There’s nothing like a global crisis to challenge your assumptions about what you think is realistic for companies to get done in a set period of time.
Within two weeks after the COVID-19 crisis hit in March, we took our entire customer support operation—more than 950 employees in nine different support centers around the world—remote. We’ve learned a lot in the process, and so have all of our customers and partners, who are navigating different challenges.
To share that learning, we’ve been holding a series of virtual roundtable discussions with customer service leaders in several industries, including telecom, banking, and retail.
One common thread: Nobody saw this coming. While everyone had continuity and disaster-recovery plans and policies in place for high-impact, short-duration events like hurricanes and terror attacks, no one had a strategic plan for a prolonged global pandemic with so many uncertainties.
Everybody has had to learn, and innovate, on the fly. The COVID-19 pandemic has inspired companies to rethink not only how to support customers, but how to support the teams who support those customers. From this pandemic, new approaches are emerging that I expect will change customer service operations for years to come.
Making support work from home
When ServiceNow’s support teams set up their workspaces at home, many found they didn’t have the support they needed. A kitchen chair was fine for a meal, but not for eight hours of ergonomic support. We authorized a $300 stipend for every ServiceNow employee who needed to buy a comfortable chair and other critical supplies.
For many, that meant monitor stands. Most support workers and engineers need dual monitors to be fully productive. But if I’m in Hyderabad, India, it’s not easy to wrangle two bulky monitors on a packed public bus. We quickly added money so our Indian employees could hire taxis to get equipment home safely.
Many companies have had a hard time sourcing monitor stands. Even if you can find one online, shipping could be spotty. Our resourceful teams have used cinder blocks, two-by-fours, and even yoga bricks to prop up their monitors.
[Read also: Employees are customers, too]
As minor as the monitor-stand problem may seem, it points to a major issue that companies are facing: supply chain breakdowns caused by curtailed air travel, shortage of goods, and worker illness. Many companies have had to find alternate routes and vendors to move equipment to workers across the globe. Many of us have had to throw out the old playbooks and improvise.
Remote work actually… works
A common refrain we’re hearing, and one that we’re observing ourselves, is that, despite working remotely, employee engagement is soaring. As an executive at an HR software company put it, “This is bringing the best out in people.”
From these roundtables, we’ve also learned that productivity has gone up (as have other key support metrics, including customer satisfaction scores).
In part, that may be due to the greater flexibility that comes with working at home.
A customer support executive at an IT services company tells us, “People that are used to working the 9-to-5 have been working much different hours, catching up at night or early in the morning because they have children who they’re homeschooling. Tasks are getting completed way outside of typical call center hours.”
Even onboarding and training new customer support staff are occurring remotely. Our teams have purposely taken senior engineers and set them up on an all-day video chat session so that new hires can jump in and ask them questions, a lifeline that has proven very beneficial.
A customer support leader at a global software company tells us that going remote has forced his organization to rethink their entire onboarding process.
“We’ve had to bring on hundreds of people overnight,” he explains. “It used to be a four- to nine-week process, but now we have specialists online guiding them so they can begin working with customers within hours of being on the job. It will take longer before they’re 100% effective, but at least they’re adding value to operations in the short term, which is critical at this moment.”
An executive at a financial services company that’s also experimenting with virtual training echoes this. “It’s actually forcing us to do things differently,” she notes. “We know it’s not going to be perfect, but some of the things that you put into practice now might be long-term improvements for the future.”
Remote interactions might even become the norm for important customer meetings, according to a top executive at a construction materials company. “We’ve always felt that getting in front of a customer and pressing the flesh is critical,” he told the group. “But moving forward we’ll probably ask if we can do more over video with customers, which was unthinkable before.”
Hitting the gas on digital transformation
Necessity is the mother of invention. Nowadays governments around the world are providing urgent credit relief to citizens and businesses. This support tends to be funneled through banks, which are experiencing a surge in customer calls as a result.
One bank used robotics and AI capabilities to deploy a front-of-line chatbot. “The interaction feels like a Siri or an Alexa,” says a customer support leader at the bank. “It’s crisp, it’s simple, and it feeds straight into our automated system or a case management ticket for manual processing.”
At ServiceNow, we’ve had to accelerate our operations to deal with this pandemic. Bureaucracy goes out the window when you’re helping your team navigate massive disruption. With everybody working from home, decisions that normally take weeks can be handled in a video call and communicated through the company very quickly.
When the COVID-19 pandemic passes, let’s all try to untangle ourselves from bureaucracy. The crisis has demonstrated that we can be nimble and make decisions quickly. Our hard-working teams deserve no less, as do the customers they support.