Tips: how to manage customer support in a crisis

Yes…. Another thought piece on how COVID-19 is re-shaping life as we know it and what can we learn from it going forward.

Tips: how to manage customer support in a crisis

Tips: how to manage customer support in a crisis


Words by Jennifer McCullough
Reading time 4 min

Yes…. Another thought piece on how COVID-19 is re-shaping life as we know it and what can we learn from it going forward.

With people stuck at home and shops closed, several industries, such as e-commerce, streaming entertainment, and gaming, are experiencing hyperactivity. The influx is driving revenues but also customer support needs.

Blog Jennifer McCullough

In many cases, support centers are not scaling up to the necessary headcount needed to cover the increase in volumes. It is a huge investment to hire and train agents, especially when no one had any idea how long this would last. Now consider industries that are suffering from a revenue perspective but still have customers contacting them… they cannot possibly add the additional cost at this time.

Of course, having a customer wait for hours to speak with a person is never an ideal experience, but when every day is like Black Friday for an entire quarter, how can you possibly cope?

Whether your volume is spiking from COVID, an unexpected outage, or any other factor that compels consumers to contact you, I’d recommend these specific actions:

Deflect the contact and set reasonable expectations

  • Use your website and social media to alert customers if you are aware of a large spread issue and keep them updated on that resolution status.
  • On your website, IVR, or automated ticket response, let customers know about high volumes and give them a realistic time they may be waiting for a response.
  • If possible, direct them to self-help articles and tutorials that may help them find the resolution faster than waiting.

Triage the queue

Typically a queue will be managed on a first-in-first-out basis. While this may be a “fair” approach, it creates an equally poor experience for 100% of your customers. If you consider your CX to be a sum of everyone’s experience interacting with your brand, the goal can not be that everyone has a perfect experience. Instead, focus on limiting the number of consumers that have a less than ideal experience.

On way to achieve this: when the backlog becomes unmanageable, split the queue down the middle and have half the team work the front half in a FIFO fashion, while the other half starts in the middle and works in the same manner.

It’s not perfect, but at least you can immediately halve the number of customers having a bad time.

Don’t sacrifice your support team

The front line agents did not create the backlog and they should not carry the burden of resolving it (beyond touching or solving a reasonable amount of tickets each day).

Even the most enthusiastic and engaged agent will start to burn out with not stop hits coming. While overtime may seem like a good solution at first, OT over an extended amount of time is going to impact productivity, CSAT, and the morale of your team.

Be realistic about how far they can stretch in a crisis, but don’t break them.

Use your IVR intelligently

As previously mentioned, your IVR can be a great tool for letting your customer know that you’re aware of widespread issues or tell them about how long they’ll be waiting for.

Also, what is even more ideal than having to wait on hold, offer a callback option so the customer can simply hang up and then receive your call later.

In January, I was traveling (you remember travel, right?) to Manila and had just landed in Gaum for the last leg of my 24-hour flight. As I was about to board, the Taal Volcano erupted and I was suddenly stranded in Guam. I made my way to my hotel, exhausted and stressed, and started calling airlines to figure out my next move.

During my 3-day stay in Gaum, I spent a total of about 16 hours on hold with two airlines. However, the experience was starkly different.

With Philippine Air, I called multiple times and waited over 4 hours in a sitting. Eventually, a call was answered and just as I had hopes of finding a way home, I was told that systems were down and I would need to call back. Call back?! Why couldn’t an IVR tell me this hours ago?

I also tried changing my flight through united, which required a phone call. They had insanely high wait times too, but here’s the key difference: When I called, their IVR informed me that the wait could be hours and I could put my number on the list to be called back. I waited for nearly 3 hours. During that time I enjoyed the pool and listening to music on Spotify instead of hold music.

United was struggling to cope with volumes during a natural disaster, but they were still able to provide a painless experience.

This difference is really important. When a customer contacts a brand that is your chance to bond, engage, and to create a customer for life. Even if the customer has a complaint or problem, how you respond can completely turn around the situation. You can create fans by effectively handling problems, but you can also ensure that the customer never wants to do business with you ever again – you can guess which airline I will be flying with in the future.

Jennifer McCullough

Key Account Manager

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