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How to navigate the lasting impacts of COVID-19 on customer support

As COVID-19 disrupts business as usual, we're seeing monumental changes take place in a mere matter of months. Are these changes merely a response to the pressures created by a global crisis, or a sea change for customer support?

By Maggie Mazzetti, Content Marketing Manager

Last updated October 14, 2021

Forget what you think you know about customer support, for now. In just a few short months, COVID-19 has transformed the way businesses and customers interact. As customers, we’ve heard from just about every company we’ve ever done business with. Remember that hair salon you went to in college? How about that time you bought dad new grill equipment from an online supplier? One after another, subject lines read like concerned emails from friends.

But it’s not just the messaging from businesses that has changed. We’re navigating this new reality together. As COVID-19 disrupts business as usual, customers face cancellations, shipping delays, and difficulties from using new products and services. And this means they’re leaning on support teams in greater numbers. With wait times on the rise, customers are turning to channels beyond traditional phone and email support in hopes of finding quick answers.

What does this mean for how businesses assess and meet the needs of their customers going forward? Are these behavioral changes merely a response to the pressures created by a global crisis, or a sea change for customer support? And what can support teams do to be better prepared for an uncertain future? To understand how this changing landscape is impacting businesses worldwide, we looked at 23,000 companies in our Benchmark dataset that power their support operations with Zendesk.

“We’re experiencing higher than normal call volumes”

Businesses of all types, sizes, and locations have been impacted, with surges seen across all regions as the virus continues to spread. Overall, weekly support requests are up 24 percent globally compared to last year.

These numbers are much higher for the “pandemic-critical” industries that keep us fed, connected, and entertained. On-demand grocery services, for instance, have seen tickets spike 133 percent, while requests to remote work and learning platforms (85 percent), gaming companies (67 percent), and food delivery businesses (33 percent) are also on the rise. Grocery delivery service Instacart, for example, reportedly saw its business more than quadruple during this period as people followed government guidelines and stayed indoors.

As companies deal with the rapid changes to their day-to-day business operations, spiking tickets place additional pressure on support teams. Many agents are now expected to manage far more tickets than ever before, even as their workflows have been upended and they navigate working from home for the first time. Transformations that would normally take months or even years to implement have happened in a matter of days to ensure that customers continue to receive the same level of service they need and expect.

We need to chat

During the crisis, traditional support channels like phone or email have either been inundated with requests leading to longer wait times, or are seen as too slow for customers seeking quick answers. In response, people are flocking to WhatsApp, chat, and text to resolve their issues. Since the last week of February, WhatsApp usage jumped 101 percent, followed by live chat (+34 percent), and texting (+30 percent).

At the same time, customers are increasingly willing to find the answers themselves. Visits to online help centers rose 65 percent during the same time period. What’s more, usage of these resources has actually outpaced the growth in ticket volumes for most sectors, presenting very real opportunities for companies to resolve customer questions before they become tickets.

Discord, a free voice, video, and chat service popular with the gaming community, saw its usage soar 300 percent as people began using it to hold virtual book club meetings, classes, and conferences. As Discord’s user base expanded, its robust help center helped mitigate spikes in support traffic. From February to March, page views jumped 70 percent and unique visitors more than doubled. Meanwhile, Discord’s ticket deflection ratio climbed ten points.

AI-powered chatbots are also coming in handy. Freshly, a meal delivery service, is deflecting around 2,200 tickets each week since launching a chatbot that directs customers to helpful information on its website. “That’s a huge, huge savings for us,” said Dan Medina, Freshly’s director of customer experience, “especially some of those routine questions that maybe they just didn’t know how to ask or didn’t take the time to search for.”

The future is now

Customer behavior has shifted rapidly over the last few months. But many of these changes had already been taking place. Channels like messaging and chat had been gaining traction with younger generations, according to the 2020 Customer Experience Trends Report, with 17 percent of people between 18 and 24 reporting they used social messaging apps to resolve issues with a company. The report, published prior to the pandemic, also found that 69 percent of customers prefer self-service, but less than a third of companies offer a help center, knowledge base, or FAQ page.

This doesn’t mean businesses should unplug the phones and delete the support email address just yet — the two channels remain hugely popular with customers. But even before the crisis, many companies already had plans in place to expand their offerings in self-service and AI bots (which had a projected growth of 120 percent over the next year), chat (65 percent), and messaging (65 percent).

So, what’s next? Companies must be better positioned to respond to the changing needs of their customers

Roughly 15 percent of companies in our Benchmark dataset are solving tickets more efficiently than anyone else and that’s largely because they’ve been quick to change up their existing support systems. Not only are they looking to expand into newly popular channels like messaging and chat, but they are also redeploying their existing resources where they need them most.

As we look to the future, one lesson is clear: businesses need to be able to meet customers where they are, when they need them.

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