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August 21st, 2020

Improving Customer Experience During COVID-19

As COVID-19 cases spread rapidly across the country and normal life came to a halt, many private-sector entities and government agencies at every level were caught off guard, unprepared for the onslaught of inbound calls from concerned customers. Hold times ballooned, along with customers’ frustration and anxiety. This poor experience feeds customers’ perceptions of government agencies, despite those organizations’ best efforts.

Beyond expanding physical capacity through the addition of phone lines and staff, there are other steps agencies can take that will not only reduce wait times, but also help optimize customer experience, operational efficiency, and strengthen fraud-mitigation efforts.

In the webcast Improving Customer Experience in the Wake of COVID-19, I spoke with the following three government customer experience experts about their insights on successfully serving government customers effectively during the beginning of the pandemic:

  • Barbara C. Morton, Deputy Veterans Experience Officer, Department of Veterans Affairs (VA)
  • MaryAnn Monroe, Director of Customer Experience, HighPoint Global
  • Rick Parrish, Vice President & Principal Analyst, Forrester

This post summarizes the highlights of our conversation. The 60-minute webinar goes into much greater detail. Watch now.

What trends have you seen in changing customer needs during this time of COVID?

Rick Parrish (01:10) Beyond the obvious increase in demand for digital services, the pandemic has changed everyone’s emotional needs. Heightened anxiety and stress levels makes it harder to focus. Clear communication, a key driver of customer experience quality, is all the more important. What qualified as clear communication in January might not qualify now.

Barbara C. Morton (03:35) As COVID-19 took hold, we reduced in-person visits in favor of telemedicine. Our customers like this option. That has prompted us to ask ourselves how we might adapt if this preference becomes entrenched. Meanwhile, for in-person visits, we’re asking ourselves how we can help our customers to feel comfortable, safe, and secure.

MaryAnn Monroe (05:24) In the third-party contact center space, we’ve been supporting employees to manage stress and anxiety while navigating the challenge of working from home. They are on the front lines of this pandemic, delivering essential information and services to anxious customers. It is critical that agents listen carefully to callers, slow down to understand needs clearly, and, most importantly, express empathy. Empathy builds trust. Making that connection in a time of great stress is key to building rapport and solving problems.

What are the main drivers of a good experience during this pandemic?

Rick Parrish (07:24) A key driver of customer experience is the speed of resolving customers’ problems. Customers’ perception of what’s quick and what’s slow have changed. They’re likely to have anxious thoughts faster, such as, “Is resolution of my matter really going to happen?”, “Is there a problem?”, and so on. Because of that anxiety, organizations have to operate faster than they once did in order for customers to perceive the operation as being fast.

Barbara C. Morton (11:54) During the pandemic, the most common emotions are fear, discomfort, and uncertainty. Our response as an organization is somewhat easier because we’re all going through this together. It’s not abstract to anybody at VA. That’s helping us to lead with empathy in working to diffuse our customers’ anxiety.

MaryAnn Monroe (12:55) I agree completely, and would add that a good experience is driven by accuracy, clear communications, quick problem solving, and personal connection. These highlight the importance and significance of contact centers and their role in communicating on the front line of current events.

What are the top challenges companies and agencies faced during the pandemic, and how did they overcome them?

MaryAnn Monroe (17:50) Most government-supported contact centers don't operate in a virtual environment, which is precisely what was necessary when agents transitioned abruptly to work from home. This was a huge challenge because it coincided with a surge in calls from anxious customers. Contact centers had to ensure security and protect privacy for all customers and meet agents' increased need for support and collaboration.

The remote work environment has shifted how management, coaching, and feedback occur. Tackling these with available tools that enable employees and supervisors to communicate more frequently, in shorter conversations—in chats or in video calls—should continue. Working remotely also opens the opportunity to think differently about how to hire, staff, and train contact center representatives in different time zones and larger geographic regions.

Rick Parrish (22:56) A majority of the time, when an organization says that there's a regulatory hurdle in the way of innovating, it's actually a cultural hurdle. The regulation isn't actually stopping them. A lot of organizations have taken a hard look, have overcome these cultural hurdles, and have started doing things differently. They should keep this new way of operating. It's working just fine.

Barbara C. Morton (26:29) In March, when the Veterans Health Administration was being flooded by phone calls, they came to us (in the Veterans Experience Office) for help. Because we've been on this journey to integrate backend data systems for a number of years, we were able to transition thousands of phone calls out of the hands of clinicians. This freed up time and capacity for them to answer clinical calls.

What data has been leveraged to inform your agency about customers’ experience and satisfaction?

Barbara C. Morton (30:00) Real-time customer experience feedback is an important dimension of honing customer experience. After dozens of recent customer interviews, we’ve determined that we should make our facility-cleaning processes more visible. Our customers would feel more at ease if they saw people actively cleaning spaces when they come in for appointments.

Rick Parrish (33:00) One of the easiest ways to improve customer experience is to pick the top handful of common customer questions or problems, perform a simple root cause analysis on each, and then solve those problems. Chances are good that several of those most-common issues can be solved pretty quickly. Contact centers are inherently a trove of that sort of insight. Get it. Use it. By the next week, a couple of big improvements in customer experience could be achieved.

MaryAnn Monroe (35:09) Contact centers know what people are not getting from the digital experience. This information must be shared regularly to web and communication programs to help them identify breakdowns in content and information, and to improve the complete experience.

What is different about the culture over these last few months in your organizations and in contact centers?

Barbara C. Morton (38:22) Operational metrics—average agent handle time, number of calls answered, resolution—are really important, but customer experience data adds a rich layer of insight on top. You can have great operational metrics, but if the customer feels like they’re just one more transaction to the agent, then there’s opportunity for improvement. Experience data is co-equal with operational data, and the contact center is the perfect Petri dish for experimenting with that dynamic.

MaryAnn Monroe (40:13) The contractors that support government centers have proven that a different staffing model can be successful. The commercial space has been working virtually, and supporting centers remotely, for a long time. By and large, that has not been the case across government. Current events are changing that. An opportunity has opened to look at new staffing models, and to improve efficiency and service delivery.

How can we leverage what we’ve learned during this pandemic to shape operations moving forward?

Rick Parrish (43:00) When things get back to a sense of normalcy, agencies shouldn’t discard their adaptations from this period that have improved customer experience, operational efficiency, and flexibility. Government organizations are making it work and are really starting to flourish. If anyone in the organization says, “It’s time to go back to the way things used to be,” I say to push back.

On the other hand, we need to guard against hero culture. Some employees are working unsustainably hard. They want to help because they feel that empathy and that focus on the mission. But that’s just not sustainable. We have to make sure that people can back out of crisis mode in the way that they’re working.

MaryAnn Monroe (46:18) Agencies need to think about how to incorporate remote and virtual staffing models into their contracts. There are so many benefits. Casting a wider net for remote workforces results in a higher-quality talent pool. Implementing more flexible working arrangements improves attrition, employee engagement, and the ability to staff positions, which will yield cost savings.

Barbara C. Morton (48:46) The longer this pandemic continues, the less reason there will be to go back to the way things used to be. We will have thought and executed the art of possible. In any sort of crisis comes great opportunity. That’s what we’re seeing today.

This post summarizes the highlights of our conversation. The 60-minute webinar goes into much greater detail. Watch now.

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