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Rethinking Retail Customer Service for COVID-19 and its Aftermath

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America’s retailers are racing to overhaul customer-service operations. And for good reason. Digital retail is seeing massive growth. In March 2020, retail transaction size was 74% higher than the prior year, according to ACI Worldwide.

That said, if you listen to Adobe Analytics, companies need to pay extra special attention to their digital and ecommerce experiences right now. Consumers are less forgiving during a time like this. Retailers that anticipate and exceed their needs will build loyalty and lifetime value. The penalty for failure is massive. According to NewVoiceMedia, an estimated $62 billion is lost by U.S. businesses each year following negative customer experiences.

Amid the lockdowns, layoffs and delayed reopenings, retailers are forced to figure out what could actually work — aside from pontifications about the need for business resiliency. (Many will need resurrection first, if they survive the pandemic’s first wave.)

Many customers who call the hotlines of airlines, retailers and financial services firms, among others, encounter hours-long wait times, hearing recorded messages saying help is currently unavailable. Some companies ask customers to manage their issues online or suggest that they hold off on seeking assistance altogether.

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Over the past three decades, companies’ customer help centers shifted overseas. Now, they are concentrated in regions of the world hard hit by the coronavirus, be they offshore or nearshore. Meantime, customer service setups in the U.S., often densely packed with employees, are either shutting down or downsizing amid ongoing containment efforts.

Amid all that, consultants suggest the pandemic “will reveal not just vulnerabilities but opportunities to improve the performance of businesses,” as the authors of a McKinsey report write. The result: a stronger sense of what makes business more resilient to shocks, more productive and better able to deliver to customers.

As a retailer: Are you tough enough to endure? Smart enough to change?

Consider a New Hybrid Customer Service Model

Perhaps now is the time to rethink customer service, realizing any service operation solely locked into brick-and-mortar risks being locked down again, today or tomorrow. And that costs — plenty — in lost people, productivity and performance.

Going forward, retailers could merge their call center operations with remote customer care. Such in-parallel performance creates hybrid service that combines centralized and distributed workforces. This blend offers an option to keep running things somewhat normally, given the times — along with continuity for unforeseen disruptions or anticipated trouble, such as hurricanes.

Alleviating Hurricane Exposure

There are versions of a distributed-mortar model in use, where a company has a mix of onshore, nearshore and offshore customer service. Often, agents are housed in physical facilities, however, which are hard to defend against COVID-19. Social distancing doesn’t work well in close quarters.

Hurricanes also can expose spread-out, brick-and-mortar call centers. This occurred when Hurricane Matthew disrupted one retailer’s customer service, forcing its centers in Bermuda and central Florida to evacuate within days of each other as the storm moved north.

With a blended mortar-and-remote operation, resources can be rebalanced. If circumstances overwhelm a call center, work can be moved out of harm’s way to remote agents elsewhere. 

Remote Offers a Way

Becoming even more versatile would involve converting call centers into on-demand, virtual operations — all manned with work-from-home agents. With COVID-19, more companies are exploring this most fluid of options.

So what does it take to develop and run on-demand customer-service? At its core, two things are vital: flexibility and scalability. They enable a fast-flex workforce to shift resources, say from disease hotspots to less-infected areas.

For virtual to be viable, it must be underpinned by:

  1. A flexible network that spans the distance, safeguards operations and protects customers.
  2. Well distributed, skilled agents led by experts who know how to engage remote workers.
  3. Always-on communications to connect and operate in real time as circumstances dictate.

Renewed Interest

None of this is new. On-demand remote customer service, in fact, is decades old. It’s proven for businesses large and small.

Current events and anticipated aftershocks, however, are generating renewed interest for remote operations by companies caught off guard by the coronavirus. And sadly, it isn’t going away anytime soon, regardless of scaled-back business reopenings, political pronouncements and wishful thinking.

Face it, wholesale abandonment of brick-and-mortar call centers isn’t really practical. Instead, what’s sensible is developing parallel, remote capabilities — integrated, distributed and secure — to ensure nonstop customer service. And it should be the next step any retailer takes with plans to survive and succeed.


Kim Houlne turned an idea into an industry. As Working Solutions’ founder and Chief Executive, she pioneered virtual contact center outsourcing across the country. Her company launched its home-based agent model in 1996. Houlne held senior management positions in consulting, financial and insurance industries at Mercer, Travelex, Mutual of Omaha and Blue Cross of Washington and Alaska.

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