A Customer Support Crisis 30 Years in the Making

A Customer Support Crisis 30 Years in the Making

When customers need help, an endless telephone support queue just adds to their frustration and anxiety. We can do better.

With the sudden and dramatic impact of COVID-19, digital technology has been a crucial difference-maker in our ability to continue the activities of daily life under containment. As businesses, schools, and services of all kinds move online, and work-from-home becomes the new normal, we’ve seen wide gaps in preparedness and resiliency. One area that’s fallen especially short is customer support.

Even under ordinary circumstances, contacting a company for help is often a frustrating experience. Now, as people seek clarity on everything from deferring mortgage payments to health insurance benefits, the inability to get answers only adds to the anxieties people face. This should be a wake-up call to every organization: if you can’t be there for your customers when they most need you, it’s time to change the way you’re doing things.

Organizations in all sectors are reporting that their call centers are overwhelmed, caught between surging call volume and reduced agent capacity. The reasons aren’t hard to understand; in uncertain times, normal operations are disrupted, customers have more questions, and every concern gains urgency. Meanwhile, many customer support organizations lack the infrastructure to support full-scale remote work, leaving their home-bound agents struggling to work effectively. Organizations send emails and post notices on their websites cautioning customers to expect phone wait times lasting hours or entire days, but they’re unable to offer an alternative.

Why We Need a Better Way to Help Customers

While the scale of COVID-19 is unprecedented in modern times, the breakdown of customer support infrastructure doesn’t exactly come as a surprise. In reality, the current model is based on a 30-year-old infrastructure that is no longer capable of meeting needs of either organizations or their customers. The wave of digital technology that has transformed everything from the way we watch movies to the way we pay bills—but when we need help from a retailer, insurance provider, or government agency, we’re often stuck dealing with phone trees and hold music that would have been familiar in the 20th century.

Organizations often feel that customers perceive the phone as the most direct and effective way to meet their needs, but nobody calls a company or initiates a chat because they want to—only because they’re driven to by a lack of information. And when information is in short supply, the system buckles. Even in the best of times, customer support organizations have only barely met our needs; under today’s stresses, they’re hopelessly overmatched.

In fairness, many businesses have made attempts to modernize customer support—though even these have focused more on operating efficiency than quality of service. Automated virtual agents, for example, aim to give the impression that customers are talking to a live agent, but often aren’t able to fulfill this promise. Lacking human reasoning and decision-making capabilities, virtual agents must be trained explicitly for each question, and as soon as you go beyond that script—can I defer my mortgage payment? —the response creates confusion and frustration. Here’s an example of an actual recent interaction with the virtual agent of a major auto insurer.

Customer: “Are you pausing cancellations for non-payment?”

VA: “Did you mean will a violation affect my rate?”

Customer: “Are you pausing cancellations for non-payment?”

VA: “To learn more about adding a driver, login to your policy and select manage driver.”

Imagine how frustrating that is for a customer concerned about losing their coverage. And in fact, virtual agents are solving the wrong problem in the first place. They’re providing a new channel for customers to ask for the information they need, rather than giving them this information before they have to ask.

What Organizations Can Do Nowand Next

Organizations are understandably more focused on reaction than transformation right now. As they scramble to meet customer needs, they must rely on the resources they have at hand, such as email and web advisories providing information that can help avert some incoming calls. The key here is to be candid and proactive. Be open about what customers can expect rather than overpromising. Be clear and direct rather than trying to put a positive spin on things. Customers understand that we’re all dealing with the unexpected right now, and they’ll be patient with companies who are clearly making their best effort.

But moving forward, ensuring a more resilient response to customer needs will depend on real digital transformation. Modern technologies like contextual guidance can help companies provide the kind of automated self-service that actually meets customer needs. Proactively providing relevant advice as it’s needed can make many support requests unnecessary in the first place. This both eases the burden on the call center and makes it easier for people to get information, complete transactions, and manage their lives.

A system that struggles under ordinary circumstances can never hope to come through when the extraordinary is needed. Organizations need to take this lesson to heart and take steps to ensure that they’re always able to meet the needs of their customers effectively—no matter the circumstances. COVID-19 will pass, but the expectations of digital customers are here to stay.