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

New COVID-19 cases and deaths in the U.S. are on the rise. How are Americans reacting?

Johns Hopkins University reports the seven-day average of new cases hit 68,767 on Sunday  — a record — eclipsing the previous record hit in late July during the second, summer wave of infection. A funny thing is happening with consumers though: Even as COVID-19 cases rise, Americans don’t appear to be shying away from stepping indoors to shop or eat or exercise. Morning Consult asked consumers how comfortable they feel going out to eat, to the shopping mall or on a vacation. And their willingness has been rising. Surveys find consumers’ attitudes vary by age and income, and by political affiliation, said Chris Jackson, who heads up polling at Ipsos.

How many people are flying? Has traveled picked up?

Flying is starting to recover to levels the airline industry hasn’t seen in months. The Transportation Security Administration announced on Oct. 19 that it’s screened more than 1 million passengers on a single day — its highest number since March 17. The TSA also screened more than 6 million passengers last week, its highest weekly volume since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic. While travel is improving, the TSA announcement comes amid warnings that the U.S. is in the third wave of the coronavirus. There are now more than 8 million cases in the country, with more than 219,000 deaths.

How are Americans feeling about their finances?

Nearly half of all Americans would have trouble paying for an unexpected $250 bill and a third of Americans have less income than before the pandemic, according to the latest results of our Marketplace-Edison Poll. Also, 6 in 10 Americans think that race has at least some impact on an individual’s long-term financial situation, but Black respondents are much more likely to think that race has a big impact on a person’s long-term financial situation than white or Hispanic/Latinx respondents.

Find the rest of the poll results here, which cover how Americans have been faring financially about six months into the pandemic, race and equity within the workplace and some of the key issues Trump and Biden supporters are concerned about.

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