Why Covid is no longer an excuse for poor customer service

Businesses can no longer blame the pandemic for suboptimal service, but those that boosted their digital offering are well placed to thrive
As the second week of the Coronavirus lockdown continues around the capital, and the UK death toll rising by 563 to 2,325, with 800,000 reported cases of Covid-19 worldwide, in accordance with the government's advice for social distancing and non-essential lockdown, shoppers patiently queue outside a local Tesco Express supermarket in Herne Hill, on 1st April 2020, in London, England. (Photo by Richard Baker / In Pictures via Getty Images)

Almost 18 months after the UK enforced its first Covid-19 lockdown, some organisations are still using the disruption of the pandemic as an excuse for providing a poor customer experience. 

People were initially more accepting of the suboptimal delivery of even basic services, be it unanswered telephone calls, infuriating delays for goods, or missing out on vital medical appointments. We were collectively numbed by the trauma of the pandemic. Clapping on our doorsteps, we diligently believed that “we’re all in this together”.

Granted, the crisis will leave ugly scars on businesses large and small. It’s evident now, though, with a sense of normality returning – in part thanks to the administration of approximately 90 million vaccinations – that consumers have had enough. They are quick to admonish companies they suspect are taking advantage of the situation and readily call out below-average customer experience. 

This cuts both ways. Recent research from verified reviews platform Feefo indicates consumers are now 29% more likely to leave feedback – good or bad – than before the pandemic.

The latest UK Customer Satisfaction Index – a huge cross-sector measurement of customer service in the UK, with 10,000 consumers rating a total of 45,000 customer experiences – in July found that almost a quarter of respondents (24%) believe that some organisations have used Covid-19 as an excuse for poor service. Specifically, companies that fail to communicate with transparency and authenticity – if at all – are more likely to spur the ire of consumers.

Doubling down on tech

“It has been well documented that businesses are facing ongoing issues with stock, supply chain and staff,” says Jo Causon, CEO of The Institute of Customer Service, which publishes the UKCSI twice a year. “The issue is how the organisation manages the overall experience and communication, helping the customer to navigate the problem, indicating when to expect delivery, offering alternatives and being honest and explicit upfront.”

Moreover, customers expect considerably better experiences compared to pre-pandemic times. Those organisations that continue to blame Covid for poor customer experience risk damaging their reputations irreparably, while ceding market share to progressive competitors who have seized the opportunity to transform and upgrade their offering by investing in technology solutions.

“The past 18 months have exposed businesses’ strengths and weaknesses,” says Causon. “Those that have fared well have embraced new technologies, been proactive with their advice and support, reached out and considered the implications for their customers.” 

Brands that have succeeded during the pandemic and attracted and retained consumer loyalty have “involved the customer in the design and delivery” of new products or services and provided greater “channel choice”, she notes.

This chimes with Celine Maher, vice president of UK and Ireland for customer service software company Zendesk, whose recent research found roughly half of UK consumers will switch retailers after just one bad experience. For multiple disappointments the number rockets to 80%.

“Brands need to be able to meet their customers where they are by ensuring they are putting their needs first,” she says. One option is to take an omnichannel approach to customer experience, Maher adds. “This helps businesses to have meaningful conversations with customers on whichever channel they feel most comfortable with, without needing to monitor across several platforms.”

However, “providing a fast and friendly service is no longer enough”, Maher warns. “In such a period of uncertainty, customers are seeking proactivity and empathy from businesses.”

A hybrid world

Benjamin Braun, chief marketing officer in Europe for electronics giant Samsung, agrees that quick-thinking brands have used the coronavirus crisis to reevaluate their purpose and customer experience offering. They realised an ecommerce presence was imperative to survive, and used customer data to build more personalised experiences and generate loyalty. 

“Almost overnight, a company website was more than just a shop window – it became their only open shop,” Braun says. 

With this shift came an increased need for a better online experience, he adds.

“Customers expected and demanded support at every step of the online shopping journey to replace the traditional in-person shopping support. The rise of omnichannel has been phenomenal and a real mark of success for many brands.”

Brands need to be able to meet their customers where they are by ensuring they are putting their needs first

Conversely, “even the most beloved brand can lose favour if their digital experience isn’t up to scratch”, says Paul Robson, president of international at Adobe. We’re entering a new era in experience, he adds, where digital is the new battleground.

“Suddenly, we went from a world with digital to a digital-first world, and those brands that took the opportunity to invest in the tools that help them build deeper direct relationships with their customers will emerge from the pandemic far stronger than those that didn’t.”

As we venture into this new epoch, which Braun calls “a hybrid world”, he believes that customisation will only get stronger. 

“As consumers return to the high street, they crave an integrated experience that merges the physical and digital domains. As a result, consumers expect a tailored service in-store while continuing to utilise new online services.”

Doubling down on tech and investing in artificial intelligence is necessary for organisations that seek to thrive in the coming months and years, says Braun. “The way brands can embrace customer needs is to put these first continuously,” he advises. “Each shop, online or in-store, must put customer experience at the heart of its service. Data and insights must be leveraged to better tailor every customer experience.”

The prospect of a digital-physical customer experience offering is certainly thrilling for consumers. Brands have no excuse – including blaming the coronavirus crisis – not to invest in technology and engage with customers, wherever they are.

Raising the bar for in-person customer experience

Could improved in-person customer experiences be the key to generating – or rebuilding – consumer loyalty for brands? 

After 18 months of takeaways and luxury home-restaurant kits, for instance, will people still be likely to spend their money at a high-street chain? Or are they going to splash the cash in upmarket restaurants, where the experience feels more special? Time – and data – will tell.

Away from the restaurant industry, though, there’s no time to test and tweak; with the high street back open, and already under severe pressure from the ecommerce boom, businesses have been forced to evolve. Sachin Jangam, partner for retail at Infosys Consulting, says that just-walk-out stores like Amazon Go – the first outside the US opened in Ealing, west London, in March – are a “natural progression of the changes we have already seen in retail”.

Tom Burch, managing director of immersive experience studio Pixel Artworks, notes that Lego charges $15 for a unique, interactive 20-minute experience at its flagship New York store. This so-called “retailtainment” is groundbreaking.

“That Lego can charge for this experience is proof of the shift in market demand,” says Burch. “I’m sure we’ll be seeing such experiences coming to major UK city centres. Stores will begin to better delineate between what digital can do and what only stores can deliver.” 

Physical retail will continue to shift towards fully immersive brand playgrounds, says Burch.

“Retail stores might even have no physical stock, but engage their customers with creative and unique augmented reality opportunities, with purchases delivered to your door,” he adds. “Ultimately, successful retailers understand that consumers want a shopping experience from stores, not just to buy stuff.”