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Customer Loyalty May No Longer Exist, and Contact Centers Must Adapt

Ohio grocery store

Researchers have long warned that many customers are just one bad interaction away from switching brands. In the post COVID-19 world, I would like to argue that these findings are now outdated. Customers aren’t going to wait for one bad customer service interaction - they will switch brands if you can’t proactively fulfill their needs every single time. In the near term, brand loyalty is a thing of the past.

Loyalty Only to What Works

Let’s take a look at how little brand loyalty matters when it comes to something that has been on the minds of many during the recent health crisis - groceries. Pre-crisis, everyone had their favorite grocery shopping experience, one based on selection, cost, and shopping experience. During the crisis, however, all that has mattered is whether the shelves are sufficiently stocked with staples and whether one can safely get the groceries.

I am personally aware of this because I am a brand diehard. When it comes to groceries, I have three regular grocery stores I regularly visit - the discount supermarket for the majority of my shopping, the buying club store for bulk buys, and the upscale restaurant for hard-to-find items. I stuck with those three, and my buying behavior rarely changed.

As soon as the COVID-19 crisis hit New England, I stopped going to the discount store because it lacked delivery; price was no longer as important of a concern as before. I then began ordering from the upscale store because it had the delivery slots. When those slots started to dry up, I used a trial coupon for delivery with the buying club store.

As it now stands, I have upgraded my buying club membership to keep the deliveries coming, but I’m also buying food online from retailers I hardly know. My family and I are trading notes on our shopping experiences and quickly trying out new options. Reputation, branding, and price barely matter now - only results.

How Contact Centers Should Meet This Challenge

Groceries are an extreme example, but the financial and logistical shockwaves of this crisis are rippling through every sector of the economy. In my case, I have already cancelled or asked for reduced rates for several subscriptions, and I am haggling bills I used to not sweat.

This crisis is moving too quickly to gather research-based evidence to back up such anecdotal examples, but it is safe to say that we are living in unprecedented times for customer service. Also, while we would all like to “get back to normal” as soon as possible, many economists and world leaders are saying this period of disruption will last for some time.

Contact centers must take unprecedented steps to meet this challenge and maintain as much of their customer base as possible. The alternative is to seek out new customers, a much more expensive proposition, and one that is not assured during this time of instability.

Here are three steps I believe contact centers should take given the volatile customer service climate:

  • Businesses and organizations must give contact center workers the tools they need to retain customers at all costs. This means giving those on the frontlines wide latitude to “make things right” for customers, even if it cuts into the bottom line. Both budget and authority must be greatly increased for these types of customer interactions, even at the expense of other programs.
  • In addition, contact center workers and managers must stay on the lookout for new situations, and check in frequently with the powers that be to decide whether existing policies make sense given the new circumstances. For example, Amazon has sanctioned third-party sellers who were engaging in price gouging or surge pricing in response to the health crisis, but will not correct price imbalances because of this. It may be in their best interest to rapidly change this policy, as no brand is immune to customer attrition in this new era.
  • It may be impossible to hire and train up enough workers to meet the surge in customer needs in a timely manner, it is all the more important, then, to diversify methods for contact and arrange for flexible communication methods (like scheduling callbacks and non-live methods of communicating) for customer interaction.

If such steps may seem like overkill given the hopefully temporary nature of the current crisis, it can be argued that these steps also represent best practices in customer retention. The only thing that has changed, I would argue, is the cost of not providing optimal customer care every single chance possible.

No one can predict what brand loyalty will look like when this crisis passes us, but I would be willing to place a large wager that it will not be nearly as strong of a concept as it once was.