Debbie Glenister
An article by Debbie Glenister, Customer Experience Specialist.

Whilst society as a whole has shown care for those at risk or need, illustrated by the large number of people signing up for voluntary work and the weekly ‘clap for carers’, has the business community done the same? Will companies who have given customer service priority to the elderly, vulnerable and essential workers continue after the crisis has passed and at what cost? Have lessons been learned already and will these provisions be written into future crisis management and business planning?

In this article, I offer my thoughts on the subject of Corporate Social Responsibility in times of crisis – highlighting both the opportunities and pitfalls organisations could face in the future.

Will opportunity and reputational pressure drive change?

There is a considerable opportunity for brands who recognise this pandemic as an opening to improve how they deal with the most deserving groups of customers. This includes not only the vulnerable and elderly, but the essential workers and front line carers who are trying to cope with limited time, heightened stress levels and the need to fulfill their roles.

Building effective ways to prioritise these customers and deliver a great experience, under pressure, will ultimately result in more effective businesses in the long term, not just when the chips are down.

On the other side of this argument, brands who do not perform their duties and illustrate a level of corporate social responsibility may suffer irreparable damage to their brand reputation. Virgin Group, Wetherspoons and Sports Direct, for example, will need to work hard to overcome the damage caused by the well-publicised and unpopular decisions made early on in the lockdown period.

Lesson learned from the pandemic

The massive change in the demand for customer service support, during this period, has put many organisations under extraordinary strain in unexpected areas. Some contact centres have witnessed unprecedented volumes at precisely the same time they have been forced to implement mass moves from office to homeworking. Call queues have been longer, with customers sometimes waiting hours and the prioritisation of customers becoming a real challenge.

Some major brands have made great strides. The largest supermarkets have been given access to the Government’s list of 1.5 million vulnerable people to help them prioritise deliveries to those most in need. This initiative has only been allowed by measures in the Data Protection Act, which enable public authorities to share relevant information to provide essential services. Coupled with their own data, this has enabled them to deliver priority services to those who need them most. However, the data is sensitive and the Information Commissioner has instructed supermarkets to delete it when this crisis is over.

Some brands already have a great reputation for the way they deal with elderly and vulnerable employees. B&Q is a good example of this. Do they have the ideal opportunity to build that reputation with vulnerable customers too? How do organisations engage and prepare now for future crises, how will they grasp that opportunity now, whilst still a hot topic and then critically maintain that commitment until the next crisis?

Improving customer care for the elderly, vulnerable and essential workers

The companies that deal successfully with all their customers will do so by overcoming significant challenges. This includes how the most deserving groups are looked after. There will be a time when we reflect on how businesses dealt with Coronavirus, which will include their treatment of specific customer sets.

Now is the perfect time to plan, develop and build new systems and processes for the future. The huge changes which have been and still are necessary to simply stay in business, during this extraordinary time, maybe the basis for improved business practice as the crisis abates. Incorporating additional care for the most vulnerable customers now should, in theory, set brands up to deliver excellent service to those people when the pandemic is over.

This is the perfect opportunity for businesses to identify, if unaware, customers who are vulnerable or classed as essential workers and develop the most effective ways to service those groups. It is important to build trust so data collection must be seen to be done for the benefit of the consumer and rather than to exploit their position.

Increasing loyalty through problem-solving

Many larger brands already have sophisticated loyalty schemes, used to reward customers and to gather data on buying habits. Why not extend these schemes to vulnerable members of registered customers’ families? This is an ideal opportunity to broaden the reach of your brand and to give a positive experience to your loyalty scheme members and their extended families. Enhanced loyalty schemes for families of the elderly and vulnerable, or key workers, could undoubtedly deliver enormous long term benefits for customers and of course for the brands who do it right.

At the contact centre, simple Business Continuity processes could reap immediate rewards, for example the creation of a special number only for vulnerable and elderly customers to call and who are then routed to a team trained to deal empathetically with their demographic. FAQs can be built up quickly in times of crisis, improving the results of calls in the minimum time by concentrating the effort in a focused team. It may be possible to offer customers an ‘honesty button’, allowing them to press a phone option to be put straight through to the team dealing with vulnerable customers. Agents could qualify by asking for the government-issued reference number, then CLI can be used to route future calls from the same number for optimal results. In this way, a brand can build up their understanding of this important customer group, in the minimum time, whilst delivering a trustworthy service and great experience, tailored to their most at-risk customers.

Make the vulnerable part of your business planning

It is not just good Corporate Social Responsibility to look after the elderly, vulnerable and essential workers. Brands who take the chance now to build systems, which help those in need at times of crisis, will emerge with improved loyalty and insight from these customers and a higher brand perception from the wider populous.

In a previous article we published in September 2018, we pointed out, using DMA statistics, that only 4% of agents felt they knew when they were speaking with a vulnerable customer. Now is the chance for businesses to make big improvements on that disappointing statistic and to enhance the customer experience of those groups receive. A group that will become increasingly important, from a financial perspective, as the average age of the population increases.

What happens next?

Once this difficult time subsides, most businesses will need to look into cost-cutting measures to survive. However, good customer service must be maintained or customers will be lost. Organisations who are able to deliver prioritised services to their elderly, vulnerable and essential worker customers, without overtly affecting their overall service delivery, should reap the rewards of increased loyalty, brand reputation and better customer handling processes and customer insight.

The pandemic offers a wonderful opportunity for businesses to shine, embracing their Corporate Social Responsibility and delivering the highest levels of customer experience to those who need it most. The cost of a damaged brand, including the impact on sales, employees and customer retention, will more than outweigh any increases to the cost of service delivery.