The pandemic kicked in for us in the UK end of March 2020. Welcome to January 2021, 10 months on, and we are still faced with a huge number of businesses telling us customers ‘due to covid, we cannot …..’ or ‘due to covid, we are unable to …..’. I am not sure about you, but I certainly am getting frustrated by it. I fully understand the difficulty this pandemic has brought on all of us, personally and professionally, but I am not sure it is acceptable for businesses to still be unable to figure it out 10 months on.

There are certain difficulties that are unavoidable, and that is totally understandable. But what is not comprehendible to me is some of the things, I, as a customer, perceive to be simple. I emphasise that this is based on my experience as a customer, because for businesses who are still not tuned in to what their customers need or want 10 months on, they might be facing a very difficult time navigating through a new unexpected challenge that 2021 might throw at us.

This post though is not to complain or moan, but rather to offer some support and ideas for businesses to start somewhere and overcome the ‘due to covid’ syndrome.

Managing Disruptive change Guide by CQI
Managing Disruptive Change (CQI, 2020)

The Chartered Quality Institute published a paper for Quality Professionals: A practical Guide on Managing Disruptive Change. The paper is available for free to all members. I will highlight my three takeaways from the paper. But first, let me share with you three businesses who responded to customers in a very opposite way.

Business 1: Massive Energy Supplier in the UK

I recently moved into a new home with my life time partner. The process was stressful but rewarding in the end. We have been customers of this particular large UK energy supplier for over 6 years. They are very good in customer service and their online tools do the job. Naturally, I became loyal to them. When we moved into our new home, I called them to activate a new account. After several calls back and forth for them (ranging from mid October till mid November) trying to locate the property on the national grid, I was informed that they are able to locate me on their systems, but not on the national grid yet. I thought: well progress at least! Oh how wrong I was. The next statement the customer service specialist told me left me completely speechless:

‘I am sorry Mr. Issa, but with covid and us working remotely and from home, there are some aspects of the systems we are unable to access. I regret to inform you that I cannot set you up for now as a new customer. Maybe once we are able to go back to the offices, you can give us a call back.’

Yes… I will give you a minute to read that again and let it sink in. I thanked the specialist for her candid response and the conversation ended.

Business 2: One of the Largest Banks in the UK

I have an account with this bank. I have also been a customer for many many years. Sometime around lockdown 2.0 I decided to take a look at my finances and do a ‘financial clean up’. I went onto this bank’s website and saw that I could benefit from a different type of account to the one I currently have. I thought that would be good to go for. I pick up the phone and speak to their contact centre. After some time waiting with a message of ‘due to covid we are experiencing long waiting times’, a very friendly customer support specialist comes on. I share my desire to benefit from this account and I get the answer:

CS Specialist: ‘Sorry Mr Issa, but due to covid-19 we are unable to process such requests to our existing customers.’

Me: Ok, but your website says I can apply by following the link prompts.

CS Specialist: ‘Yes, this is true for new customers. We are currently processing new customers but are unable to serve our existing customers with such requests. I know it is frustrating but I am afraid there is nothing I can do at the moment. We continue to update our policy, so if you check back within 2 weeks, this will most probably change.’

Yes, you read it right. The bank serves new customers but not existing ones.

Business 3: A Small Business Cafe in the Community

An independent, local businessman, who took a historic location and made a lovely local coffee shop of it. Always friendly to customers and the entire crew is a delight. The coffeeshop offers fantastic coffee, lovely home made cakes and sells few essentials. The pandemic hit us and only essential shops can remain open. He immediately made changes to his cafe, and started offering a full range of essentials such as veg, fruits, eggs, flour, bread, rice, etc… This coffeeshop started engaging with local customers taking on reservations of essential boxes through social media just to make sure his loyal clientele are well looked after during these difficult times.

So why is it that 2 large organisations failed to engage with their customers and blamed the situation on covid, while a small business was able to immediately shift because of that same pandemic?

Managing disruption is not easy. I fully understand that some business are more agile than others. I fully understand that large businesses are the victims of their own success, and they have to have some sort of formality to how things are, and because they are big, it takes time to implement changes, etc… But understanding all these excuses, does not make it acceptable to simply leave it be. The first 2 businesses had the friendliest customer support specialists you could speak to. They were fully understanding that what they are telling me did not make full sense, but there is nothing they could do about it. And this is my problem. I wonder if these massive businesses have actually engaged with their employees on how best to handle change during these times, so they can continue to provide excellent service like they did before the pandemic. That is why I found the paper published by The Chartered Quality Institutes useful. Here are my promised three take aways.

Takeaway 1: You must understand the full context of the situation to know how best to proceed with handling change. Look into 6 contextual factors: Customers and the Marketplace, Legal and Regulatory Requirements, Partners/Suppliers, The Business Model, Internal Capability and People.

Takeaway 2: Best practices a company has in place when it is under ‘normal’ operation will not always be best practice during disruption and change. That is why businesses must be able to promptly determine whether their best practices and control framework are to be maintained, improved, or completely transformed.

Takeaway 3: You know the old lesson in management: your best sales person is not necessarily your best person to promote to be your sales force manager. What leadership is available from within the team that will enable your business to handle change? It is not always the same leadership members. Some people adapt better, and some people advocate change. Know your leadership skills so you know which resource to tap into.

And here is a ❇️ Bonus Takeaway: understanding the stakeholders needs, views and expectations is important. The bank telling me that they value new customers more than me, may be an indication that there is a significant failure in the management system.

Living in a global pandemic is not to be taken lightly. It has made humanity assess what is truly important to us. But while it has forced lots of things to change, it cannot be blamed for the inadequacies some businesses have. After all, change is not something that happens once in a lifetime. It is the only constant! So please, if you are in charge of mapping out your customer experience engagement process in these times, make sure you do not always blame Covid!

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