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Are companies still using COVID-19 as an excuse for not answering the phone?

Why Do Companies Still Use COVID-19 as an Excuse For Not Answering the Phone?

My wife and I own a number of rental properties. (She’s the brains; I’m the moderately skilled labor.) Sometimes rehabbing a property requires getting certain building permits from our locality because the work needs to comply with construction, building, and zoning codes.

Makes sense.

What doesn’t make sense is that a year into the coronavirus outbreak, contacting the permits and inspections offices still results in a message that can be summed up as, “Due to COVID-19, you may experience significant wait times.”

Emails? Sometimes I wait days for a response to a simple question. Calling is sometimes my only viable option.

On the one hand, I get it. Offices are closed to the public. Many employees still work remotely. Processes needed to be changed.

But still: It’s been a (gosh darned) year.

But Maybe That’s Okay?

Oddly, most people don’t seem to mind. A recent Moneypenny survey showed that sixty-one percent of U.S. respondents feel phone delays are acceptable due to COVID. (Fifty-five percent of respondents in the U.K. believe those delays are “inevitable.”)

Even more oddly, the same survey shows that eighty-three percent of people believe that the number of organizations stating there will be a delay in answering phone calls or engaging in live chat has actually increased.

And then there’s this: When respondents were asked which organizations tended to be the most problematic in terms of wait times, utility companies and physicians led the list. Phone companies (how’s that for irony?) and banks followed closely.

Which isn’t a surprise.

As with my municipality, utility companies enjoy a virtual monopoly on the services they provide. If you’re unhappy with the customer service provided by your electric company, it’s not like you can switch to Amazon Electric & Power. If I’m unhappy with the customer service provided by my permits and inspections office, too bad: I can’t go anywhere else.

In those cases, the service level provided is the service level you have to accept.

The same is at least partly true for phone companies and banks. If you signed a two-year cell phone contract, switching to another provider is expensive. Switching banks isn’t necessarily expensive, but it can be a pain. In short, the higher the switching cost, whether in terms of money, effort, or time, the more likely we are to accept occasionally poor service.

If my phone calls hardly ever drop and the geographic coverage is great, I will probably live with the occasional long customer service wait time.

Which may be why, even though the survey shows the number of companies who say there will be a delay in answering calls or engaging in live chat has increased, most people still feel the situation is “acceptable.”

But that doesn’t mean an opportunity to distinguish yourself – and gain customers and market share – does not exist.

Because it does.

No, It’s Not Okay

Like him or not, Jeff Bezos knows how to build a successful business. One of his core principles is to focus on things that don’t change.

That perspective is easy to forget when innovation seems to be the secret to massive success. Catching the next wave. Predicting the next trend. Disrupting an industry. Sparking change. Those are the things that work.

Except it’s hard to be truly innovative. It’s even harder to be truly disruptive. Deciding what to change – more to the point, predicting which changes customers will embrace – is incredibly difficult.

That’s why Bezos spent most of his time focusing on what would not change. He built Amazon on things that would be stable over time, investing heavily in ensuring that Amazon could provide those things.

As he Bezos once said:

“I very frequently get the question: ‘What’s going to change in the next ten years?’ And that is a very interesting question; it’s a very common one. I almost never get the question: ‘What’s not going to change in the next ten years?’ And I submit to you that that second question is actually the more important of the two – because you can build a business strategy around the things that are stable in time.

“[I]n our retail business, we know that customers want low prices, and I know that’s going to be true ten years from now. They want fast delivery; they want vast selection.

“It’s impossible to imagine a future ten years from now where a customer comes up and says, ‘Jeff, I love Amazon; I just wish the prices were a little higher.’ ‘I love Amazon; I just wish you’d deliver a little more slowly.’ Impossible.

“When you have something that you know is true, even over the long term, you can afford to put a lot of energy into it.”

What won’t change in your business? Customers will always want to be able to reach you. Customers will always want you to answer their questions. Customers will always want you to solve their problems. Customers will always want the reassurance that their business – and by extension, they – matter to you.

Yet it’s hard to feel like you matter when you have to wait more than five minutes for someone to pick up a call or respond to a live chat request. The Moneypenny survey shows that less than one in four respondents had to “only” wait between one and five minutes. Fifty-five percent reported they typically had to wait between five and forty-five minutes.

If your business enjoys a virtual monopoly, maybe that’s okay.

But if you’re like the vast majority of businesses, especially one where customer switching costs are low or nonexistent, that’s definitely not okay.

As Moneypenny CEO Joanna Swash says, “The pandemic is too often being used as a scapegoat for companies delivering unbelievably poor communications, and consumers should not accept this as inevitable. There are so many cost-effective solutions available to ensure customer calls and live chat can continue – so it’s not good enough for companies to do nothing and reduce service levels. As businesses open, there is a real danger that customers will move to a competitor because of poor service levels.”

In short: If you are, stop using COVID-19 as an excuse for long wait times or poor service. Find ways to change your processes so that you provide the level of response time and service your customers deserve.

While people might claim long delays are acceptable… I promise you’ll stand out.

And that your customers will reward you for it.

Because great service never goes out of style.

About the author

Jeff Haden is a keynote speaker, contributing editor of Inc. magazine, LinkedIn Influencer, and author of The Motivation Myth.

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