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The impact of COVID-19 on customer support teams

Customer care in a crisis: How support teams are navigating shifts in volume, wait times, and CSAT

Main illustration: Virginia Gabrielli

As the coronavirus outbreak upends lives and businesses everywhere and social distancing is enforced, support teams are increasingly the first place that customers turn to for guidance. Our new research reveals the impact it’s had on these teams.

Whether it’s checking on shipment status, processing refunds, or fielding requests for payment relief, support reps are facing mounting pressure. Some of our own customers are experiencing up to 10 times the number of new chat conversations. Customer care is more important than ever during times of crisis, so how are support teams adapting to this new uncertain reality?

“How are support teams adapting to this new uncertain reality?”

To find out, we surveyed 400 support managers, directors, and executives across both B2B and B2C and affected industries like media, healthcare, and technology. We also spoke directly to support leaders to understand how they’ve responded to the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Below, we share how the outbreak has impacted three key support metrics – inbound volume, wait times, and CSAT scores – and advice from respected leaders on how to continue caring for your customers in a crisis.

Inbound volume is spiking for half of support teams

As the virus spreads around the world, many support teams are experiencing significant shifts in customer requests. In our survey, nearly half (47%) of support teams report that inbound volume has increased since the outbreak and by an average of 51% above their normal volume.

The increased volume is affecting businesses of all types. According to our research, 54% of B2B support teams are seeing increased volume, along with 45% of B2C support teams.

“Support teams who use proactive messaging report that inbound volume has risen by just 38%, compared to an increase of 72% reported by teams who don’t”

Companies are responding by proactively messaging customers to provide the information and reassurance they need. The majority of B2B and B2C support teams – 54% and 61%, respectively – have taken this approach. For these teams, inbound volume has risen by just 38%, compared to an increase of 72% reported by teams who are not using proactive messaging.

At ecommerce fulfillment platform ShipBob, the team is working hard to keep their merchants updated on their business continuity plans, both via in-app messages and through email. Their SVP of Customer Experience Margaret Kędziora explains:

Margaret Kedziora, SVP of Customer Experience, ShipBob “We are using in-app notifications to make our merchants aware of changes to our standard operating procedures. This way, they have the most important information they need when they log in to our dashboard – even if they don’t check their email, which we do update them continuously through our marketing automation solution.”

Healthcare startup accuRx is one of our customers that have seen their support volume go up by 10x. User Operations Lead Vicky Firth shares how they’re using email announcements to educate medical staff about new features they’ve released in response to the crisis:

Vicky Firth, User Operations Lead, accuRx “We’ve always used [help] articles very heavily and have made sure we’re making new ones for all our new features, so that we can direct people there and even link them in-product as well as in wider comms. We’ve sent email announcements for all of the new features we’ve released during COVID-19 to help our users and been able to link to all of the relevant articles to give more detail and point them toward our support centre.”

For video marketing software Wistia, they’re doubling down on educational resources that take a “help first” approach. Here’s their Customer Support Manager Jordan Munson:

Jordan Munsen, Customer Support Manager, Wistia “We’ve been working with our Head of Production Chris Lavigne to set up “(Out of) Office Hours” [Wistia’s tips on remote video production] and sending out resources for folks to use when they’re spinning up their work from home lives and using more video. These are all “help first” communications, not really pressing people to become customers. We want to help people when we can.”

Many customers are waiting longer to hear back

Given the spike in volume, it likely comes as no surprise that customer wait times have increased as well. Among B2B support teams, 57% report slower response times and, for B2C support teams, that number grows to 70%. Since the outbreak, wait times have increased by 27 minutes, on average, across both B2C and B2B businesses.

The disruption from the global crisis is expected to have a serious impact on customer support goals, which often include maintaining a fast response time. According to our research, 42% of support leaders believe they will not meet their goals this month due to the outbreak.

“Wait times have increased by 27 minutes, on average, across both B2B and B2C”

But support teams aren’t idly standing by. Many support leaders are leveraging their help centers to enable customers to find answers on their own. In fact, 37% of teams have posted additional help articles since the global crisis began. When customers do need to reach out, 35% are setting expectations upfront about when they can expect a response.

For online collaboration tool Miro, their extensive library of help content has been an important self-service resource for customers who are getting started with their product. With their support queue quadrupling in volume since the outbreak, their help content is seeing more use than ever, as their Head of Customer Support Oleg Krasnov shares:

Oleg Krasnov, Head of Customer Support, Miro “We have a comprehensive help center which is getting continuously updated. Recently we launched an online community – another way to talk with like-minded people on the best ways to use Miro. On top of that, our Customer Education team is building the Miro Academy where people can find video courses and webinar recordings to help them learn how to use the product. Most of the tickets we get are questions from new users around basic usage. Our investment in creating these online resources has helped us address those questions effectively.”

Alongside help content, support leaders are also turning to automation. A quarter of support leaders are already using tools like chatbots to manage the influx in customer requests. And for those teams, their leaders are 41% more likely to say they will hit their goals this month despite the disruption.

