Brits have a proud tradition of waiting patiently in line for all manner of events. Only last year, thousands waited hours to file past the Queen’s coffin in Westminster Hall, a worldwide audience marvelling at the giant queue weaving along the Thames. Yet while some queues are worth the wait, others leave participants frustrated and angry. Recent data from the Association of British Insurers has revealed that long call waiting times are the top frustration for consumers when communicating with businesses, closely followed by automated phone systems.
According to the research, dealing with government departments proved the most frustrating, with 43% of responders encountering difficulties, followed by local authorities (34%), and energy suppliers (33%).
At just 5%, supermarkets came out on top. Hannah Gurga, ABI Director General, said: “Whatever the organisation, simple, clear and straightforward customer communications are the bedrock for improving trust. This research shows that some sectors need to do more to improve how they interact with the public.”
‘Trust’ is key, and our own research suggests that the way in which many companies changed their approach to customer communications during the pandemic – and have continued to do so more than three years after it began – has impacted the levels of trust felt between consumers and their service providers.
Paragon’s ‘Customer Communications in a Post-Pandemic World’ report explores consumer perceptions of customer communications before, during, and after Covid, focusing on four key sectors: retail, financial services, utilities and telecoms. Service providers in these verticals experienced untold pressure during the pandemic as people suddenly had to work from home, shops closed, and belts tightened.
Interestingly, the research suggests that the pandemic did not herald as significant a change in customer experience as many expected. Almost three-quarters of responders reported that Covid didn’t impact the quality of service they received from providers. This is great to hear, suggesting that most firms adapted successfully without leaving customers behind.
However, almost three-quarters also said they believe businesses have used the pandemic as an excuse to reduce the amount of physical (i.e., mail) and human customer communications. While the number of people preferring to communicate with businesses via only digital channels rose slightly post-pandemic, the research found that 40% of consumers prefer to interact with service providers via a mix of channels.
There appears to be a clear solution for customer service dissatisfaction, including long call waiting times: choice. There is no need to force people to sit for hours at the end of a phone line before they can speak with a customer service agent. They want a range of options when communicating with their providers – from complete self-service to speaking with a human – and some providers still fail to deliver this.
Stopping the Blame Game
Covid slashed the resources of lots of businesses, and many also experienced considerable teething problems when switching to a new business strategy. However, three years on, these cannot be cited as current issues, and the responses from surveyed consumers back this up.
Customers did not indicate that they are experiencing severe ongoing disruption with providers across sectors, so it doesn’t check out that businesses can or should claim this.
Most often when businesses blame Covid for present-day issues, they do so because this is an easier scapegoat for a much more complex reality. With a range of challenges to grapple with, including the recession and ever-rising inflation, businesses do face interruptions to their day-to-day operation.
This can have knock-on effects for consumers, but it cannot be attributable to Covid. If businesses want to keep customers onside, they need to identify the specific cause of their challenges so they can strategically respond to it.
One of the key barriers to overcome for service providers is inconsistency. The rush to greater digitisation as a result of the pandemic may have left some businesses neglecting other aspects of the customer journey.
As part of the research, we spoke with Kristy McCready, Director of Marketing Communications at HomeServe. She confirmed that the pandemic rapidly and permanently changed their customers’ behaviours, and that the goal to improve comms is an ongoing process.
She said: “By driving the digitisation process we’re also noticing additional parts of the customer journey that still need work. We want to join the journey up and be even more consistent across channels. As soon as you improve in one area it provides a benchmark for every other area, so you need to digitise the entire customer experience once you’ve started. Inconsistency stands out like a sore thumb.”
Those responsible for customer comms played a crucial role in the ways in which service providers adapted to the pandemic. Their ability to think on their feet and form a solid strategy to meet the changing needs of their customers was vital in helping businesses survive. But their job is not done.
Adapting to consumer demands remains important as we find ourselves in a cost-of-living crisis. Long gone are the days of pandemic-enforced digital-only channels. Service providers that do not offer flexibility and consistency in their communication channels risk damaging relationships with their customers – something all companies can ill-afford in the current economic climate.