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How can companies handle CX opportunities during COVID-19?

The COVID-19 impact on in-person shopping experiences has changed customer service expectations; now companies must find ways to compete in e-commerce against Amazon and others.

We've seen a natural evolution of customer service over the past decade. This includes a shift toward app-based e-commerce and interactive in-store experiences. Now, of course, in addition to the changes that have been influenced by technological advancements, COVID-19 has forced brands to take a "leap of faith" and deliver new experiences to customers in ways not previously considered.

The self-isolation restrictions COVID-19 has brought upon the global population has generated a significant increase in the number of customers who are now engaging with e-commerce platforms. Netflix alone has seen an increase of 16 million subscribers during the lockdown period, and no doubt a demonstrable increase in customer service queries. It's one of many brands that will now need to fulfill heightened customer expectations by delivering bigger and better e-commerce offerings.

Offering an exemplary service to customers who are used to receiving personalized support and offerings in a physical store is particularly important. They may not necessarily understand that this same service does not always translate online in the same way as the instant and high-quality services from Amazon and Netflix. As more traditional industries are now having to compete in this same space, it's time to consider new ways to fulfill the new types of queries and the new levels of volume customer service teams are experiencing. There's room for creativity even in customer service, and the ideas below are all based on strategy that is already working for several companies globally.

Brands with purpose

This decade and the events we have experienced in 2020 so far will naturally bring a shift in the number of impactful, "society-led" brands. Already we are seeing brands move into delivering "purpose," and for many organizations, this will require a re-think about what sort of brand they are in moments of crisis -- and indeed everyday life as customer expectations evolve.

For example, leading supermarkets, including Trader Joe's and Costco, have appropriately addressed the new expectations customers now have of brands during the COVID-19 pandemic. With customers voicing concerns about frontline staff and vulnerable individuals being unable to access food-delivery services, these companies listened to the pleas of customers to adjust their online e-commerce services to prioritize those who needed delivery services most. Yet this was not just a "do-good" positive PR exercise -- it was essential to avoid customer boycott and, arguably, to protect the dignity of each brand.

Brands must now truly consider what equates to meaningful customer care and interactions, as well as their wider business impacts on society and the environment. Brand and business survival are no longer about profit and loss, but about providing meaningful experiences for customers and the wider community, many of which are actively promoted and encouraged by the online population.

Harness the power of people

During lockdown and ever since, the lines between social networking, e-commerce and the future of work have all collided in an extremely positive way, with people reaching out on social media to ask for recommendations on everything from household products, to how to fix day-to-day items, to baking, DIY and hairstyling advice.

Shopify -- a platform to help e-commerce businesses move online -- has seen significant growth in its online community during COVID-19. It now has more than 656,000 members, and many of these are small-business owners who connect and learn from each other.

What if we were to take online communities even further to maximize on the power of social networking, e-commerce and future-of-work concepts? Netflix again is a great example of where an opportunity lies. Currently, the streaming service uses automation to provide people with better recommendations, and users can register a mobile device to share their favorite movies and TV shows with friends and family. But what if it augmented the power of its automation with recommendations from friends or those who have similar interests? In many senses, the success of Netflix depends on getting this right: It has far too much content in the sense that it's hard to find the perfect show. People must see what they want at the top of the screen.

The power of recommendations from people is that they can be highly personalized, and the power of social media is how well it works to build virtual communities. This is why we're seeing "GigCX" pop up as a channel customer service -- it is the term used for the pool of gig expert talent, mainly made up of a brand's own customers (or even its own employees looking to earn extra money), that can provide on-demand customer service. Truly personalized customer service can't be automated, and what many brands are finding during the pandemic is that people really want to speak to other people. A little empathy goes a long way when someone is reaching out for assistance.

Make way for millennials

According to Pew Research Center analysis of U.S. Census Bureau data, more than 1 in 3 American labor force participants (35%) are millennials, making them the largest generation in the U.S. labor force. What is also clear is just how much this generation is driving the need for change in business, including customer service, where they will expect diversity and inclusion in customer service operations.

If the pandemic has taught us one thing above all, flexibility will be key in managing a workforce of millenials, and in delivering customer service to them, across all digital channels, 24/7. Now more than ever, businesses need to offer flexible working conditions to their customer service teams, while also keeping diversity top of the corporate agenda. Working parents, students and others who cannot work full time are still valuable additions to the workforce, and employers implementing flexible working policies and strategies can tap into the skill sets and experiences of those who may not be able to accommodate full-time positions.

Translating personal services

One significant hurdle to be overcome is determining how to translate in-store personalized services to online platforms. As society shifts toward e-commerce as the norm, expectations are not going to lessen. If anything, the ease of access provided by every online brand will only cause a huge drive in competition, and in turn, greater advancements in customer service.

Naturally, post COVID-19, the number of online orders and reliance on online streaming services -- whether used for clothing delivery or for entertainment -- will decrease as society begins to resume normality. Yet a number of people who have now had an online experience will never fully return to their old ways. This includes those who have tried online shopping for the first time through sites such as Amazon, with the appeal of online being more tempting than needing to visit a brick-and-mortar store.

We're now at the very beginning of a step-change in the proportion of e-commerce use, meaning that brands now have a new set of expectations that need to be met and upheld, presented by a whole new group of e-commerce customers. However, there's never been a better time and bigger opportunity to improve customer service operations, and the brands that are willing to experiment with a little creativity are well aligned to benefit.

About the author

Roger Beadle is an entrepreneur and business leader who is reinventing how customer service is delivered via the gig economy. After establishing several businesses in the contact center industry, Beadle co-founded Limitless with Megan Neale in 2016. Limitless is a gig-economy platform that addresses some of the biggest challenges faced by the contact center industry: low pay, high attrition and access to new talent.

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