With the COVID-19 pandemic growing day by day, businesses around the world are finding themselves facing a crisis, unlike anything they’ve ever seen before. The situation is evolving almost faster than we can keep up—with updates every minute—and that can put your business at serious risk.
How do you protect your organization and your employees while supporting customers during a rapidly developing pandemic? The U.S. Chamber of Commerce coronavirus toolkit is a good place to start, offering a compilation of recommendations for businesses and workers.
Just because the coronavirus pandemic is unprecedented, it doesn’t mean your business has to be unprepared. Maintaining great customer service in spite of increased cancellations, refunds, and stress is still possible with a business and crisis management plan.
Whether it’s the outbreak of COVID-19 or a natural disaster such as a hurricane or tornado, no business is 100% insulated from the unexpected. And if not well prepared for a crisis, the effects can be devastating for businesses large and small. Any time you cannot carry out your normal day-to-day activities, you risk losing important customers, cutting revenue, and even going out of business altogether.
A business and crisis management plan is a way to protect your company from unplanned events such as fire, flood, theft, IT failure, or pandemics. It offers you a strategy as well as the resources you need to cope with the crisis and weather the storm. The goal: to come out the other side without tarnishing your reputation, damaging your operations, negatively impacting your finances, or harming your employees.
Not only is crisis management in business essential to preparing your business for unexpected emergency situations—such as COVID-19—but it is critical to successful customer service.
Developing a Crisis Communication Plan
Developing a crisis communication plan is process that requires you to put together a team, task force, or committee who are responsible for developing your policies and practices. It’s essential that both management and front-line employees are involved in awareness, prevention, and business continuity protocols.
According to Gallup, your crisis communication plan, particularly during the COVID-19 outbreak, should include:
- A succession plan for all executives
- A how-to guide for remote work, including using virtual, video, and audio technology
- A plan for reducing business to critical operations only
- Cross-training for team members for all critical functions
- Documentation of all critical processes and procedures
- Distribution of call center scripts and agent communications
- An outline of who is involved in which actions for every crisis scenario
- A resolution plan for each and every type of crisis
A crisis communication plan should help prepare your business for any event so that you can avoid long-term damage and maintain a great reputation with your customers. Ideally, it should even help you increase productivity during and after a crisis by giving every employee a road map to their role and function throughout the crisis—so there’s more action and less downtime.
7 Crisis Communication Tips for Great Customer Service
Call centers can be particularly affected during a crisis. As the front-line team in charge of customer service and satisfaction for your business, these agents are in charge of maintaining high-quality standards during a very difficult time, all without burning out.
It’s not easy to provide a great customer experience during a crisis like the current coronavirus pandemic, but it is possible with these seven crisis communication tips.
1. Gather All Necessary Information
First and foremost, you need to gather all necessary information about the crisis so that you know how you need to respond to be effective. For example, during a crisis such as the COVID-19 pandemic, you need to know what is happening and how new CDC, WHO, and government recommendations could impact your business.
The specifics of what information you need to gather will vary depending on the crisis, but there are a few steps you will always need to take.
- Determine your policy and decision-makers, including your crisis management team, so you know who is responsible for leading the crisis response.
- Understand how the crisis will likely impact your business, particularly your customers. This will not only inform your customer service and communication, but will also help you identify stakeholders in affected areas.
- Identify how you will keep up-to-date with the latest information on the crisis and how you will disseminate critical information to management, front-line employees, stakeholders, and customers.
- Review all relevant customer service and communication policies to determine how they will change during the crisis. For example, will you amend refunds, cancelations, postponement, etc.?
- Provide dates for customers, as possible, so they are aware of how long the new policies and procedures will remain in place.
2. Develop a Crisis Management Team
Next, you need to create a crisis management team that will lead the charge in your call center and beyond during a crisis. This team will help keep your business and employees on target and task throughout the situation and will prepare you for new threats to come. The goal should be to compile a group of experts that ensure business continuity.
The people you’ll need on your crisis management team may vary depending on your business, but in general, your team should include a:
- Crisis Manager: This person leads the team and approves the creation and implementation of your crisis communication plan.
- Crisis Management Advisor: This person provides direct support to the crisis manager, ensuring they have all the resources and tools they need.
- Emergency Director: This person works directly with emergency officials to assist and support their response.
- Public Relations Specialist: This person helps you hand all public relations during a crisis, including managing your reputation with your employees, customers, competitors, press, and more.
- Legal Advisor: You may find yourself in need of legal counsel during a crisis; this person would lead those efforts.
- Medical/Health/Security/Safety Advisor: Depending on the type of crisis you are dealing with; you may be in need of a subject matter expert to lead your efforts.
