When county officials closed off North Carolina's Outer Banks to visitors and nonresident property owners in March 2020, Clark Twiddy, president of the local vacation rental management company Twiddy & Company, anticipated a steep downturn for business. He was right--but only for about two months.
Once the Outer Banks reopened in May, Twiddy's company received an unprecedented overflow of demand that continues today. It quickly became clear that the 43-year-old company needed to ramp up and restructure its customer service strategy. And it isn't the only business that has faced this challenge.
Over the course of the pandemic, a confluence of factors, including, but not limited to, supply-chain snags, increased customer demand, and new Covid-19 safety protocols have changed the frequency at which small and medium-size businesses communicate with their customer base. Exactly how companies have addressed the increased need for customer service support varies, but one thing is clear: An increased investment can be well worth it.
Here are just six ways small businesses are expanding their ranks--and keeping them happy once they're in the door.
1. Weigh the value of outsourcing.
Outsourcing customer service is hardly a new strategy, but it's one that companies of all sizes can take advantage of. PartnerHero, a Boise, Idaho-based outsourcing company that hires remote customer associates around the world and primarily works with startups, grew by nearly 100 percent in 2020, and is on track to do the same by the end of 2021. According to Heather Casey, president and COO, there are a few reasons why small and medium-size businesses may be better off outsourcing their customer service.
For one, many businesses just don't have the time, infrastructure, or resources to scale up--especially when they have to make rapid changes. "Last year, one of the world's largest film festivals contacted us and said, we need 80 people in three days," Casey says. "They had to suddenly digitize the festival, so they had an unanticipated need." About 80 to 90 percent of PartnerHero's contracts are just three months long, according to Casey--which makes some companies more willing to try it out.
Horatio, a customer service outsourcing startup that's based in New York City and the Dominican Republic, has also seen immense growth over the course of the pandemic, largely because of changes in customer demands: A dog food brand that Horatio works with has seen a massive uptick in orders owing to the increased adoption and foster rate of dogs over the course of the pandemic, for instance. Ultimately, CEO and founder Jose Herrera sees outsourcing as a solution that can "free up a lot of headspace" for businesses, but acknowledges it isn't the right decision for all companies: "If you're getting 10 customer support inquiries a week, you don't need to outsource. If you're getting thousands, then that can be quite cumbersome to take on alone."
2. Create new pathways to communication.
In addition to hiring nearly 40 additional customer service agents since the start of the pandemic, Twiddy & Company also adopted new digital solutions. When one of the company's interns--a 20-year-old college student--revealed he'd been working on a chat bot for the website, Twiddy asked him to install it immediately. Questions that customers typically would have called to ask can now be instantly answered thanks to the bot's machine learning capabilities.
3. Hire to fill noticeable needs.
But A.I. isn't the solution for everyone. At the onset of the pandemic, Denver CBD brand Feals not only saw an uptick in the number of orders it received--customers also started interacting with the brand on a deeper level. Pre-pandemic, calls to its customer support hotline generally lasted about four to five minutes--and then, during the pandemic, they were, on average, closer to 10 minutes, founder and CEO Alex Iwanchuk says. As a result of higher-than-normal stress levels, the entrepreneur says, more customers, who were unfamiliar with CBD, started calling and inquiring after CBD products' purported health benefits. In August, the company added two new dedicated employees to the customer support team, which now accounts for five of the brand's 30 staffers.
4. Invest in customer experience staff training.
Finding good customer service agents--especially during a labor shortage--is a challenge enough, especially when you're searching for candidates with "extreme understanding and empathy" that make them well-suited to the jobs, as Casey says. But employee training is just as critical. At Feals, customer support employees go through a training process that lasts from four to six weeks, involving quizzes about the intricacies of CBD and phone call shadowing sessions. Twiddy & Company has also started implementing video training to streamline the process of onboarding new employees.
5. Consider a strategy shift.
When a company sees an increase in customer engagement, they may also need to shift their response. "We used to never respond to negative feedback online, whether it was through email or social media--but as we sought to build our engagement with customers, particularly around travel uncertainty, we had to correct misinformation, and we had to do it the right way," Twiddy says. Ultimately, the president thinks customers want more "transparency around their purchase decisions for fear that they would lose money or wouldn't get what they want." So, the company shifted its customer service strategy to be even more transparent. Previously, if there was a delay in a customer's rental house being ready, the company would simply communicate the delay. Now, it shares exactly why there's a delay--if it was messier than expected and needed a more thorough cleaning, if something broken had to be fixed, etc.
Twiddy has also come around on his stance on text-based communication. Pre-pandemic, the company prioritized in-person interactions and phone calls as the gold standard of hospitality. Now, the rental company also offers customer service via text--and, after some debate, has authorized the use of emojis in those texts--to provide customer service that's "prompt, effective, and compassionate."
6. Prioritize employee well-being.
In the age of the Great Resignation and labor shortages, customer service workers may be hard to come by--and even harder to retain, which is why several companies have paid close attention to the work environments of these employees. During the pandemic, PartnerHero began offering interest-free loans to employees, which they could apply for with few questions asked. "Just that bump for some of these people meant that they could have a little less stress in their life, and therefore be a bit more productive at work," Casey says.
At Feals, customer service workers operate on strict hours--the hotline is only open from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Mountain Time. Recently, the brand's customer service director recognized that one employee had a few "tough conversations" with callers; the following week, the employee came to the office and was sent out on an excursion--effectively a mental health day--and returned at 5 p.m. to meet the rest of their team for happy hour. "We're really trying to encourage our team to find a better work-life balance," Iwanchuk says.