Tips for Customer Service Communications During The Pandemic

man on headset on latoptop

It’s a story that’s all too familiar. Months ago, an employee at Connect360 Multimedia, a marketing agency in suburban New York City, paid $1300 to attend a trade conference. Owing to coronavirus, the mid-April conference was cancelled. The Connect360 employee wanted a refund, PRNEWS learned during a phone interview. Once the employee reached the conference’s organizer, she was told her $1300 would be returned, less a 15 percent cancellation fee. The conference organizer was charging attendees a fee for a conference that it cancelled.

The employee and her boss were aghast. ‘Is this ethical and standard practice?’ they asked.

A complication: the Connect360 employee had business with someone close to the event company. Understandably, she did not want to jeopardize that arrangement with a contentious argument.

More Options?

There was another choice: The conference company said Connect360 could receive a credit for a future event. That’s a decent proposal in normal times and seems to be the industry standard.

We’re not living at a normal moment, though. It’s far from certain when coronavirus will subside enough to allow Americans to resume business as usual. In addition, it is not certain which companies, particularly those based on events, will last.

In the end, Connect360 decided not to fight. It received its refund, less the cancellation fee of $250.

That's Not the Ticket

More examples of what not to do. Ticketmaster sparked national outrage April 13 when it quietly changed its COVID-19 ticket policy wording on its website. A page on the website formerly said refunds "are available if your event is postponed, rescheduled or canceled," according to the The New York Times. Now, the page has been edited to say refunds "are available if your event is canceled."

For a company that makes uploads of money on exorbitant fees, ticket buyers are not having it. They responded mercilessly on Twitter.

Now You Tell Me

Another story. A professional in the Washington, D.C., area spent nearly one hour last Friday on the site, ordering groceries. The woman, who spoke to PRNEWS on condition of anonymity, is not only homebound but unable to walk long distances owing to recent surgery.

Once she finished her order, the woman moved to the delivery area of the site. It was at that point she learned there were no delivery dates in her area, owing to coronavirus. She phoned Amazon customer service to seek assistance. There was a recording telling her Amazon is no longer taking customer service phone calls.

No Call

Amazon is not alone in making this choice. Similarly, Netflix is no longer answering customer calls. In addition, brands such as Roku and Hulu have cut back on customer service.

This, of course, runs counter to PR counsel. As Marisa Long, EVP, Inspire PR Group, says, “Customers need to feel like they have direct access to customer service and are getting timely responses.”

Says Christa Conte, SVP, head of digital commerce (N America), at Hotwire Global, “As we navigate this new world, real-time updates and better access to customer representatives and leadership are crucial."

Not-So-Stimulating Stimulus

Saving, arguably, the most frustrating for last, some consumers are apoplectic that they are unable to get refunds on unused airline tickets and travel packages. Meanwhile, the recently approved $2.2 trillion stimulus package dangles handsome amounts of money to airlines ($50 billion) and hotels (they can apply for loans totaling $500 billion).

It is unclear what reputation issues will follow companies in the wake of the virus. At the moment, a customer revolt against Amazon, Netflix or Hulu seems unthinkable, regardless of their new customer service policies.

Yet Dr. Jan Jones, professor of hospitality and tourism at University of New Haven’s business school, believes industries and companies that communicate their service changes clearly during the pandemic, using a variety of platforms, will “rise above the rest.”

She adds, “You want to be remembered for how you helped a customer, not for how frustrating it was to make changes or get help.”

Nobody, not even communications professionals, can control the future. Brands and communicators, however, can craft messages and refine and revise customer service communications and procedures to try to limit heavy reputation hits tomorrow.

What's Old is New Again

For more than six weeks, PRNEWS has reported about aspects of communications during this dark moment. The basics of PR prior to the virus remain best practices for customer service communications now, Long, Conte and Jones agree. In sum, "brands need to be responsive and straightforward while providing honest, two-way dialogue with customers through traditional customer service and social media channels,” Long says.

For example, customer service communications always should be transparent and authentic, the three say. In addition, especially at this moment, infuse communication with empathy and emotion. Moreover, your messaging must take emotion into account.

“Remember that most customers are [seeking customer service] not because they want to, but because they have no other choice. Many are dealing with a potentially emotionally charged situation,” Jones says. While your messaging can’t please everyone or fix every problem to 100 percent satisfaction, “your [communication] can always [show] empathy and understanding,” she adds.

“The best way for companies’ customer service departments to communicate during this time is to be transparent, accommodating and reassuring,” Long says. Communication should be succinct and to the point, she adds. Despite having ample time to read, people may have more trouble concentrating or finding quiet places.

Another PR hallmark, integration, remains critical. Make sure the messages you are sending match reality. A few weeks ago, a neighbor of this writer received a text promising a service team would arrive at her home to work in gloves and masks. The neighbor called the company to confirm its employees would be gloved and masked, she told PRNEWS. The team of three arrived the next day. Not one had a mask or was wearing gloves, according to the neighbor, who refused service.

Avoid Adding to the Noise

Avoid pushing out “a cookie-cutter message because everyone else is during a crisis,” Conte wrote on LinkedIn. “You must ensure you’re delivering an authentic and direct message” that includes changes about the business customers might need to know.

Adds Jones, “Make sure your content online is accurate and up to date so that when a customer reaches an agent, there are fewer questions and ambiguity. This reduces wait times and minimizes confrontations.”

On refunds, business leaders must recognize that this is a unique situation. A company’s policies might need changes in this situation. That’s how Long sees it. “The short-term pain of a refund may be financially significant, but the long-term reputation management gain is likely worth the effort and costs,” she says.

For Jones, again, it’s about transparency. “Be specific in your communications about what you are offering and keep your online sites up-to-date.” If offering a refund, state exactly what that means, she adds. “This is not the time to be vague.”

More Tips

  • Short, measured and frequent communication is more effective right now than lengthy, detailed letters, says Long.
  • Consider putting an FAQ in a prominent place on your site, Long says, and be sure to update it regularly. If this crisis has one characteristic, it is that things change quickly.
  • Be genuine. Now, Jones says, is the time to set high standards for your staff in how they respond to customer needs. Being genuine and caring is extremely important right now.
  • Be positive. This is easier said than done. Treat each customer as if it is your first customer, Jones counsels.
  • Don’t be afraid to show empathy and concern in your communications, Conte says. “With a thoughtful plan you are not only keeping stakeholders informed, but also helping to squash misinformation and mitigate additional business risk, all while demonstrating your values.”

Seth Arenstein is editor of PRNEWS. Follow him: @skarenstein