3. Create a Knowledge Database for the Crisis
Since the very nature of a crisis is that it is unexpected, it can be a scramble, particularly at the start, to figure out what to do and how to deal. To ensure great customer service during a crisis, providing management, employees, and customers with all necessary knowledge is essential. The goal should be to enable your business to handle anything that comes their way.
As part of this, there are two knowledge databases that you’ll need to create.
- Internal Crisis Management Database: This “source of truth” database should be in one central location available to all team members in customer service and beyond. It should be easy to update and contain all key information related to handling the crisis, including the current impact of the crisis on your business, a list of the crisis management team members, all updated policies, approved language for speaking to customers, and all expectations.
- Public Information Portal: Customers should not be required to call into your customer service team to know how your business is handling the crisis. They should be able to find that information on your website in an easily accessible way so that they can make informed decisions. For example, Marriott has created this link for COVID-19.
4. Prepare Crisis Management Customer Service Responses
While your knowledge databases will outline broad information about your company’s crisis management response, it is not as complex or detailed as your customer service and call center agents require. They need to be able to anticipate the type of questions, concerns, and situations that they will be dealing with throughout the crisis. The goal is to ensure that your brand presents a united front and provides quality support to all customers.
A list of prepared crisis management responses should ensure that your front-line team members can confidently answer all customer queries in a realistic, clear, helpful, empathetic, and consistent way. Some questions that you should expect during a crisis, include:
- Will service be disrupted, and how will you handle it?
- Are there any new policies or procedures (refunds, cancelations, etc.) that I need to be aware of during the crisis?
- How will the crisis impact me as a customer?
- If I need to change my relationship with your company during the crisis, what are my options?
Be sure that, no matter how many different call center agents a customer talks to, they hear from your brand with one voice. There should be a single source of truth to ensure that there is no contradictory information or mixed messages. A sample message template is a great way to guarantee consistent transparency.
5. Make Emotional Intelligence a Priority
During a crisis, compassion and empathy will be key to your customer service success. Not only should you never lie to your customers about how you’re handling the situation, but your agents must demonstrate emotional intelligence on the front-line. This is how you will differentiate yourself from your competitors during every interaction.
The key to emotional intelligence in the call center is the ability to recognize and regulate emotions during every interaction. There are six crucial steps to this for your agents:
- Anticipate customer requests using the prepared crisis management customer service responses, as explained above.
- Deliver explanations, using facts and figures, about exactly how your company is affected by the crisis and what you are doing to offer your customers a resolution.
- Educate your customers with the most up-to-date information about the crisis and its impact on customer service, product production, and more.
- Build rapport by showing interest and care in how the crisis is affecting your customers.
- Provide emotional support by listening and asking the right questions.
- Offer personal information and insight about how the crisis is affecting you.
6. Ensure Management is Always Available
Management is critical during a crisis. They will lead your entire business toward success or failure. The advice they provide, how they respond to the crisis, and the policies and procedures they put in place will guide every aspect of your business crisis management plan. The key is to ensure that leadership is in frequent communication with all of your employees and that they are addressing the crisis response daily or weekly, as needed.
Management should be available at all times—via social media, email, text message, internal systems (Skype, Zoom, Microsoft Teams), or phone—to answer questions and provide the latest updates on policies and protocols. They should:
- Be available to handle escalated customer service inquiries.
- Frequently host team meetings to check on all agents and keep everyone on the same page.
- Provide flexibility as required for remote work, sick leave, schedule changes, and more.
- Continually offer training on the most effective agent soft skills.
7. Provide Omnichannel Support
Last, but certainly not least, engage with your customers where and how they want by providing omnichannel support. It is always important to interact with your customers on their channel of choice, but it is particularly essential to your success during a crisis. You need to be available to respond and engage with your customers whether they’re contacting you via email, social media, live chat, on the blog, or over the phone.
A branded omnichannel strategy for your customer service team can make the biggest difference in customer experience during a crisis. The key is to follow the rules of each platform and to develop an omnichannel crisis communication plan that could include:
- assigning someone to respond to all social mentions,
- having a dedicated call line or email address to crisis-related questions,
- assigning a manager to oversee crisis management on non-phone channels,
- aligning messaging everywhere.
Provide Great Customer Service During a Crisis
How your business responds—good or bad—during a crisis can make or break your reputation and thus your bottom line. The key is to be prepared for the unexpected as much as possible with a well-developed crisis communication plan that considers all stages of the crisis and provides an outline for the types of policies and procedures you’ll need to create to avoid long-lasting, negative consequences.
COVID-19 might be one of the greatest crises of this generation, but if you can maintain a positive and professional reaction by following our seven crisis communication tips, it will go a long way toward establishing your brand as the gold standard.