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Customer support in the age of COVID-19
 — May 19, 2020

Before the Coronavirus outbreak wreaked havoc across the world, mobile commerce and ecommerce were slowly changing the retail landscape. The change was gradual, after all the new-age consumer was armed with a smartphone and high-speed internet.

Then came COVID-19 and changed the rules of the game. Mass store closures, reduced footfall, and imminent recession became a harsh reality for retailers worldwide. And suddenly, words like e-commerce, digital transformation, headless commerce are no longer “jargons.”

Now, retailers are now pivoting their business strategies to establish an online presence, while maintaining and replicating the in-store experience online. So, the question remains, how will customer support evolve in the times of COVID-19?

However, before we learn more about what the new version of customer support looks like, let’s look at the past. After all, as the very wise George Santayana says, “To know your future, you must know your past.”

The evolution of customer support in retail

The dot com boom in the 1990s changed the world as we know it. We saw the rise of call centers, many of whom would later move to Asian markets to capitalize on the cheap labour costs. Customers would call these call centers to seek support, often complaining about inadequate levels of service.

It was during this time that the internet and email started flourishing. It wasn’t long before email became the preferred choice of communication for consumers looking for support, forcing the hand of many retailers. However, that didn’t necessarily mean that the phone channel or call centers were dead. People still sought help over calls but didn’t enjoy the long wait lines, inadequate responses or the fixed 9-5 contact hours. This customer support model worked for a while, even with all its flaws.

So what changed? The introduction of smartphones, social media, and messaging apps into the existing support matrix.

This was the straw that broke the camel’s back.

It didn’t take long for customer preference for touchpoints to evolve. We quickly moved from the email over phone model to chat over email, and email over phone model.

Today, your customer wants to interact with your business online.

Source: Statista and Facebook

The past has been a great indicator of the virtuous loop between technological innovation and changes in customer behaviour and communication; One spurs on the other, and here we go round and round on this merry-go-round. It cannot be said enough—social media and messaging will become the cornerstones of customer support strategies, causing a cataclysmic shift in retail.

What customer support will look like in 2020 and beyond

The current model of customer support blurs the lines between sales and support functions, leading to the creation of a single function—customer experience (CX). This model will continue to progress at a breakneck speed.

The fact that the end consumer doesn’t care about the silos in your business will continue to hold true. As such, the support you offer needs to become the heart of CX, rather than being placed on its periphery.

In this new customer support model, do not be surprised if traditional customer support software like helpdesks or ticketing tools don’t make the cut anymore. They were built for a different time. Customer-focused brands now need a new-generation tech. One that unifies their support and sales teams and digital and brick-and-mortar entities.

As retailers pivot to bring their business online, there is additional onus on scaling online support teams overnight with live chat or conversational AI solutions. With customers looking for assurances on past or new orders, one of our customers—DAVIDsTEA—reported a traffic surge of 285%.

As the ongoing COVID-19 accelerates digital transformation for businesses, here are 8 principles that will reinvent the customer support wheel:

1. 24-7 and on-demand

Even before people were confined to their homes, new-age customers weren’t just shopping online from 9 in the morning to 5 in the evening. As such, the support provided by your business needs to be instant and around-the-clock. 24-7 engagement is the one way you can ensure you don’t lose any potential customers due to a lack of support.

2. Asynchronous

Asynchronous channels will continue to dominate customer support. Instead of being stuck on hold for twenty-three minutes, customers will choose businesses who don’t disrupt their pace of play and lend a helping hand quickly when asked.

3. Consistency across platforms

Nobody likes to repeat themselves over and over, and least of all—a disgruntled customer. While CRM adoption has mitigated this problem to a certain extent, the question remains if your customer support teams have access to this data. Or if your sales team has access to your customer support data. Because, if these functions cannot tap into each other’s data pool, they will continue to operate in silos and elevated customer experience will remain a myth for your business.

