Crisis management & COVID-19: 12 Tips for Customer Care
When does crises management begin?
Processes within companies and institutions are designed with budgets, capacities and staff numbers in mind. For example, buffers for sick leave, technical failures and certain weather scenarios are generally factored into the number of “cases” that can be optimally processed by a set number of workers within a timeframe. These estimations allow us to be prepared for problematic situations, e.g., the flu season, extremely stormy periods and nationwide telephone service provider outages, which are not uncommon. We can normally overcome such hurdles in a few days by entering into a kind of “emergency operating mode”, where callers may have to wait that bit longer or customer supplies may be slightly delayed. But what happens when these situations last longer than expected, and become even more difficult? If the number of people affected and the consequences of that just keep rising? How good is crisis management, when there really is a crisis?
Unplannable, unpredictable, inevitable
The Covid-19 – or new coronavirus – crisis, which was initially perceived as an irrelevant problem has, as we know, taken a rapid turn. Comparable with previous epidemics of recent decades like BSE, SARS, H1N1 (“swine flu”), norovirus and influenza, the magnitude of such scenarios assumes proportions commensurate with the rate of mortality. In this latest case, the new coronavirus is following a relatively serious course and bringing consequences for all industries with it. At first, seeing that the documented deaths predominantly involved at-risk groups and that the general course of the illness for anyone else often appeared flu-like or harmless, people were inclined to simply want to ride out the events. However, the huge contagion potential and the high number of existing and expected cases (including deaths) resulting from this have quickly brought about new critical phases, where not only public health systems have had to take decisive action to stem both the illness and the growth of new epicenters outside of China. Within a very short time, authorities have also found themselves faced with a rush of people who have questions or simply feel unsettled, looking for information on hotlines, overfilling consultation slots and paralyzing download servers.
Such an epidemic also brings about secondary consequences that might not instantly come to mind.
Stockpiling, or panic buying, among populations fearing quarantines; shortages of medical products due to panicked, and sometimes even illegal procurement; the abandonment of major events; mass cancellations in the tourism industry and all the insurance and legal cases tied up with this. In turn, we see overstretched emergency and order hotlines, advisory and delivery services, transport companies and health insurers. Hardly any sector remains untouched and capacities need to be created.
Events like Corona Virus demand new processes
Existing emergency procedures are no longer adequate.
A few examples: the German medical association’s non-emergency 116 117 hotline temporarily went out of service. Crisis information sheets on download pages provided by the German government became inaccessible, and some citizens reported making up to 44 attempts to call the authorities before they were even placed on hold. A lack of suitable protective clothing has left medical centers unable to carry out mass testing. Supermarket shelves have been emptied, with some places running out of sugar, flour and toilet paper.
What have we been able to learn from previous crises? A 12-point list can be derived from here that should be individually adapted for every company, ideally in advance:
1) Events sometimes develop exponentially – the picture changes daily. Taking a proactive approach to keeping customers and business partners informed is best, regardless of whether they are directly involved in the catastrophic events or are having to bear the secondary consequences of them.
2) Be mindful of hype/news cycles. News organizations tend to focus on the “new” rather than the bigger picture, and do not always differentiate between hard facts, soft facts and speculation. Yesterday’s news will probably determine how your organization thinks about the crisis today. As a result, people have a systematic tendency to initially overlook weak signals and then overreact to emerging problems, before eventually – and belatedly – assuming a more measured way of thinking. When absorbing the latest news, think critically about the source of the information before you react to it.
3) Do not assume that having information is the same as being informed. In our networked world, employees and customers have direct access to all kinds of information. Managers might actually conclude that, with so much information and so many commentaries available externally, they do not have to take any further action. However, information needs to be individually evaluated and interpreted for each organization and it is your job to do this. Passing on a regularly updated summary of facts and implications from the perspective of the company or organization is not a duplication of work; it has an important filter function for your customers and employees.
4) Rely exclusively on experts. Experts in epidemiology, virology, public health, logistics and other disciplines are essential for an interpretation of complex and changing information. Of course, expert opinions on critical issues like optimal containment policy and economic impact will differ, so it is advisable to consult several sources.
5) Continuously update your own understanding of what is happening. Once you have carried out a comprehensive analysis of the situation and put together a plan, a degree of inertia can kick in, since you feel that everything is well prepared. A Chinese proverb says that great generals should issue commands in the morning and completely change them in the evening. We know that large organizations in particular are rarely this flexible. Management or individual decision makers often resist distributing plans until they are absolutely certain, and then hesitate to change them out of fear of looking indecisive or misinformed or causing confusion within the organization. The solution to this comes in the form of agile documents with tracked changes, enabling you to learn and adapt in quickly changing situations. These can easily be updated or withdrawn, as required.
6) Beware of bureaucracy! Controversial, sensitive or high-profile issues are generally reviewed by management and further hierarchy levels within the company. Each will have their own suggestions on how to best formulate the communication, which can lead to an overly generalized or conservative perspective and make the process slow and cumbersome. In crisis situations, it is crucial that you put together a small, trustworthy team and give them enough leeway to make quick, tactical decisions. Particularly in an environment where every day brings important new information to light, such a “rapid reaction force” is invaluable. Furthermore, a clear distinction between facts, hypotheses and speculation can help you convey a more complete and nuanced picture.
7) Ensure that you communicate guidelines in a timely, clear and balanced manner, as customers and employees are highly likely to be exposed to conflicting information, which can lead to confusion. Also communicate contextual information and the reasoning behind guidelines, so that in cases of doubt employees can make their own decisions and take initiative, for instance when dealing with contractors. This will also help make interventions such as restrictions on travel and gatherings feel less restrictive. Additionally, when travel guidelines are changed or toughened, make sure it is clear when and for which reasons employees can travel and which authorizations they will require.
