Humanizing customer service post-COVID

COVID-19 has been the ultimate stress test for businesses, catapulting digital capabilities to top priority status.  Although technology and innovation continually transform how consumers and companies interact, the desire for human connection remains strong.

Contact center interactions reveal that callers these days are under a lot of strain. Worry about losing their homes, losing their jobs and losing loved ones, combined with the stress of a prolonged pandemic, have exacerbated feelings of uncertainty and powerlessness for many customers.

What, then, does empathy mean for customer service? Quite simply, empathy means letting the customer know you care. It starts with recognizing the humanity in the person standing across from you, or on the other end of the phone line, and putting yourself in his or her shoes. When they happens, the interaction ends with the customer feeling understood.

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Empathy has taught us the importance of delivering positive customer experiences around personalizing every consumer interaction. It has also taught us to listen—really listen—to callers, and to commit to creating an emotional connection by understanding the “person behind the customer.”

Why does this matters?  Emotional connection is about more than warm, fuzzy feelings – it drives business results. As discussed in a recent episode of the BAI Banking Strategies podcast, customers who are emotionally attached to your brand are 49 percent more likely to increase balances, 39 percent more likely to sign up for new services and 32 percent more likely to seek financial advice.

A truly connected customer journey spans multiple channels. For most institutions, the contact center becomes the escalation point for more complex queries. If the customer experience is handled well, you will have turned that customer into an advocate for your institution who will then share that positive experience with others.

A deeper understanding of customer pain points allows financial services providers to adapt training to the new circumstances. This includes training around emotional intelligence, as well as the fully connected experience.

Don’t expect this more connected experience to happen overnight. It requires a real technology investment, beginning with determining what best fits your organization. And it relies heavily on your ability to seamlessly deliver human support alongside other channels of their choice.

The changing role of customer service

The role of the contact center agent has changed. Calls to the contact center are now more complex and emotionally charged. Customers choose the phone because they expect personalized answers to their problems. Soft skills such as compassion, understanding and active listening have always been important, but equally important are critical thinking skills and being a nimble problem-solver.

The customer’s experience of each interaction is driven not just by what they want to achieve, but also by factors such as their emotional state, the urgency of their request and their past experiences.

Empathy has taught us that human intervention is often necessary for customers to become aware of digital offerings, understand them and know how to use them. Contact center agents must act as digital experts, not just as digital advocates. Certain conversations are more likely to take place in human channels—at the branch or over the phone—rather than in the digital platform. One of those high-stakes interactions, ironically, is around digital awareness and adoption.

In Harland Clarke’s 2021 TrendWatch report, we polled banks and credit unions of all sizes about how the pandemic has affected the way they conduct business and connect with customers. Nearly 70 percent of respondents cited “online and/or mobile banking support” as the primary contributor to the increase in inbound contact center call volume—even more than COVID-related issues or requests for stimulus payment information assistance.

In these difficult times, even minor encounters can be influential. If your organization is not prepared to provide a winning customer experience, you’ll drive your most important customers to the competition.

Technology and innovation have transformed how consumers and companies interact, but one truth remains: consumers need human interaction. The pandemic raised the bar for empathy and human connection. To truly drive emotional engagement with customers, institutions will need to embrace the role of contact centers as they balance digitalization with highly personalized human connection.

Terri Panhans is vice president for contact center solutions at Harland Clarke.

Find out more about how the pandemic has changed the way banks and credit unions serve their customers in the BAI Executive Report “COVID-19 is remaking customer service … forever.”