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COVID-19

It can be stressful to be a customer-service rep right now

Kristin Schwab May 1, 2020
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A worker at a call center. Many companies are trying to satisfy customer demand with online solutions. Geoff Robins/AFP via Getty Images
COVID-19

It can be stressful to be a customer-service rep right now

Kristin Schwab May 1, 2020
A worker at a call center. Many companies are trying to satisfy customer demand with online solutions. Geoff Robins/AFP via Getty Images
HTML EMBED:
COPY

If you’ve been trying to file for unemployment benefits, claim an airline refund or hunt down a lost package, chances are you’ve called a customer-service line once, twice — maybe 15 times. You’ve also probably listened to a lot of hold music.

On the other end of that music is a customer-service rep with a line of callers that never lets up.

“We power through it,” laughed Daphne Cervantes, a customer-service rep at Freshly, a meal-subscription service.

Most of the calls are about shipping delays. But every once in a while, someone has a question that isn’t in her handbook.

“One time a customer called in because they wanted a picture of the mask,” she said, meaning the mask employees wear when they prepare food. She couldn’t get a photo because she’s now working from home in Phoenix.

Cervantes said the customer was nice about it. People have been pretty friendly in general — chatty, even. “They’re not afraid to go into detail,” she said.

But getting through calls quickly is more important now that companies are dealing with a surge. At Expedia, call volume is seven times higher than usual. Vrbo, a vacation-rental site, has hired an extra 250 people to work the phones. And people have been tweeting about being on hold with banks for hours.

All this while customer-service employees are working from home. As Verizon’s executive vice president and chief human resources officer, Christy Pambianchi oversees crisis-response protocols. The company has employees in the U.S., Europe and Asia. “Right now, every country is responding differently to coronavirus, and within the United States every state is responding differently,” she said.

There’s a lot to coordinate, like equipment and internet security, because calls can involve credit cards and Social Security numbers that need to be protected.

Many companies are discouraging customers from calling at all. Most have online chat boxes, and some let you request a callback so you don’t have to sit on hold.

If none of this works, customers often go to Instagram, Facebook and Twitter to vent. “If you think of the businesses you can’t fathom life without, it’s typically because of a human relationship and an emotional connection made,” said John DiJulius, who owns the DiJulius Group, which does customer-service consulting for brands like Marriott, Nordstrom and Starbucks.

In a crisis, the quality of customer service can have a lasting impact, and refunds or cancellation policies might not be enough to keep people happy. Customers want to get a real person when they call, and less of that hold music.

COVID-19 Economy FAQs

What’s the outlook for vaccine supply?

Chief executives of America’s COVID-19 vaccine makers promised in congressional testimony to deliver the doses promised to the U.S. government by summer. The projections of confidence come after months of supply chain challenges and companies falling short of year-end projections for 2020. What changed? In part, drugmakers that normally compete are now actually helping one another. This has helped solve several supply chain issues, but not all of them.

How has the pandemic changed scientific research?

Over the past year, while some scientists turned their attention to COVID-19 and creating vaccines to fight it, most others had to pause their research — and re-imagine how to do it. Social distancing, limited lab capacity — “It’s less fun, I have to say. Like, for me the big part of the science is discussing the science with other people, getting excited about projects,” said Isabella Rauch, an immunologist at Oregon Health & Science University in Portland. Funding is also a big question for many.

What happened to all of the hazard pay essential workers were getting at the beginning of the pandemic?

Almost a year ago, when the pandemic began, essential workers were hailed as heroes. Back then, many companies gave hazard pay, an extra $2 or so per hour, for coming in to work. That quietly went away for most of them last summer. Without federal action, it’s mostly been up to local governments to create programs and mandates. They’ve helped compensate front-line workers, but they haven’t been perfect. “The solutions are small. They’re piecemeal,” said Molly Kinder at the Brookings Institution’s Metropolitan Policy Program. “You’re seeing these innovative pop-ups because we have failed overall to do something systematically.”

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