Covid and customer communications: why the blame game needs to stop

David Taylor, communications director, Paragon Customer Communications, discusses why businesses are playing the Covid ‘blame game’, and how to stop it.

A woman holding a child who is wearing a mask.

Given that three years have now passed since the start of the pandemic, most companies will feel that they’ve returned to business as usual. Consumers certainly do. In-person retail is back in full-force and regulations such as reduced capacity or one-way systems are a thing of the past.

However, at the periphery of this there’s a contradiction: even while it seems that normal service has resumed, it is still common for organisations to cite the pandemic as the cause behind their customer service problems. So, what’s causing businesses to play the Covid ‘blame game’, and how can this be stopped?

The post-pandemic customer experience

It goes without saying that the pandemic was a seismic change for people and businesses. Given the upheaval we all experienced, it’s natural to assume that nothing was untouched. However, recent research from Paragon found that the pandemic didn’t herald as significant a change in customer experience as many expected. In fact, almost three quarters of consumers reported that they did not feel Covid impacted the quality of service that they received from providers.

This is interesting for a number of reasons. Clearly, customer experience did change during the pandemic, most notably in response to government requirements and guidelines. But customers did not report a negative impact on their experience. This means that most businesses adapted successfully to respond to the rapidly changing socio-political environment without leaving customers behind.

So, what does this look like?

What makes a successful Covid response?

With a recession and cost-of-living crisis still in full force, businesses are not out of the woods. Like consumers, they are finding that their budgets are becoming increasingly lean, and this naturally leads to a need to re-examine how resources are being used, and how to best engage with customers to retain them even through difficult times. Of course, all businesses need to prioritise survival in times like these, and for many, this is all they can do. However, it is possible to develop a strategy to survive and thrive

Fundamentally, forming a successful response to a crisis or significant change in circumstance means understanding what switching out of ‘business as usual’ should look like. Often, this comes down to fostering the right attitude. Organisations need to emphasise the importance of agility – that is, the ability to respond to unexpected and unpredictable circumstances.

Given the string of challenges that we have faced together over the last few years, we’re more able to take such events in our stride and work out a way to respond strategically, rather than going into crisis mode. The result is that customers expect their experiences with providers to remain at a high standard, undisturbed by wider events.

Businesses which take an omnichannel approach were among those which could adapt quickest and most effectively to rapid change. The ability to easily move between in-person customer service to remote channels such as telephone, email, SMS, and live chat, while maintaining a high-quality service consistent across all channels, was invaluable – and continues to be as consumers now expect this level of choice.

This can be seen by looking at customer experience in the retail sector. According to Paragon research, independent retailers experienced the second biggest drop in ease of interaction. The reasons are clear when you compare the level of resources which independent retailers have at their disposal to the comparative wealth of large supermarket chains, which have mature digital strategies in place.

The good news is that thanks to advances in digital transformation, most businesses were able to incorporate tech capabilities to help meet their customers’ needs. This meant that although ease of interaction decreased for customers across all verticals, it was only by a small amount.

Beating the blame game

However, perceptions don’t always line up with reality. To this day, some businesses claim that Covid is responsible for customer service issues ranging from long wait times on the phone to a lack of employees at in-person stores. Yet, our research shows that the impact of Covid was actually minimal. It did not lead to overall negative or unsatisfactory customer experience, and there is reason to be sceptical about such claims from businesses. This is where the ‘Covid blame game’ comes in.

It’s true that Covid slashed the resources of many businesses, and many also experienced considerable teething problems implementing new tech or 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 experience severe ongoing disruption in their experiences with providers across sectors, so it doesn’t check out that businesses can or should claim this.

Getting to the bottom of this discrepancy is crucial for customer retention. Considering that customers were broadly satisfied with providers in all sectors, organisations that fall short and blame Covid for it will not be viewed sympathetically.

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, including the recession and ever-rising inflation, businesses do face interruptions to their day-to-day running. This can have knock-on effects for consumers, but it isn’t attributable to Covid. If businesses want to keep customers onside, they can no longer fall back on this excuse, and to survive and thrive they need to identify the specific cause driving their challenges so that they can strategically respond to it.

Fundamentally, as circumstances continue to change on the macro level, it’s crucial that businesses always ensure they are adapting to the situation in front of them in as targeted a way as possible.

This is how businesses can drive successful experiences for their customers, which keep them engaged no matter what.

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.