Are Customers Behaving Worse To Customer Service Employees In The Face Of Covid?

Are customers behaving worse toward the people who serve them, in the face of the Covid-spawned crisis we’re all living through? Or are customers actually getting easier to please and more empathetic to the plight of the businesses and the customer service employees with whom they interact?

The reality is that it’s going both ways. First, here’s what I’m seeing (in my work as a customer service consultant and turnaround expert), on the negative side: Some customers, being under stress themselves, have been taking that stress out on what they view as a safe target: customer service representatives they interact with from a distance rather than family members they know they’ll have to face again at the dinner table or in the marital bed.

Which is monumentally unfair, but there it is.

In addition, the bizarro and disheartening national divide on masks and other anti-pandemic safety precautions has led to a lot of nastiness coming from the science-antagonistic customers who are making it so hard for us to get the virus under control. This nastiness is being spewed, at times, on frontline employees in retail, hospitality, and even, ironically, healthcare settings.

But on the positive side, I’m also seeing a lot to be grateful for.

I’ve heard dozens of stories recently of customers who have stepped up to support local businesses in the current environment, choosing this time to take in that long-mothballed quilt to be cleaned (since they know their beloved dry cleaner is hurting from the sweatpants-first ethos of WFH); buying hefty gift cards from restaurants and then–and this part is important–not using them; contributing to the food banks and other lifelines for unemployed and underemployed service employees (for example, near us, the Pike Place Market Foundation, which supports the hard-hit business community at Seattle’s Pike Place Market, is funded donations from customers of the businesses in and near the Market, which are now generally shuttered due to essential anti-pandemic precautions).   

Consider this sentiment, for example, which a retail personal shopper shared with me just today:

“Although the current retail landscape is challenging (and that is putting it lightly!), I’ve been heartened by those customers of ours who’ve reached out with support, empathy, and, of course, purchases–and made it clear that we are “in this together” now as well as in better times.”

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Is there any data to back this mixed picture of the customer landscape? As of just now, there is, and it can be found in the new report, “The New CX Mandate” that was just released by Freshworks, showing results (in the U.S. edition) from 300 customer service leaders surveyed in the US. The survey found that while 68% of respondents feel that customer expectations have increased since February, 74% of respondents feel that customers have exhibited increased empathy for the plight of the workers they interact with, with only 26% feeling that it’s stayed constant or decreased.

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The problem is that you rarely get to pick the customer you’re working with. And when you do yeoman work to get a delivery order out only to be rewarded with a one-star review on Yelp because you were “late” in the customer’s telling, it’s hard not to have that suck a the life out of your efforts to keep on keeping on. 

I hear you, I really do. And I can only suggest that you take heart from the customers who do understand what you’re going through, and who do honor and appreciate your efforts. Not everybody’s mama (or papa) raised them right, but a lot of them did.

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