Learning from the Successes of Customer Service in 2020

As we move from reacting to rebounding from initial pandemic shutdowns, customer service operations have a lot of considerations, including if and when to bring employees back to the office, what new virtual channel growth looks like long term, and how to manage agent engagement and well-being in the mid- to longer-term future.

As we look at the customer service successes of the past few months, what can we learn to help inform our planning moving forward? Beyond the all-important human factors, the impact of geography, and industry dynamics, a few common themes are found in the companies whose customer service operations fared better than average during the past few months. Here are some of the elements that made a huge difference:

The Cloud

Those who already had some cloud applications in place for key parts of their businesses didn't have to make special provisions to enable employees to work from home, were more rapidly able to adapt applications and processes with low-code or no-code tools, and were able to expand or contract applications flexibly as needed. In the contact center, they were able to rapidly spin up remote agents, handle the shift from in-person to virtual service channels, and more quickly respond to changes in customer service issues and cases.

Moving forward, the cloud gives customer service organizations greater flexibility and agility and better day-to-day management of costs. If you haven't moved to the cloud already, it's time to ask hard questions about whether your current infrastructure and applications are sustainable.

IT Relationships

Organizations that had technology partners—not just vendors—fared far better in moving through reacting and rebounding and did better than those who just paid their invoices. While plenty of tech vendors offered free or nearly-free short-term services, crises bring out the best and worst in people and vendors. Customer service and IT leaders who had good relationships with good technology vendors got help they didn't expect, sometimes before they asked, not just on billing and commercial terms but on thought leadership, moral support, and real solutions to immediate challenges.

These relationships will continue to be important as we move beyond initial reactions into strategic planning for the longer term. Now is a great time to take a critical look at vendor relationships that are or aren't working, to consider new ones that can be more collaborative and help you become more agile and differentiated.

Human Communication

Customer service organizations that led with empathy and did the most to humanize interactions got better short-term social props and, likely, longer-term positive Net Promoter Score impacts. This is true with both how they treated customers (with greater transparency, understanding, and flexibility) and how they treated their own agents, who were suddently faced with uncertain work and job futures.

Communicating with customers will continue to be important, but so will empowering customer service teams beyond initial reaction mode to a more sustainable model as pandemic fatigue tries the patience of agents and customers. Support for better collaboration, agent wellness, and bottom-up (as well as top-down) communication is simply more critical when shift-to-shift or day-to-day check-ins aren't realistic.

None of us would have bet that the first half of 2020 would look like this, but there are things we can learn about making better decisions for the second half of 2020 and beyond. Although technology is a key component of optimizing customer service strategy, equally important are assessing and adjusting key relationships with vendors, customers, and staff.

Rebecca Wettemann is CEO and principal of Valoir (valoir.com), a technology industry analyst firm focused on the connection between people and technology in a modern digital workplace.