Customer service in a crisis

Customer service in a crisis
Jun 8, 2020
From Hurricane Katrina to COVID-19, our utility customer service team is on the front lines of crisis management. 
Hurricane Katrina was one of the most catastrophic natural disasters in U.S. history. The COVID-19 crisis and the associated economic shutdown is unique in its impact on the entire country. While these events may not seem to have much in common, any disaster—whether it’s a storm or a highly-communicable virus—puts customer service representatives on the front lines of crisis management.
As a member of our commercial energy team, Rebekah Cambre leads the customer care services team in support of our energy work across the U.S. and Canada. We spoke to Becky about our utility customer service work during a pandemic compared to the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina.

Q. What is the “new normal” for your team now due to COVID-19?

A. We’re seeing really high call activity within many of our demand response programs. Some utility demand response programs are offering limited-time promotions, which are generating high response rates. Customers are seeking any opportunity to save money. They’re sitting at home—in some cases without pay—and their families are using a lot of electricity, so they worry about bigger bills. 

We don’t typically get many angry callers, but there are a lot of anxious people right now. That stress and anxiety can lead to shorter fuses. Our team is using their skills to de-escalate the situation, calm customers, ease barriers (e.g., fixing a promo code that isn’t working), and rebuild trust. These skills are part of our team’s regular training. Now is the time to pull those skills out and apply them. 

Q. You were on the front lines, helping people in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina. Can you see any similarities or differences in how your customer care team is responding to the calls that are coming in today?

A. So many things have been upended in people’s lives right now compared to Katrina, which was a very regional situation. Several people on my team—myself included—were personally impacted by Katrina, while others had no exposure. It can be difficult to wrap your mind around a disaster that happened far away and where you are not personally impacted. But, with COVID-19, absolutely everyone is impacted in some way. It’s easier to show empathy for customer circumstances because this crisis is happening everywhere in every community. 

In both cases, the team needs to be present and available at the stated hours we promise to customers. Many companies have long wait times to get through on their phone lines to a real person. We have to put enough people on the project to handle the number of calls the utility is receiving. 

Q. Has your ability to personalize the conversation made a difference in how the team can support customers?

A. We have programs that give us customer information and details on their past interactions with the utility. That allows us to have a conversation that feels more human and less cold. Personalization is actually becoming very important in outbound calls as well. Utilities are asking for help with campaigns that come in behind other marketing and customer engagement activities. We’re able to look at analytics in order to figure how to target certain groups of customers with outbound activities. Because the call is related to information the customer received in advance—and an offer of a discount on their bill—the conversation feels more natural. We can also offer personalization such as being able to support a grace period or make an exception to an expired offer on the spot. 

Q. How has COVID-19 changed the tone you are using for outbound calls? 

A: Our tone is softer and less sales-oriented. When we make outbound calls, we’re being more inquisitive about the customer’s needs. As I mentioned earlier, several utilities are running campaigns. Outbound calls deliver a more personalized experience at a time when everyone is social distancing. It lets the utilities be more than just a digital blip to the customer. A call puts a real human voice to the message.

But it’s a tricky balance to strike. Every member of our customer care team has some interaction and coaching on a weekly basis. As managers, we’re listening to a higher percentage of calls to ensure the tone is right and to be on the lookout for issues that need correcting. We’re also checking in on their well-being, both physical and mental. We remind our employees to take time for self-care, get outside, and take breaks. It’s also important to flag if there are any impediments to their work-from-home experience such as internet connectivity or outdated technology. If so, we redirect their activities to other tasks that require less technological support. 

Q. Speaking of technology, are there any tools you have today that you wish you would have had during the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina?

A. With Katrina, we had a very robust call center and a customer service center focused on the grant navigation process. It was heavily focused on in-person meetings at assistance centers or phone calls, as most people still had analog phone service even if they didn’t have digital/internet capability. I would have loved to have a web chat tool. It’s very much an underappreciated resource, but a convenient one. 

Today we do utilize web chat, but still not enough. We’re not doing video conferencing right now, but that is likely coming. The longer the stay-at-home orders continue, the more valuable it is to have face-to-face human connections—even on a screen. We’re also having initial discussions around using video conferencing to conduct virtual offerings, such as energy audits. I’m personally excited about that. It will help us meet the utilities' goals while retaining our empathetic relationship with the customer.

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