All the signs are that 2023 will be a tough year for the world in general, with recessions adding to current geopolitical turmoil and an energy crisis. Customers are already worried by rising prices and how they can make ends meet. Unfortunately, this looks likely to get worse over the next 12 months.
All this put’s pressure on customer service centers, both to deliver the service that customers need, and to balance the books. Many managers haven’t been through a recession before, and therefore, don’t have experience of how to successfully operate during this time. This means that when it comes to cutting costs, their natural first step is to reduce headcount. After all, people costs are the largest part of most budgets.
However, in my experience automatically downsizing your workforce is not necessarily the best way to go. Customers want help on how to meet their own challenges. Providing comprehensive, supportive service increases engagement and ensures you are well-positioned with loyal customers when the downturn ends. How can you add value and be supportive? Essentially, what do you want your reputation to be over the longer term? So, before you change anything, work out what you are trying to achieve, and whether your actions help or hinder this overall objective.
Given that key point, I’d see five areas to focus on to successfully deliver customer service in a downturn:
Happy, experienced employees give better service. So rather than simply reducing your workforce, look at how you can lower costs in other ways. Reassure your people and support them through the recession – let them know you value their skills and commitment. By keeping your agents’ experience and operational knowledge you’ll be able to understand what customers want and deliver on their needs and be ready for the upswing. There are lessons we can learn from the pandemic as to how we can best be prepared for that upturn.
One clear way of reducing costs is to encourage customers to use digital channels, particularly self-service and chatbots. Therefore, make sure your digital infrastructure is in place and can handle the volume and complexity of requests that people will have. However, not everything can be automated. Make sure there are clear escalation points to human agents. Moreover, offer a choice to those that would rather speak to a person. Remember that more complex situations can require the empathy that only a human agent can bring.
Customers are worried about the future. Be proactive and reach out to your customers in creative ways to remain engaged with them, especially if you are dealing with more vulnerable groups. Not only is this the right thing to do, but it will give enormous insight into your customers. This can be used to tailor experiences going forward and will build a strong reputation and loyalty for the future.
Outside of people, training is normally one of the first areas to be cut in a downturn, but again, this can be a false economy. We’re in the middle of a switch to digital channels. You need to ensure your agents have the right skills in place to handle interactions on email, chat, and social media channels. Especially if they are used to working solely on the telephone. Digital methods require new ways of dealing with interactions, particularly around language, tone, and writing style, so help your people to be ready. Learning new skills is proven to give morale a boost too, so training benefits engagement and retention.
Multiskilling agents also helps the bottom line by increasing flexibility and efficiency, without impacting the service customers receive.
Train your managers on how to operate in tough times and give them the ability to support staff and lead teams when morale is low. Also, provide support to first line managers who are critical in helping companies meet organizational goals and objectives.
While you focus on the current situation make sure you plan for the future too. Over the past few years, we’ve seen enormous growth in the Internet of Things (IoT), with costs of devices coming down, and what they can do dramatically increasing. What this means is that personal possessions, whether smart fridges, washing machines, cars, or smart assistants such as Alexa and Siri are now able to interact with companies on their owner’s behalf. This could be booking a service appointment, notifying of a fault, or ordering new supplies, such as washing powder.
IoT offers the chance to engage differently with customers, through a new, automated channel. Take your traditional self-service a step further and use the connection to deliver a personalized experience that saves the customer time and removes friction.
Recessions often lead to changing customer behavior, and organizations need to understand and respond accordingly. It is easy to get caught up in the pressures of the moment but think about what you want to be known for after the recession is over. People remember good service when times are tough, so build the right reputation for the future whilst being efficient and prudent during 2023.
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