Why COVID is not a valid excuse (and other musings from a crazy year) Part One

It has been a crazy year. Smith+Co were honoured by being awarded ‘UK’s Leading Management Consultants 2020’ following independent research by Statista. That was a great start! We followed it up by merging with Caffeine, the brand agency led by my co-author, Andy Milligan. Together, we can now help our joint clients do what we wrote about in our last book ‘On Purpose, delivering a branded customer experience people love’; to ‘Stand Up’ through having a clear brand purpose, to ‘Stand Out’ by delivering a distinctive customer experience, and to ‘Stand Firm’ thorough creating a distinctive employee experience. 

The rest of the year has been a rollercoaster with some highs and lows but fortunately we are emerging with some terrific clients and projects. The year has given us a unique opportunity to see how the best brands have responded to Covid-19 and the impact on their customer experience, and equally, to observe some of the worst. So, as we near the end of 2020 we thought we would share some examples of where customer experience is working, and where it is not, and suggest what brands may need to focus on in 2021 to win

“You may experience long waiting times to access our customer services department due to Covid-19.  Please call back at a later time or use our web site”.  I am sure you have experienced a very similar message if you have attempted to call your telecom provider, energy supplier or bank this year.  This may have been excusable at the beginning of the pandemic ten months ago, but it is no longer acceptable. Large brands are simply conning us. Money Mail recently published a survey in which they concluded ‘50 major firms still blaming long call-waiting times or reduced opening on Covid

A perfect example of this is National Savings and Investment (NS&I) who recently made the decision to stop issuing cheques as payment to holders of winning Premium Bonds. In future, they will only pay by on-line transfer into a bank account.  Many of their elderly customers typically used postal or branch banking rather than on-line, and so tried to call the NS&I contact centre to make the change only to be greeted by a message advising them not to call unless you ‘absolutely have to’ because of long wait times and not to post anything to them.  I realise that businesses are facing huge operational difficulties with staff being furloughed and many are in danger of going under, but the fact is that the best brands are managing in spite of this. 

The retail sector has been a bit like the ‘curate’s egg’, good in some areas, rotten in others; booming online but suffering in the high-street. Amazon has seen a massive increase in demand and yet its service levels are close to what they were last year, and it remains near the top of customer satisfaction tables.  Doug Gurr, Amazon’s UK Country manager recently wrote to customers saying,” We’ve added 10,000 new permanent roles and 20,000 seasonal positions to our team to help get you your items on time. The wellbeing and safety of all of our employees continues to be our top priority, which is why we have made more than 150 process changes to create safe workplaces”  

The banking sector has behaved, as it generally does, by being self-serving. Despite the Government loan schemes most of the banks have been slow to lend and quick to decrease their deposit rates.  There are some notable exceptions; one of my favourite brands, First Direct Bank, has achieved the highest levels of customer satisfaction and loyalty over many years. Shortly after Covid hit they published this notice on the home page of their web site; ’We’re still available 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. first direct hasn’t closed once since we opened, and we don’t intend for coronavirus to change that. You will still also always get through to a real human first on our main line, without having to press 1 for this and 2 for that.’ They followed this up by halving their interest rate on overdrafts whilst some competitors, like Lloyds, were busy doubling theirs. First Direct used the pandemic to reaffirm their brand promise and dramatise their point of difference. Great brands see crises as an opportunity to focus on what is most important for customers.

Some brands have gone beyond that and used the opportunity to exceed customer expectations despite the difficulties. As an example, “Due to COVID and our commitment to you, we are shipping your order on time or ahead of schedule” How many times over the past few months have you received this message?  Zero, is my guess.  Yet this is precisely the brand promise that US company, ScreenBroidery is making to its customers.  Unlike so many other organisations, its stance is not to use the excuse of Covid for bad customer experience. Tom Rector, founder of ScreenBroidery, is taking a stand that this is a time to delivery better service, not worse. His company is trying to differentiate itself by exceeding expectations.  You can read his blog to customer and employees on their web site, “COVID is not an excuse.”

To be continued…

Shaun Smith, Founder, Smith+Co

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