When a crisis hits, a traditional management structure can become obsolete. The classic pyramid – typical among customer service organisations – has the fewest people with the greatest control at the top. Each level below gets progressively larger with progressively less control until you reach the wide pool of customer service agents at the bottom.
What this means is that junior managers are often responsible for the most people. The additional pressure at this level is often overlooked and is exacerbated during a time of crisis. Unfortunately, a crisis is more likely than you might expect – PwC reported 65 per cent of organisations had experienced a business crisis within the previous five years, with 95 per cent expecting a crisis in the future.
Yet your business can prepare for these occasions by developing a more fluid management hierarchy that gives customer service teams the support they need to provide business resilience.
Reassessing customer service to respond to a crisis
Although most crises are beyond our control, there are steps you can take to mitigate the long-term impact and to lead your teams through to the other side.
Junior managers are likely to be the least equipped to deal with a crisis and will need extra guidance to ensure wellbeing for themselves and those beneath them. Any added pressure can cause a ripple effect across the pyramid that negatively impacts workflows, employee engagement, mental health and customer satisfaction.
As referred to in Deloitte’s report on crisis management planning during Covid-19, a clear first step is to establish an emergency decision-making response group. This group can ease the pressure on the ‘squeezed middle’ with a centralised management team that focuses on the needs of customer service employees at all levels as well as the end goals of customer experience and satisfaction.
It cannot be left to junior managers to communicate key business decisions. Senior management has a responsibility to create a transparent, inclusive communication channel that will inspire confidence and engagement as everyone works together to navigate the crisis.
Happy employees mean happy customers
Management style has a huge influence on employee wellbeing, job satisfaction and productivity so any negative influences will have an adverse impact on customer perception and business success.
In 2018, a YouGov survey found that three-quarters of workers who experienced poor management had considered leaving their jobs. Customer service is already a stressful role, with over 70 per cent of agents at risk of burnout – for example, in the US, employee turnover is more than double the average for other occupations.
Senior managers must be prepared to deliver additional support to junior staff members during a time of crisis, especially when people are working remotely. Clear communication and opportunities to provide feedback are essential.
Businesses that are good at internal communications and recognise the value of customer service do better than their peers. Pre-pandemic, 64 per cent of companies with a customer service-focused CEO had greater financial success than their competitors.
Creating a management structure that delivers more support to junior staff will improve customer experience and workplace wellbeing. Businesses should also train all managers in crisis management as 83 per cent of high-performing service agents say they get the training needed to succeed in their role compared to 52 per cent of underperformers. Introducing crisis management training and scenarios will allow your business to pivot faster and more successfully when needed while reducing internal shocks and easing pressure on staff.
The future outlook – change is here to stay
Businesses worldwide will be thinking about how to rebuild in a post-pandemic landscape. Customer service departments have faced enormous upheaval while transitioning to home working and dealing with a huge increase in customer service enquiries.
Despite the disruption, some business change has been positive as seen by the rise in agile and accessible customer service offerings. Some 61 per cent of companies have improved their online help centres and one in five are now dedicating agent resources to creating more digital content. Employees who are supported and empowered by a fluid management hierarchy will be crucial for future-proofing these positive changes.
A supportive management style is proven to decrease call centre attrition and absenteeism. In 2018, T-Mobile pioneered a ‘team of experts’ model that encouraged agents to collaborate in small teams. As a result, the company’s net promoter score increased by more than half and customer churn reached an all-time low.
Management must use the lessons from these success stories as well as experience during the pandemic in forward-planning and models for customer and employee satisfaction in the long-term.
In its report imagining the post-COVID-19 return to business, McKinsey lists ‘rethinking the organisation’ as a core pillar for rebuilding. Looking at the best and worst responses to the most significant crisis of our time, this must be done not just at the bottom of the organisational pyramid but also right at the very top.
Aileen Allkins is founder of Aileen Allkins Consultancy