The good, the bad, and the ugly: business responses to COVID-19 and lessons for the future

COVID-19 was an opportunity for businesses to demonstrate empathy for customers at a time of great need, but it was also a period where gaps were exposed.

The good

COVID-19 was an opportunity for businesses to demonstrate empathy for customers at a time of great need, but it was also a period where gaps were exposed. Compassionate customer service generated an increase in positive business perception and customer loyalty across the board. However, some businesses, many of whom were known for their stellar customer service pre-lockdown, struggled to adjust to a remote working set-up, thus generating a reputation for being inaccessible, ineffective, and disordered. 

What were the common failings? And what parallels can be drawn between customer service departments that succeeded during lockdown against those that didn’t? Let’s take a look.   

Coronavirus ‘ saints and sinners 

An industry that has left consumers feeling frustrated during the pandemic is the travel industry. The sector has been widely condemned for both ignoring the legal obligation to refund cancelled holidays and leaving consumers waiting on helplines for hours. For instance, Canadian airline WestJet’s support line became overwhelmed at the start of the pandemic, leaving customers on hold for ten hours or more, and Ryanair quite shockingly informed customers that the refund for their cancelled holidays would come ‘once the COVID-19 crisis was over’. 

Away from the aviation industry, other businesses ‘ such as Currys and Homebase ‘ experienced widespread criticism for delays in orders and customer support. Currys received over two-thirds of  bad or poor Trustpilot reviews and was sent more than 7,000 comments from customers complaining about missing orders on a Facebook post in May. Similarly, Paypal failed to prepare for the spike in customer demand, temporarily closing its call centres at the start of lockdown and directing customers to online services. Although its centres have since reopened, this decision will likely have resulted in irreparable damage to the brand by turning customers off from using the service.

However, poor customer service was not ubiquitous during the initial months of the COVID-19 pandemic. Take Lloyds Banking Group, for example, who in March announced that all customers would receive a £300 interest-free overdraft buffer for three months from April to help deal with any financial struggles of customers. The bank was delivering excellent customer support by understanding the day to day issues that many people around the UK were facing. 

Other businesses who provided excellent customer service during the pandemic span the FMCG, retail, hospitality, banking, and education sectors, to name a few. But with such a disparity between these sectors, what truly links the businesses that provided superb and supportive customer service? In short ‘a customer-centric mindset which is embedded throughout a business. Leaders are typically very good at thinking about the customer ‘ 71% view CX as a key differentiator from competitors ‘ but most don’t fully consider the links between the experience, engagement and satisfaction of their front-line customer service teams and the customer experience. 

What does a customer centric mindset involve?

A key part of a customer-centric mindset is supporting front-line CX teams. Customer service is all about people on both sides of the interaction ‘ a point that is all too easily forgotten in the age of chatbots and automated communications. Customer service agents are the face of the business and are on the receiving end of the full range of human emotions in the working day. If they’re uninspired or feel like they don’t have sufficient support and training, it is unlikely that they will feel motivated to be positive brand ambassadors and fulfil their role to the best of their ability.

With the above in mind, it’s unsurprising that the businesses who failed to provide sufficient remote working environments for their staff during lockdown lost out to competitors. Companies that chose to prioritise their staff’s needs by establishing internal policies to support employees, on the other hand, thrived in the face of adversity. For example, BT offered all frontline staff a 1.5% pay rise in  July and a guarantee that no employee would be made redundant in the next 3 months. This small but simple tactic encouraged staff to continue working to the best of their ability, safe in the knowledge that the company was looking after them. BT’s approach stands in stark contrast to Teleperformance, a global outsourcing giant used by many of the world’s best known brand names, whose workers were dealt a cruel ultimatum: Keep working in conditions that, according to their own complaints and to the allegations of their unions, were at first overcrowded workplaces which lacked personal protection equipment, and then from home but with strings attached. Or lose their jobs.

Lessons for the future 

Businesses need to understand that meeting and exceeding customer expectations in the age of COVID-19 starts with internal changes. Although many businesses are beginning to return to the office, it is likely that another spike in infections could see a return to working from home, and a return to the issues faced earlier in the year ‘ such as a spike in customer demand and long waiting hours. Some businesses ‘ such as Shopify and Basecamp ‘ are already preparing for this and have given employees funding to create their home offices to allow them to work seamlessly from home. Policies like these will not only boost employee engagement but will also allow customers to receive fast and efficient support in the future.  

The impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on customer service will be felt for years to come. Trying times provide businesses with opportunities to strengthen relationships with customers, but this can only be achieved by switching to a customer-centric mindset which supports employees, as well as customers.

Aileen Allkins
Aileen Allkins

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