It was back in 2011 that I had one of the most chaotic days in my career, you may ask why? I was working in the call center of a Norwegian company named Hurtigruten in Estonia. Everything was fine that day until a news came that one of their ships has caught fire. Over than 250 crew members and passengers we onboard that ship. In this article I will talk about my experience as a part of company’s customer service team.
“Wait, what’s going on?
“Have you said a fire?
“Is everyone all right?”
In a few moments, word of the fire was distributed to social media, commuters were calling on board, clients were contacting us about their upcoming journeys, and the number of incoming requests through all customer service platforms increased drastically. We were shocked and frustrated. We had been in crisis mode before we realized it.
Yeah, if this sounds familiar to you right now, you are not alone.
Thousands of businesses are in crisis. They’re going to feel nervous, confused, and uncertain about what to do. The customer service teams in particular.
It’s bad, but confusion tends to lead to the worst in clients.
Clients and the Customer Service Team interact when things go badly.
And that is particularly true of the tourism industry. The tourism industry is in a emergency situation – airlines, agencies and hotels are battling to keep their companies afloat, from cancelled reservations, refunds and rescheduling – just as I witnessed in September 2011, they are all in turmoil.
There is no best approach for coping with a crisis. They’re all hands on the deck. But being part of the Hurtigruten Customer Service team during their crisis has enabled me to see what businesses can do in times of trouble.
Now, I’m still in the middle of canceling and rescheduling tickets for trips that I’ve scheduled for the weeks ahead. Yeah, here we are in a crisis, however this time I can see it from a different viewpoint.
Many of the businesses I’m working with are doing whatever they can to support their clients, but others aren’t that successful.
Based on my experience at Hurtigruten and what I’m facing as a client right now, I decided to share a few ideas about what you should do if your customer service team feels overwhelmed.
Let me share a couple of real instances to help you.
Although the references described here are from the tourism industry, they can be applicable to almost every industry that feels frustrated by very high incoming inquiries.
Keep reassuring clients and interact regularly
Don’t wait for your clients to get in touch with you. You’ve got to be careful!
Like what other businesses are doing today, build a special page where clients can figure out how to get in touch with you, take action to cope with the situation and amend policies (i.e. refunds).
At Hurtigruten, we created a simple page that was regularly updated on the basis of the news coming specifically from the ship. It enabled us to monitor the flow of information and to transmit the information to the public. This also made it easier for clients to keep up to date.
A great example of an airline with a devoted landing page on Kiwi.com.
You will look for information on refunds and cancellations, country limits and crisis-related issues on their special landing page.
Many businesses would be talking of having a similar platform on their website, so that is the sole excuse to do so if you have noticed a surge in calls or emails associated with the current crisis.
Another way to educate your clients and be constructive is to contact them directly via e-mail.
Be it a letter from your Chairman, an update to operating hours or an update about how you manage the crisis, you can convince your clients with a single message.
A prime example of using emails to convince their clients is airBaltic.
On Saturday, 14 March, AirBaltic declared that all flights will be halted until 14 April. As I was flying with AirBaltic at the end of March, this statement provided me with all the details I wanted to claim a refund.
In the official statement, they notified clients that they might contact each passenger who would be affected by the e-mail, and within 24 hours, they got the e-mail and I asked a full refund.
This is a copy of the email they sent:
There is nothing like over-communicating during a crisis. Your clients are going to love hearing from you.
Set standards on average waiting times
The average response time for e-mail assistance requests is 12 hours.
Recently, and based just on my experiences, it takes more than a week for businesses to respond.
The problem here is I don’t understand if they’re going to respond and I don’t know when I can expect a response – it wasn’t communicated to me. This ensures that I’m more interested in sending a follow-up email after a few days had passed, in case they haven’t got it … so, if you’re answering client inquiries by phone, email or chat, prevent the clients from being any more annoyed than they are by setting standards on how long they can expect to wait.
At Hurtigruten, we reported average waiting times in all networks, enabling us to set standards instantly.