8) Review your own resilience factors. These include:
- Redundancy, i.e. access to additional manufacturing or service capacities.
- Diversity, through multiple approaches to task fulfillment.
- Modularity, through the avoidance of highly integrated systems.
- Evolvability, as the ability to continuously develop knowledge or use it as the basis for completely new solutions.
- Community, because as a company you are a stakeholder in broader industrial, economic and social systems which are also under great stress.
9) Use the current crisis situation to prepare for the next! Covid-19 is not a one-off challenge. Studies on the effectiveness of organizational responses to dynamic crises show that the variables most likely to predict future success are preparation and prevention. Preparation for the next crisis (or the next phase in the current crisis) is probably much more effective than a new impromptu reaction when the next crisis hits.
10) Purely theoretical preparation is not enough. Many companies will, at some point, run through different scenarios in order to calculate as many unexpected situations as possible. However, these scenarios need to be updated and adapted time and again, taking into account the key risks for a company at any given time. In the case of the new coronavirus, these risks have shifted at extremely short notice with the emergence of new disease epicenters. Theoretical readiness alone is therefore insufficient. Understanding an issue is, after all, different to adapting to it in practice. Special training sessions are available that simulate and train for crisis scenarios so that we can explore and learn from the way we behave under stress.
11) Reflect on what you have learned. Yes, surviving a crisis makes you want to breathe a sigh of relief and return to your normal routines. That’s understandable. Nevertheless, it is always worth evaluating what a situation taught you and preparing to put this knowledge to use at a later date. Opportunities for improvement may even arise, as rapidly developing situations can sometimes reveal underlying organizational weaknesses, like an inability to make difficult decisions or an excessive tendency toward consensus. Flight safety is one of the most effective global learning systems we have in this respect. Any time there is an incident, from minor glitches to tragic accidents where people lose their lives, the causes are investigated in forensic detail in accordance with pre-agreed protocols before binding recommendations are issued. It is hardly surprising that this cumulative knowledge and adaptations based on previous misfortunes has made flying one of the safest forms of travel.
12) Prepare for a changed world. We all need to accept that the coronavirus crisis will change our businesses and societies in significant ways. It will probably fuel areas such as online shopping, online training and investments in public health. It is also likely to change the way in which companies configure their supply chains and reinforce the trend away from dependency on few mega producers. This will possibly be one of the greatest challenges as German carmakers, for instance, know all about reliance on suppliers like China but have nevertheless invested billions there in the past. Despite this, we will need to consider how we can make our value chains more robust. This might mean building in some redundancy. We cannot, for example, only produce a crucial manufacturing part or active ingredient for medicine in China, and then see ourselves as somehow detached from a crisis that breaks out there. It is all a matter of diversification.
The solutions are right in front of us
1) Think virtual!
Whatever you want to call it – working from home, remote working, mobile working, home working… the principal of decentralized, virtual collaboration has long been recognized, although it is still not widely accepted or practiced, particularly in Germany. Proponents of this way of working are now getting a boost as well as support in their persuasive efforts. The fact is that companies that have already established this method of working will, at least when it comes to the availability of its staff, experience hardly any limitations due to travel restrictions or quarantines. Trade shows, customer appointments and similar can be seamlessly reproduced in the virtual world, meaning a company that has positioned itself well digitally could even emerge victorious from this crisis. Where others will find themselves at least temporarily paralyzed, such companies will offer smooth operation and demonstrate agility, reliability and progress. This security is not only an important and positive signal to customers, but also to employees, who feel well looked after by their employers even in times of crisis.
As already explained, a lack of access to information and the limited availability of relevant bodies and institutions represent key crisis factors. Authorities or other institutions that already typically struggle with waiting times and weak server capacities are especially likely to face huge problems in periods of crisis, when traffic from customers, people seeking assistance and other members of the general public develops exponentially. In these situations, virtual waiting services or automation technologies that are available on demand can provide major relief. Thanks to artificial intelligence – used for instance in virtual assistants (“voice and chatbots”) – regardless of manpower, needs-based accessibility can be provided with almost infinite scalability on a short-term or variable basis. Ever-recurring requests relating to cancellation periods, emergency procedures and up-to-date information can be permanently captured in this way. Any inquiries remaining after such a selection – whether online, by phone or by email – can be broken down even further by the technology and forwarded using intelligent routing, so that only genuinely complex special requests need to be processed by a limited number of employees. Theoretically, even these requests could be prequalified according to urgency using advanced IVRs and assigned in an orderly manner with intelligent appointment management.
A crisis does not mean taking a break from meeting performance expectations. Relying purely on problem management is a dangerous strategy, not least when other market players are already finding solutions and alternatives or are constantly up-to-date due to ongoing data analyses. And of course, sooner or later, the affected markets will judge which companies rose most effectively to the challenge. This should not however encourage insularity. As a responsible market player, you should support others in your supply chain, industry or community. Whether in healthcare, communications, the food industry or another sector, consider how your company can do its part to help tackle the crisis. Concentrate on the intersection between acute social needs and your specific skillset – because we are all in this together.
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What you can expect in this whitepaper
- how you should react to crisis and what to learn from having experienced them
- a 12-point checklist that will help you come through real crises with a cool head
- Read how communication, information and cohesion can work even in the toughest of times and how they can become even better with the right technology!