No more excuses for poor customer service

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The winners will be those who looked ahead, adjusted as quickly as possible to the pandemic and continued to deliver consistently good customer service, writes Andy Cullwick of First4Lawyers

We’re just a few weeks away from the 18-month anniversary of the start of the Covid-19 pandemic. Already it seems a lifetime ago, so much has changed, and while many of our normal freedoms have now been restored, life still isn’t quite how we used to know it.

Much has been written and discussed about how the majority of the country switched overnight from office to home working and how, for the most part, it was an incredibly successful exercise. But what of the reverse now that the time has come for most of us to return to the workplace in some shape or form?

At first, as we all adjusted to our new normal, we learnt to accept that disruptions to our daily lives were inevitable and a small price to pay for the safety it was offering millions: from Royal Mail delays to lengthy hold times on customer service phone lines, or indeed non-existent customer service availability via phone or email. We accepted there was a transition period, companies had to manage staff illness and isolation, and we took it as part and parcel of a huge adjustment to a new, temporary way of life.

But just how temporary is ‘temporary’? While we may not be out of the woods yet with this pandemic, we have come a long way since March/April 2020. Normal life has, for the most part, resumed and so for how much longer can poor customer service be written off to ‘the pandemic’?

Many companies are still saying that service is affected due to the pandemic, but how much longer is this feasible for, and how much goodwill do customers have towards organisations that on the face of it, aren’t moving on?

A quick look at the websites of the top 10 law firms in the UK showed that only half of them had any clear reference whatsoever to the pandemic. Of those five, the references were all aimed at clients, so guides on returning employees safely to the workplace, supply chains, etc. Just one still had a reference on what to expect from them due to the pandemic, and even that was more to do with face-to-face meeting protocols than interrupted service.

The picture was largely the same across insurers with notably just two of the ones we looked at advising that contacting them and claims may take longer due to the pandemic. This is a picture we see replicated a lot across service providers.

Recently, I had the pleasure of spending 45 minutes on the phone trying to get through to British Gas to cancel a contract because I wasn’t allowed to do it online. The repeated message while on hold was that they were really sorry about the delay but due to the pandemic it was taking longer to deal with enquiries. Colleagues have bemoaned similar from BT when calling with broadband issues. The question is, why? Why haven’t large companies, in particular, done more to adapt and staff appropriately or invest in the right technologies that allow them to flex their service to take into account peaks and troughs in demand? 

In 2016, our annual whitepaper, ‘For whom the bell tolls—the customer service imperative’, looked at how law firms must not take customers for granted, and those that failed to recognise they must move their customer service offerings with the times would find their business struggling as competition increases and customers become savvier.

So much from then is still applicable now. Brexit, the pandemic and the six-day grounding of the Ever Given in the Suez Canal have all played their part in various supply chain delays and certainly, in early summer, many businesses felt the brunt of the ‘pingdemic’ as many lost staff temporarily to isolation rules.

However, businesses must remain mindful that those who continue to rely on the goodwill of customers accepting poor customer service as our lives slowly but surely adapt to more normality will find themselves vulnerable. The winners, as ever, will be those who looked ahead, adjusted as quickly as possible and continued to deliver consistently good service. Covid-19 cannot simply become a by-word for poor performance.

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