The 2021 Customer Care Perfect Storm

Let’s face it, after over a year of Covid news and lifestyles interrupted, we’re all anxious to get back to some sense of normal – whatever that may be going forward. We’ve weathered a massive storm, and frankly we need some sunshine and good news to raise our spirits. Those brighter days are certainly on the horizon, as many countries open up, there’s another storm brewing that may well be off our radar.  We have the makings for one heck of a mismatch when it comes to customer expectations, and our ability to deliver on them, in our emerging post-Covid reality.

But before we dig into this topic, I want to share a recent customer experience story, which frames up this content nicely. We found ourselves at a McDonald’s Drive Thru a couple nights back, seeking refuge from the heat in our air conditioned car, wanting to order ice cream cones. As many of you may well be aware, much of the Pacific North West, including British Columbia where I live, has been blanketed in what weather forecasters call a “heat dome.” Essentially, we’ve broken all heat records ever held across Canada, with temperatures topping out at 43C in Vancouver, and as high as 50C in the interior. To put that in perspective for my American friends, that’s 109F ranging up to 122F. Any way you slice it, it’s been darn hot for a location where less than 20% of homes even have air conditioning. As one friend put it, “Arizona please come get your weather. It’s drunk and in my backyard!” So it came as no surprise that many folks were in their AC equipped vehicles that evening, retrieving take out so they didn’t have to heat up their homes cooking, or simply enjoying a cool drive.

The line of drive thru cars, backed up with little movement, and was snaking out to the road. When our 30 minute wait finally scored us order window status, we were greeted with the message that they were taking cash only, since the credit card system had already been cashed out for the evening. A quick glance at the sign confirmed it was a 24/7 location, at which point I blurted out from the passenger’s seat, “Cash only? That’s so 2020.” With no cash in my purse, and no easy escape from the line up, it was another 10 minutes before we could depart.

Perhaps you could get away with taking cash only prior to 2019. But consumer habits have changed during the pandemic. I don’t know about you, but I haven’t had $20 bills in my wallet since March 2020. The decision to stop accepting credit and debit cards that evening was bizarre by any management standards, and it could also be argued that it was possible to anticipate a surge in take out and drive thru traffic, as people tried to escape the heat. Any way you slice it, it was a mismatch of customer expectations and customer care delivery.

I recently attended an excellent online webinar hosted by Mark Schaefer. As many of you already know, I am a huge fan of Mark’s work, especially around customer service as marketing. His book Marketing Rebellion, written before the pandemic, is crisp with insight easily re-framed for this new challenge we are facing. Many of the things he noted in the webinar really resonated with some of my own observations on the way customer needs have changed, and the odd mismatch in servicing those needs that is about to implode. McDonald’s and the cash only story, is just the tip of the iceberg. With credit to Mark for a number of these observations, let’s dive in…

Customer Care needs are changing

Customer needs and buying patterns have changed. Let’s take a look at the storm which is brewing…

  • Online transactions went up during the pandemic
  • Companies expect the changes to stick
  • There is a high likelihood of sustaining this new go-to market model for 12+ months
  • To make the transition, companies invested in technology quickly. But it is now the bodies to make it work that are the pinch point
  • This has put a new stress on customer service – important when those customers end up doing your marketing for you.



Labor shortages

While the need to ramp up online customer care is acute, labor shortages are intensifying the problem. These shortages are being caused by a number of issues:

  • Rise in demand for customer care positions
  • Competition from higher paying jobs
  • Mismatch of skill sets (2020 required a huge reset of talent, and we haven’t caught up)
  • Reluctance of some workers to re-enter the workforce (pandemic fear, ability to still collect benefits)
  • It takes time to transition to new jobs

If all that weren’t acute enough, there is yet another moving piece to the puzzle. Covid has given people time to decide where they want to re-enter the workforce. Will it be remote and online? Hybrid? Face to face? Urban? Rural? Abroad?

Supply chain & demand challenges

And yet another moving piece: Supply chain issues. The pandemic caused labour shortages in production which we are still catching up on. There were huge issues with ports in China, one of the major suppliers of global goods. And there was that ship blocking the movement of global goods in the Suez Canal. Geopolitical issues, weather events – they’ve all added to delays in various parts of the world. And really, could anyone have also predicted a surge in demand for many goods during the pandemic? Toilet paper and hand sanitizer aside some of the stuff which has surged just wasn’t on our radar. Could we have predicted a hot housing market and the cost of lumber tripling a year ago? Want to buy a stand up paddle board this summer? Put your name on a list behind the 50 others already on it. Delivery might happen by mid August. There was no pandemic play book. We’re still trying to figure out what is next.

Basically at issue is this: Online transactions have gone up and will stay up, but customer experience online needs people and care, and we have a labour shortage to staff this. Plus we’re still catching up on how to train people for the new reality demanded of them.

What’s the upshot? Customers are feeling frustrated

  • 60 million people lost money due to trip cancellations
  • Amazon complaints have tripled
  • In the US FTC complaints have doubled the last year

Why are people angry?

  • Not being able to speak to person
  • Being put on hold
  • Rudeness
  • Lack of knowledge
  • Slow response time
  • Having to repeat information
  • Agents taking too long to resolve
  • The use of scripts
  • Not dealing with the customer in THEIR medium of choice

We will need a more robust management of customer care to manage all these issues. The cost of disgruntled customers is huge. The McKinsey Report estimates that 2/3 of your marketing is being done without you, by customers who are sharing information about your brand or products online and off through social media, rating sites, and good old-fashioned word of mouth.

It’s the perfect storm. But it doesn’t have to be

While 95% of Americans are willing to switch brands if they got bad customer service, a 5% increase in customer retention can boost profits 25-85%. Studies show complaints aren’t negative – when they are handled well. Often customer issues that are handled well actually result in more loyal, with a new advocate who will speak well on your behalf.

Online customer care may be the greatest marketing opportunity of the decade, if done exceptionally well. Why?

  • Improved word of mouth
  • Critical new product and customer insights
  • A path to true differentiation
  • Helps fill in the personalization/data void as we see the use of fewer cookies and tracking mechanisms. Apple iOS14 is just the beginning, offering customers the opportunity to opt out of third-party tracking.

Social intelligence can give us FIRST-PARTY data. Customer care is actually a goldmine of opportunity for insight and managing brands right now and into the future. But we will need to recalibrate our approach to customer service and customer care, as well as how we train the people who work in this NEW MARKETING DEPARTMENT. Social listening will also be key – monitoring social media comments to get a sense of industry dynamics, the competitive landscape, emerging trends, marketing opportunities, and of course customer insights.

The storm is brewing. Are you ready for it?

For those curious about how our ice-cream mission ended, we retreated to Save On Foods, bought a tub of Rocky Road and a half dozen sugar cones – and paid TAP with credit card. The bonus of course, was seconds – since even after our adult children shared a cone with us at home, there was still enough for more!


Mary Charleson

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