The pandemic has caused a perfect storm of customer service issues, with companies and government agencies struggling to keep up while keeping their employees safe, and customers struggling to keep their cool.
Writer Tom Cheredar spent three hours trying, and failing, to reach his cable company Spectrum two weeks ago. He called when he realized he wasn’t getting the right amount of bandwidth, which he needed to work from home. After 45 minutes on hold, he was disconnected, and when he tried calling back he couldn’t get through at all. He turned to the company’s online chat support option, where he ended up getting the same three “be patient” replies from a chatbot on repeat for hours before finally giving up.
“I’m not a special case; everyone is experiencing the same thing,” said Cheredar, the founder of Media ATX, a trade group in Austin. “At the end of the day, I would much rather have all the people from those call centers at home, not getting infected, than addressing my Internet concerns.”
There are typically about 3 million customer service agents working in the United States and millions more around the world in countries such as India and the Philippines, which have thriving call-center industries. People answer phones and, increasingly, answer questions over chat messages. Until now, the majority worked in large customer service centers, also called contact centers, staffed around-the-clock to answer questions from people across the globe.
But the coronavirus has changed that, forcing companies to find ways to keep employees safe while still taking calls, or risk a customer and employee backlash for mistreating workers. The lack of broadband connections and strict regulations for industries such as banking and health care make fielding calls from outside the office impossible in certain situations. That means people still have to go to offices, and risk getting sick.
Wells Fargo is letting some employees work from home but has kept customer service centers open in the United States, taking precautions including staggering shifts and regular deep cleanings. At its Charlotte contact center, only 38 percent of the company’s nearly 9,000 employees are going into the office. As of Friday, four employees had tested positive for covid-19.
“The services we provide through contact centers are critical and essential for our customers, especially at a time when the number of customers seeking assistance through our contact centers is near record highs,” Wells Fargo spokeswoman Beth Richek said in a statement.
The global scale of the lockdown has left companies with few options. When the virus spread outside China, companies tried to move their customer service centers to countries without stay-at-home orders.
“Everyone was trying to outrun it, and when the Philippines and India shut down, that put an end to it,” said Rob LoCascio, the chief executive of LivePerson, a company that offers automated messaging options for customer service.
One of his clients, a bank in Italy, moved its customer service support to Bulgaria when Italy ordered nonessential workers to stay home. When Bulgaria shut down, the company started using a contact center in India. Then India closed all nonessential businesses, and it started to look into options such as automated agents.
With few alternatives available, companies are left trying to manage expectations and discourage people from calling unless it’s absolutely necessary. They’re removing support contact numbers and chat options from prominent locations on their sites and rerouting people to apologetic prerecorded messages. Banks, airlines and Apple are plastering their sites with warnings about limited customer service.
Atop the Chase banking website and app is a warning: “Extremely long wait times if you call us.” The bank cut its customer service hours after having to shut call centers in countries that have shelter-in-place orders for nonessential businesses. At the same time, there was an increase in calls from small-business owners or people who had lost some or all of their income, trying to find out what their options were for looming credit card or loan payments. The bank says its call volume has been intense in recent weeks, while the number of available agents has dropped.
“It’s a matter of fewer employees working really hard to help many more customers who need us during this really tough moment,” Chase spokeswoman Patricia Wexler wrote in an email.
To try to solve problems before they reach the “talk to a human” stage, companies are setting up dedicated landing pages to address the most common issues. Some are even revising policies previously set in stone so representatives don’t have to keep having the same one-off conversation, like airlines making it easier to cancel flights online with no fee.
Citibank says while most of its customer service representatives have been able to transition to taking calls from home, it still has higher-than-usual wait times — sometimes three or four hours, according to complaints on social media. On its dedicated page for covid-19 assistance, it lists all the options available for waiving fees or applying for forbearance.
Humans are still answering phones, if you know how to find them and have an important reason to seek them out.
Amazon has taken steps to minimize the number of people talking to live customer service reps on the phone, including asking customers to wait at least three days after expecting a package to inquire about it. The company has removed links to its call options from prominent places on its site and apps. When you call the usual customer service number, it plays a prerecorded message and disconnects. However, you can get a call back from a customer service representative using the company’s Call Me service, where you enter your phone number on the Amazon site and wait for a human response.
In a statement, Amazon spokeswoman Alyssa Bronikowski said the company is trying to provide support while keeping its agents safe and complying with social distancing orders: “This has resulted in temporary adjustments to our support options.”
To get help, Brad Cleveland, founding partner of the International Customer Management Institute, suggests taking the time to look at all the online resources available before making a phone call, starting with any special covid-19 sites if they’re available. He advises customers to try to get answers through official channels before turning to social media. Cleveland recommends calling during the fringe parts of the day, especially in the early morning, when volume is lowest. And have any documents ready and in front of you, including notes on the history of your case.
If calls aren’t working, try those chat bubbles. Companies are turning to chat support options en masse, and they can sometimes lead to a person. LivePerson chief LoCascio says certain customers have logged more customer service requests in the past month than during all of last year. And it’s not always a scripted bot on the other side — some messages start out automated to get customers to the best agent and then turn it over to a human.
More than anything, it’s important to be civil, Cleveland said.
“Be patient. That sounds like a platitude right now, but it’s true,” Cleveland said. “Don’t take it out on them, but make your case. As a customer, you’re allowed to be frustrated, but that customer service person is there to help.”
That includes thinking about your issue in terms of the larger crisis still unfolding around the world.
One customer service representative in Tennessee working for a major delivery company said she has switched to working 10-hour days from home and taking about 30 more calls than usual per shift. People have been kind for the most part, she said, declining to give her name for fear of losing her job, while others are just demanding to know why their packages haven’t been delivered.
“I wish people understood packages will be late, and no driver is purposely not delivering packages. They don’t want to be exposed any more than the next person does,” she said. “One person’s insulin is just more important than someone else’s new bed frame.”
Correction: Certain LivePerson customers have logged more customer service requests in the past month than during all of last year. The chief executive previously misspoke and said the company recorded more requests.