in a simple but effective way. AI refers to any technology that acts in a more ‘human way.’ This can include speech recognition through to ‘Chatbots’, all designed to help the customer get a speedy response.
However, empathetically dealing with customers is still a valuable source of building customer relationships. Companies can build those relationships by dealing with customer queries and problems with empathy while also providing a source of expert knowledge and advice.
Company processes can be hard work
For sometimes understandable reasons, such as staff shortages and supply chain issues, smooth frictionless processes for the customer broke down more frequently than normal during the pandemic. In some organisations this has carried on – but the pandemic experience emphasises how important it is to make the customer experience as smooth as possible and to keep the customer informed, setting the correct expectations from the start.
When things go wrong
A big source of frustration and disruption for the customer are times when things go wrong. During the pandemic, sorting customer issues out in some organisations proved extremely frustrating and difficult for the customer. Such frustrations can leave a lasting legacy and therefore need to be picked up and dealt with using understanding and speed.
Communication within and outside organisations is no longer solely face-to-face or other traditional methods like phone and emails. In customer service, social media and guided self-help have become much more common.
Keeping in touch with customers
With multi-channel access, traditional means to keep in touch with what customers want needs to be updated. Also, as companies amass more customer data, data protection and security are key. Some organisations are very good at understanding individual customers as they experienced health and economic problems during the pandemic. This ability to listen to the customer is a valuable learning point for all organisations. Online financial services company First Direct offered extra support to those customers in need – for example in coping with bereavement, managing money during domestic and financial abuse and those needing assistance in dealing with credit card refunds.
Employee care: satisfied employees encourage satisfied customers
In parallel with customer care, the importance of employee care must not be overlooked in offering quality service. Careful consideration needs to be given to the impact of customer change on employees. For example, additional pressure on overworked employees will quickly be apparent to the customer and therefore must prompt a rethink on ways to get a job done well with fewer staff. Also, if customer processes are not redesigned, customer frustrations will put extra workload onto frontline and fulfilment employees. If you are not careful, this can lead to higher staff turnover and even more pressure on employees. Also hybrid working can make teamwork much harder to achieve and communication more difficult internally and externally. There is a need to reskill some employees to deal with this online and digital emphasis.
Overall, for many organisations, concerted effort needs to take place to rebalance the organisation and restore organisational capability to meet the new needs.
In the next part of this two-part article we will discuss tackling how to meet customer needs in a thoughtful and planned manner.
Sarah Cook is MD of the Stairway Consultancy at firstname.lastname@example.org. Steve Macaulay is an associate at Cranfield Executive Development at email@example.com