4. Personalization

A study found that 83% of consumers are willing to share their data with a brand if it leads to a personalized experience, which goes to show that the one-size-fits-all model of customer support is no longer going to cut it.

“Personalization is nothing but translating information into assistance. Over the next few years, $800 billion in sales will shift to e-retailers that use site personalization, and away from those that don’t.”

– Kiran Mani, Managing Director of Retail, Google

A report by Segment also suggests that 44% of consumers are likely to become repeat buyers after a personalized shopping experience with a particular company. 

This equation pretty much sums it up:

A customer’s propensity to buy = your brand + level of personalization

The new support (or should we say sales) model will leverage consumer data, factoring in personalization as a key component of customer experience.

5. Mobile-first approach

A report by Statista predicts that the number of mobile users around the globe will grow to a whopping 7.6 billion by 2023. Combine that data with this fun fact: a person uses their phone for an average of 3 hours and 15 minutes every day. In fact, given the current scenario, few Twitter users report that their screen time has increased by 200%. The math is easy—more and more people are using their phones to connect with each other and businesses. In fact, people spent approximately 85 billion hours on WhatsApp in 3 months, going to show that messaging has well and truly arrived. Retailers need to start adapting to this mobile-first world, not just on the sales side, but also on the support side of things.

6. Self-service driven

A study reveals that 70% of consumers expect brands to include self-service options on their website. On the other hand, 55% of customers find web self-service portals difficult to use. So, where does that leave ecommerce merchants? The best bet for e-commerce businesses is to continue to provide self-service but in a more proactive way—wherein they enable customers to help themselves while keeping live agents in the loop in case of escalations.

7. Proactive

The support model today needs to be more proactive and anticipatory through the sales cycle. For example, nowadays, businesses like Amazon follow up post-delivery, asking consumers to rate their purchase experience. Proactive support during the sales cycle is also a sure shot way to generate brand loyalty and increase the lifetime value of your customers. Another example at this time is the Walmart. As online grocery sales spike, the retailer sent out an email to its customers which featured this how-to video on grocery shopping on its app.

8. Accessible

Instead of burying FAQs in the website footer, make sure that help is available and right there on your homepage to be accessed easily. That way, you minimize friction in the customer lifecycle to boost sales. As customer queries spike during this time, ecommerce merchants are heeding this advice. Brands are now adding the link to COVID-19 FAQs in the website navigation bar for prominence or including FAQ link as part of the conversational flow in the chatbot.

Scaling customer support with conversational AI technology

Whole supporting customers during this time is key, businesses must consider scalability and sustainability of their invested efforts. After all, the pandemic will eventually be over and you will still have a business to run. There is an opportunity for brands to be a helping reassuring hand and build brand affinity during the crisis, that will last in the longer run.

As such, checking all the above boxes would be a definite win for your brand and your customer. However, the fact of the matter remains that keeping up with these new support standards puts your human team under immense pressure.

On top of that, seasonal requests can flood internal teams and clog their already stretched bandwidths—think Black Friday Cyber Monday (BFCM) or Boxing Day, depending on your location. Or a black swan event like a pandemic!

“By 2022, 70% of all customer interactions will involve emerging tools like chatbots, machine learning and mobile messaging, up from 15% in 2018.”
(Source: Gartner)

Adopting conversational AI technology for your business is a great way to stem the “ticket” flow and automate mundane tasks like FAQs, while continuing to deliver an elevated customer experience around-the-clock, throughout the year.

For example, DAVIDsTEA, leverages conversational AI to elevate their support and manage requests. With the help of conversational AI, they were able to hit some really impressive numbers.

DAVIDsTEA is just one example of how forward-thinking retailers and ecommerce brands are leveraging conversational AI to modernize their customer support.

It would bear fruit to remember that exceptional customer support—powered by AI—is no longer a thing of the future. It is here today, and it is revolutionizing the way ecommerce businesses are engaging with their customers. If you’re considering updating your customer support model with conversational AI, here are 9 ways to ensure your chatbot strategy is a success.

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