“Support teams who use automation are 41% more likely to say they will hit their goals this month”

At Wistia, the support team is using automation to manage the surge in tickets. As their Director of Customer Happiness Stacy Justino explains, automated triaging and instant replies are enabling them to get fast answers to customers while reducing the load on their reps:

Stacy Justino, Director of Customer Happiness, Wistia “We’ve had a dramatic increase in support tickets over the past few weeks that looks like it’ll remain elevated for at least a couple of months. Because of this, we recently implemented a few issue specific automated responses where we provide tailored troubleshooting steps based on the ticket topic. We are using software that automatically tags the ticket topic for most incoming tickets, so we’re able to send these targeted automated responses as soon as they enter the inbox.”

The team at accuRx has also deepened their investment in automation tools to support their reps and their customers. Using Intercom’s bots they’re able to instantly resolve new customer queries and, for more complex questions, collect the critical information that the team needs to respond. Here’s their User Operations Lead Vicky Firth:

“We’ve rapidly added automation tools in this time, both because we’ve seen our volumes increase massively and because we’ve found a lot of questions overlap. We’ve set up answers using Intercom’s Resolution Bot, while we investigate improving the product to make permanent changes, as well as implementing it for our ongoing standard queries. We also use Custom Bots and Task Bots to gather data about our users, so we can more quickly understand who they are and what their issue is likely related to.”

For B2C teams, customer satisfaction is taking a hit

Customers are coming to support teams with a range of emotions – afraid, frustrated, panicked – and understandably so. B2C support teams are feeling the effects most acutely. Since the outbreak, 23% of B2C teams report their CSAT scores have declined, while just 14% of B2B teams say the same. CSAT scores have declined by 28%, on average, across both B2B and B2C.

“23% of B2C support teams report their CSAT scores have declined since the outbreak, while just 14% of B2B teams say the same”

Just as CSAT scores have taken a hit, support leaders are also grappling with the effects of the outbreak on their team. The vast majority (74%) of support leaders have seen a decline in team morale and 39% say their reps have been distracted with personal matters. And it’s having a significant impact – 49% of leaders report their team’s performance has been negatively affected.

Taken all together, this decline in customer satisfaction is, in many regards, to be expected. Both customers and support teams are stressed, at work and in their personal lives. Long support queues and increased wait times are only compounding already high-pressure situations.

“49% of support leaders say the drop in morale has negatively impacted team performance”

Support leaders are stepping up to take care of their teams and their customers during this difficult period. In our survey, support managers shared that they are enabling reps to work remotely, offering flexible shifts for teammates with children, providing bonus pay and additional vacation time, and coaching reps through sensitive conversations.

At ShipBob, they’re making transparency a priority. According to SVP of Customer Experience Margaret Kedziora, this transparency has been key to helping the team navigate tough conversations with customers – and avoid making promise they can’t keep:

“We are helping our teams navigate these discussions by keeping them well informed, making sure that they know exactly what is going on, and most importantly, why. We keep a running Q&A document that is public across the company, so anybody can ask and we can provide company-wide answers to best arm the entire company. At times like this, it is also critical that the team is transparent about what we can do, and also can not do, so that we do not make promises that we cannot keep.”

Here at Intercom, we are reinforcing team principles that have long guided our approach to caring for our customers. Chief among them is connecting personally with empathy. Our Global Director of Customer Support Kaitlin Pettersen explains:

Kaitlin Pettersen “This is not a normal time and these are not normal customer conversations. One of our team tenets is to connect personally with empathy and I’ve been encouraging our team to lean into that even more and to take an extra beat in conversations. Now more than ever your team needs to be personal and let their human side shine through in order to empathize with people and the situations they’re in.”

Finally, at social media commerce platform Curalate, their support and client solutions teams have partnered to provide their customers with an even more personalized experience. As their Head of Customer Experience Philip Miller shares, this has allowed them to deepen client relationships during this challenging time:

Philip Miller, Head of Customer Experience, Curalate “We’re leaning into collaboration more than ever before. We’re triaging user education support to our Client Solutions team to enable our Support Engineers to focus much more on troubleshooting and more complex technical issues. Our clients requiring troubleshooting are seeing faster resolutions and clients requiring education are working with our Platform Specialists to get a more holistic experience, with an aim of opening the conversation up further.”

Just as our everyday lives have changed in significant and unprecedented ways, so has the world of customer support. Support teams in all industries are navigating new ways of working and the outbreak’s impact on their key metrics – inbound volume, wait times, and customer satisfaction. Support leaders have responded proactively and compassionately to take care of what matters most to the health of their business: their team and their customers.

If your company needs support in this challenging time, we’re here to help:

A note about methodology

Intercom commissioned an independent market research firm to survey a random sample of 400 customer support leaders to understand how the COVID-19 outbreak is affecting their workflow and performance. The study’s margin of error is +/-4.9% at the 95% confidence level.