As nationwide lockdowns continue, how has COVID-19 impacted customer service in the UK – and what lessons do companies need to learn going forward? Based on a survey of 10,000 consumers, the Institute of Customer Service (ICS)’s latest UK Customer Satisfaction Index (UKCSI) provides key insights for customer service teams and signposts important trends for the future.

Running since 2008, the ICS’s twice-yearly index report aims to provide a barometer of customer satisfaction in the UK, highlighting those companies and sectors that are best meeting consumer needs.

The latest report, released in January, includes four important headline findings:

1. Customer satisfaction is at its lowest level since 2015

The January 2021 UKCSI score is 76.8 (out of 100), 0.1 points lower than in January 2020, and the lowest level since July 2015.  Other than a minor rise in July 2020, the level has hardly changed over the course of the year. A worrying 73 out of 271 companies analysed in the report dropped 2 points or more year-on-year and only 44 saw their satisfaction index score increase by 2 points or more.

However, given the pressures of the pandemic on contact centre and customer service teams (and the changing needs of consumers) the fact that the satisfaction level has remained fairly static over the year is actually a positive finding. There’s clearly no excuse for poor service, but the impact of COVID-19 has been wide-reaching on all sectors and how their customer service teams operate.

The industry has faced huge disruptions, including having to move customer service and contact centre staff to homeworking, coping with a higher volume of interactions and queries and staff shortages as employees have been forced to self-isolate. All of these have meant it has been an extremely challenging time.

2. The big switch to digital customer service

30% of consumers in the survey said they had bought more online during the pandemic, with much greater use of digital channels for customer interactions. Email interactions grew from 6.5% of the total in 2019 to 10.1% in 2020, while web chat increased from 1.5% to 2.2%.  Overall, the data suggests that customers’ satisfaction levels on most channels remained around the same compared with a year ago. Only email, app and web chat interactions recorded average customer satisfaction levels at a lower level year-on-year, possibly due to companies struggling to cope with the major increases in queries on those channels.

3. Customer behaviour is changing – and continuing to evolve

Around 20% of consumers in the sample revealed they had lowered their spending either to save money or because they have lower incomes. 30% said they thought more carefully about the purchases they make, with 85% agreeing that this cautiousness would continue into 2021.

The pandemic has had a big impact on wellbeing and health. One out of five customers say their financial or physical well-being has got worse and 18.8% say their mental well-being has deteriorated. Companies, therefore, need to deliver high levels of service and reassurance to stand out. This has to be based on a deep understanding of changing customer needs as the impact of the pandemic continues to unfold.

4. Companies need to tackle five key issues

The report asked customers in the sample to identify the key issues that the organisations they interacted with should improve. The top five on the list were:

  • Make it easier to contact the right person to help me
  • Better website navigation
  • More friendly/helpful staff
  • More knowledgeable staff
  • Quality of product/service

What’s interesting is that these are ongoing needs – they’ve not been triggered by the pandemic. Meeting them requires the right combination of well-trained, empathetic agents, strong technology and of course, well-designed, high-quality products and services.

Best practice takeaways from the UKCSI

Based on its analysis, the ICS outlines 9 areas of best practice for customer service to focus on going forward:

1.Make it easy for customers to contact your organisation and access help

Provide the widest practical range of channels for customers to use, and consider the needs of customers who are less digitally-savvy, so continue to offer the channels (such as the telephone) that they are comfortable with.

2.Communicate and engage proactively with your customers

Set clear expectations about when and how you will keep customers informed about the progress of an issue – and always keep your promises if you commit to contact a customer within a particular timeframe.

3.Be responsive to customers’ personal context

Be sensitive, respectful and reassuring – it is a tough time for many, so acknowledge the feelings and emotions expressed by customers and demonstrate that you have heard and that you care.

4.Prioritise and plan for the needs of vulnerable customer

Publish transparent policies and guidance about the help available to vulnerable customers. And ensure processes, training and development are in place so that their needs are met consistently across your organisation.

5.Maintain a focus on delivery and logistics

Continually monitor the reliability of your deliveries to customers, identify problems and take rapid remedial action. At the same time, you must review the resilience of your supply and delivery chain and identify contingency options.

6. Take care of employees’ well-being

Maintain a dialogue with employees about issues that affect the customer experience or collaboration with colleagues. Where possible give employees a say on practical issues that affect them such as changes to shift patterns, allocation of tasks, or the best way of receiving communications.

7.Develop a culture of agility and innovation

You can support this by recruiting for an appropriate mix of attitude, intellectual curiosity, experience and technical expertise. And encourage employees to submit ideas to improve your service, generate savings or new opportunities.

8. Assess your customers’ changing priorities and needs

Use a range of insight methods (such as Voice of the Customer programmes) to understand your customers’ immediate and evolving needs and behaviours and how they influence their relationship with your organisation.

9.Focus on short and long term risk and performance

Assess the investment in resources and capabilities that your organisation will need to influence performance over the longer term. And continually review the risks to your customer experience, operations and reputation.

The customer service industry has faced huge challenges during 2020 and thankfully it appears as if the majority of organisations have coped, even if it was a struggle to some. However, customer expectations continue to grow, meaning companies need to focus on best practice. This includes harnessing technology in order to be smart and agile while showing empathy and respect when interacting with customers. Only then will satisfaction levels rise over 2021 and beyond.

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