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Inside the Covid-19 Customer Service Crisis | Intelligence, BoF Professional

NEW YORK, United States – Christmas came early this year for many fashion brands – and not in a good way.

In March, as the coronavirus spread across the US and Europe, brands were suddenly flooded with e-commerce orders as millions turned to online shopping during lockdowns. It was the kind of rush typically seen during the run-up to the winter break. Only this time, companies hadn’t had months to prepare.

“Suddenly, on a random Tuesday in March, the holiday came early,” said Heather Howard, senior vice president of people and operations at Rothy’s shoe company. “The entire supply chain system in the US was caught off guard.”

What happened next can only be described as a total customer service meltdown that overwhelmed both big and small brands.

E-commerce orders went missing or shipped weeks after the promised delivery date. Many consumers felt extra frustrated when faced with long waiting times to speak to representatives by phone or online chat. Tensions escalated again as return and restitution remained in limbo.

Corporate social media accounts still look like a battlefield months after the crisis. A few recent examples from Twitter:

Nike and Uniqlo did not respond to requests for comment. Everlane said delays were caused by supply chain disruptions during the pandemic, as well as an unprecedented number of orders and returns.

Responding to the crisis

Some customer service issues were inevitable once blockades started. Shops closed with little warning, as did some warehouses and factories. Consumer spending changed in unpredictable ways; For example, Rothy’s received a flood of orders with a special discount for first responders. Normally, reliable supply networks were snapped with orders for toilet paper, toys and other quarantine needs. FedEx even limited the number of items retailers were allowed to ship in May.

“The system was a total shock,” said Donny Salazar of MasonHub, an LA-based logistics company. No one is willing to deal with the explosion of volume. It erodes service. ‘

No one is willing to deal with the explosion of volume. It causes an erosion of service.

Many brands made the problem worse by scrapping their customer service teams as the crisis grew. In June, homegoods giant Bed Bath & Beyond fired more than 200 customer service agents at its Florida call center. In April, Everlane terminated most members of the customer experience team. (The group was involved with unions. Everlane Chief Executive Michael Preysman said the layoffs were caused by Covid-19 pressure, not the union.)

The cuts were often part of wider efforts to cut spending as sales plummeted during the pandemic. But this is an area where the long-term damage to a brand’s reputation outweighs the savings, said Jon Picoult, founder of Watermark Consulting.

“You will save money on staff, but the impact will be clear over time,” he said. “Some companies will try to shrink and bet that customers will be willing to tolerate the pain, but they will only be tolerant for one point.”

Investing in customer service

Some fashion brands have added temporary customer service representatives. Others assign the job to save employees while their locations are closed, or have employees who answer emails and complaints on social media among other tasks.

Chinatown Market, the Los Angeles-based streetwear company, recently hired six employees who quit working in the company’s warehouse and moderate social media. The brand saw e-commerce revenues triple between February and May, peaking from Instagram TV content, as well as partnerships with Lebron James and Mike Tyson.

“For brands with a social following, it is a gift and a curse … fans go straight to the comments section and tell their problems,” said Dan Altmann, president of Chinatown Market. “While we are scaling, we try to make sure that the comments aren’t constantly flooded with complaints.”

Fans go straight to the comments section and report their issues.

Before the pandemic, hair care company Madison Reed had 35 customer service representatives, who handled an average of 700 customer queries per day. That figure rose to over 4,500 in March. The company quickly moved employees from the closed “Color Bar” salons to the service team, turning a week’s training into one weekend.

Customer service can be outsourced, allowing brands to scale up when demand is high. But many companies prefer to run their own teams to ensure that customers speak to employees who know the brand inside out.

Shoe company Aerosoles has recently moved its customer team in-house. Chief Executive Alison Bergen said the decision came down to quality over quantity.

It may now take two days instead of two hours, but we’ll take care of you.

“With [third-party staffing] you could be committed to responding within two hours, ”she said. “But we felt it was more on-brand to communicate with customers that we are a hands-on organization … It might take us two days instead of two hours, but we’ll take care of you.”

Brands today, said Altmann of Chinatown Market, should see marketing, customer service and social media as one job.

“Your failures and mistakes are visible to everyone, so it’s all about dealing with the customer,” he said.

Transparent communication

Hiring the right people is only the first step. Putting the right tone on customers is more difficult. Many experts recommend full transparency, especially during a crisis in which most consumers will understand why they are delayed.

“Consumers are more tolerant now because these are mitigating circumstances, but where things go wrong when communications fail,” said Natalie Berg, retail analyst and founder of NBK Retail.

Rothy’s started placing a banner at the top of their website about a month ago informing customers of shipping delays. Chinatown Market has posted daily shipping updates on Instagram in addition to sending emails and responding to instant messages.

Where it goes wrong is when communications fail.

“We think it’s better to communicate too much,” Altmann said.

If customers want to speak to someone, they need to know how long to wait.

“It’s behavioral psychology: a known wait feels shorter than an unknown,” Picoult said, adding that technology that allows representatives to call back customers should be standard at this point.

Berg also recommends brands be realistic about their supply chain, even if it means making tough decisions, such as not taking more orders. Companies like TJ Maxx and Victoria’s Secret both paused online in March, during the peak of the pandemic due to logistics issues.

“You can’t fulfill an order and then let a customer hang around,” said Berg. “That can cause permanent damage.”

Invest in technology

The peak in e-commerce is unlikely to disappear anytime soon. That should motivate brands to invest in technology that automates certain interactions with customers.

“Brands need to prepare for the long term,” said Berg.

Brands need to prepare for the long term.

Frequently asked questions pages need to be updated regularly. Salazar said that ticket management systems are the main reasons customers contact and tag contact, helping companies identify their pain points. Rothy’s recently appointed a member of its customer service team to track the frequency and nature of contacts, as well as what types of customers need help, said Nichole Cadwallader, Rothy’s customer experience director.

Returns are a major cause of customer service issues, so making return labels easily available online can reduce the need for live interaction.

“You could cut labor in half by automating that,” Salazar said.

In recent weeks, Lululemon has been hit by a wave of customer complaints about delayed shipping and returns. “I am still waiting for my money for returns that were returned and received weeks ago at the Sumner warehouse … I am really hostage to this service and money,” a customer recently said on Facebook.

The fitness apparel giant increased the capacity to handle customer inquiries and added a digital help component, where guests can create virtual appointments and sizing and style questions.

Picoult said that brands should provide as much detail about the product as possible so that customers don’t have to call in the first place.

“The holy grail of a better customer experience … is making sure they don’t make that call in the first place,” he said.

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