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Pressing the reset button to meet the service challenges ahead

It has been an extraordinary and challenging eighteen months for businesses, customers and society since the Covid-19 pandemic began. The levels of resilience and adaptability we have seen have been commendable and, at times, inspirational.

Certainly, customer service directors and their teams have risen to a truly demanding set of circumstances. The move to remote working; the sensitivity and empathy needed dealing with customers in strange and worrying times; the mass migration to digital channels; the huge spike in online orders and fulfilment requirements – all of these have posed new service challenges.

Customer satisfaction stabilises

While there have inevitably been some bumps in the road, overall levels of service have stood up to the test. At The Institute, we track levels of customer satisfaction through our UK Customer Satisfaction Index (UKCSI) twice yearly. It’s been running since 2009 and in that time we have gathered huge amounts of data from many thousands of customers. The most recent UKCSI, published in July, found that customer satisfaction levels have risen slightly during the first six months of this year, standing at 77.4 (out of 100) – 0.6 points higher than in January. The rise was only small but it reversed a downward trend that set in four years ago. Organisations have worked extremely hard through these unpredictable times to keep customer service a priority and satisfaction levels have stabilised as a result.

However, there can be absolutely no cause for complacency and indeed if anything I believe that customer service teams will need to redouble their efforts in the coming months.

Stresses and strains ahead

One may have thought that, coming out of Covid, we would be moving into a smoother and more normal period again. However, what we in fact find is that conditions are as challenging as ever. It is now clear from multiple indicators around us that we face a potentially protracted period of supply chain disruptions and delays, exacerbated by some acute staff shortages such as drivers. The queues on petrol forecourts have been perhaps the most graphic illustration of this, even if that problem has thankfully eased. But from computer chips to food items to children’s toys, it appears that the knock-on effects from Covid – combined in the UK’s case with some ramifications from Brexit – are going to severely test many aspects of our supply systems and networks.

This has a very real implication for customer service teams, who are likely to bear the brunt of customer frustration. What’s more, rising prices including for basic commodities such as energy, combined with possible interest rate rises due to increasing inflation, could put growing numbers of customers under additional pressure. We already live in a very polarised society and the pandemic has made that more acute – with some portions of society actually faring well financially, while others really struggled.

Sadly, there has already been a notable rise in unacceptable behaviour and abuse towards service staff during the pandemic – which led us to launch our Service with Respect campaign to highlight the problem and bolster the support that our brilliant UK customer service teams receive.

Time to reset

What’s clear now is that the ‘end’ of Covid (we hope) in no way signals an end to our societal challenges. In fact, things could get tougher. That’s why I believe we need to see a reset now in order to prepare for the journey ahead.

How can we do this? The first step is to perhaps recognise that we all, on every side, have to give a bit rather than just take.

Something to give on all sides

For organisations, that means firstly being open and upfront with customers to help manage expectations. If something is out of stock or may not be delivered for 10 weeks, they need to say so and provide regular updates to keep the customer fully informed. Proactive communication, combined with a continuing focus on the principles of service excellence, is critical.

Organisations also have a deep responsibility towards their service staff. Ensuring that individuals are fully supported and trained with a clear career path so that they feel valued and connected to the organisation is crucial. Investing in staff has never been more important.

But it’s not just a one-way dynamic. Employees need to continue to think creatively to keep delivering the best of themselves and continue to be flexible to help the organisation meet its goals. Finding the right balance on both sides between office and home working – the hydrid model – will also be critical.

As customers, meanwhile, we all have something to give too. Everyone has become accustomed to having everything on demand, even when we don’t need it urgently. Over-consumption and instant fulfilment put additional pressure on supply chains, have a heavy carbon footprint and often just contribute to waste. Maybe the time has come for a re-evaluation. With COP26 and an ever-growing spotlight on more sustainable behaviours, perhaps we can encourage consumers to stand back sometimes and ask themselves how their habits can support the planet and the future.

Opportunity in front of us

We find ourselves looking at what could be a difficult winter. However, I believe there is also an opportunity ahead. Small shifts could help redefine service in the UK and the inter-relationships between businesses, customers and staff. There is so much that has been learned that we can build on – driving service excellence forward through understanding, cooperation and respect.

Jo Causon, Chief Executive, The Institute of Customer Service

Jo joined The Institute of Customer Service as CEO in 2009. Over the last 10 years she has driven membership growth by 150 percent and established the UK Customer Satisfaction Index as the country’s barometer of consumer satisfaction, providing organisations with an indicator of the return on their service strategy investment. Follow The Institute on Twitter at