We have been able to measure the average waiting time or response time using automatic reports in our customer service team. When that was determined, we made phone line alerts, email support, and chat so that any client who wished to reach us knew precisely how long it takes until they could find a free agent.
A great example of this is how British Airways specifically set goals on their contact page.
They note that the call numbers are high (indicating that clients must expect a lengthy wait) and that in order to manage clients, you can only call them if you are flying in the next 3 days. This enables their customer service team to help passengers that are in dire need of assistance.
The next good example is Qatar Airways.
They set standards for refund applications by telling me that it would take up to five working days to handle the refund. It means that after 2 or 3 days, I won’t have to check up with them, which frees up their time to concentrate on more pressing requests.
Keep your clients up to date on waiting times so they understand when they should expect to talk to you.
Funnel requests to a single channel
If you have a group of 10 Customer Service Team or a group of 100, all support staff will feel strained right now – particularly if your customer service team is remote. Instead of spreading the team across all communication platforms, such as chat, social media, telephone, email, etc., you can try to insert all incoming inquiries into one channel.
Our single channel at Hurtigruten was an online form.
The advantage of utilizing an online form is that you can ask for more details beforehand, which will enable you to organize and delegate requests to the correct department.
We gave priority to incoming requests by adding the “departure date” field on the online form.
Whenever the completed form contained the departure date over the next 7 days, it was given priority and transferred to the top of the service list. We also used warnings which would warn us of any cases that were urgent and were not replied within 3 days.
You can also have a section allowing clients to select the type of their application, such as a refund request, cancelation or switch dates for an upcoming trip. In this case, the request may be submitted straight to a dedicated team or inbox to be treated appropriately.
The advantage of using an online form is that you can automatically accept that you have received a client application by the use of an autoresponder. It is a perfect way to remind your clients that you’re working on their order.
In an attempt to integrate all requests into a single channel, you have to show a connection to this (single) channel on all the client platforms you utilize. For instance, you can provide an online form on your designated landing page, you can connect it to your weblog, and you can include it in the welcome message on your phone lines – including a simple-to-remember URL (i.e. www.example.com/crisis).
You may also connect to the form by clicking posts on your social media pages.
Here, British Airways has pinned a tweet that sends all their Twitter users to their designated landing page.
It becomes much simpler for a customer service team to handle a single channel instead of various channels. But that’s what takes me to my next level. We, as clients, do have a duty.
So, what are the clients expected to do?
If you enter any social media site right now, you can see thousands of discussions (and criticisms) about the shortage of customer service from the largest and most popular companies in the world.
They’re composed of people who wanted to call or email for help, but didn’t receive a reply, and instead, they came to social networks in an effort to be understood – so this causes more pressure for customer service staff.
It’s simple to assume that if nobody responds to my initial question, I’m going to open a new communication line. I have just one problem that needs to be resolved, but any new channel I seek to contact the customer service team leads to additional volume.
This conduct is a major challenge for the customer service team.
Using different platforms to convey the same message became such a problem for Finnair that they’re now investing their marketing budget on social networks (Facebook ads) to politely ask clients to stop doing so.
Once resources are stretched, utilizing numerous communication methods are not the solution. It’s just going to delay an answer. Let’s try and reduce the amount of times we contact customer service team to allow them to concentrate on serving others, not just us.
There are many things that don’t go as expected during a crisis. It’s all hands on deck as customer service teams try to keep the customer happy and fix their issues before heading to the next client. And that’s the next client. And the next one.
Empathy is essential, and right now the world requires a lot of it.
In the case of a customer service team, this includes informing clients, speaking regularly and setting goals. And for clients, this means that being cautious and understanding things may be slower than normal.
As I began writing this post, I looked back at the measures the Hurtigruten Crisis Team took in 2011. Well before the article was released, Hurtigruten stated that all cruises will be stopped for the next 30 days – which will, of course, lead to a increase in the amount of customer service.
On their site, you can see a special landing page that contains a letter from their CEO to encourage clients and a link to an online form that includes the departure date as a section. They’ve been in a crisis before, and I’m sure that their customer service team (and yours) will manage this crisis as well.