Redefining Service-Channel Strategies Amidst COVID-19 Impacts

Service Design

Orchestrating experiences in context

A column by Laura Keller
June 22, 2020

In the not-too-distant past, I recall companies’ forcing me to call them to resolve any issues I had. Whether it was my bank, my cable company, or my health-insurance provider, I first tried to find answers and support on their Web site, then if I couldn’t get the help I needed online, I’d reluctantly call customer service. The customer experience (CX) was excruciating—the complex, interactive voice response (IVR) system, the redundant requests for my personal information and details regarding why I was calling, and the hoops I had to jump through to get to a human being. I was frustrated not only as a customer but also as a service-design expert who knew all too well the many customer-experience laws they were breaking, for example:

  • Make it seamless.
  • Make it predictive.
  • Make it intuitive.
  • Make it intelligent.

But what was the biggest law they broke? Give me options.

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If I preferred using the online channel, why make my only option for a service request be by phone? For years, those of us working in customer-experience design called for omnichannel experiences. We explained that customers want the flexibility to either stay with their channel of choice or move across channels, depending on their need or preference.

And it happened! Companies invested in online experiences, expanding their Web sites to include more self-service options. They invested in mobile, creating apps that provided almost identical functionality as their Web site. They invested in chat, SMS, voice interfaces, enhanced IVRs, and virtual agents. They invested in the infrastructure, the people, the data, the analytics, and the automation necessary to support all these diverse service channels. These companies said, “So you want options? We’ll give you options.”

CX professionals such as myself rejoiced at the channel flexibility that companies afforded to customers. At least until I one day logged into my bank’s Web site—the very same bank with which I’d been doing business years earlier—and found no fewer than six ways to contact customer service:

  • “Use the form below, and Sally will be in touch.”
  • “Chat with Sally.”
  • “Email Sally.”
  • “Have Sally call you.”
  • “Send a text to Sally.”
  • “Call Sally.”

I was overwhelmed by all these options, and I’d been the biggest champion demanding them. If this was how I felt, I imagined how other customers must be feeling. The ideals of flexibility and options were being overwhelmed by complexity and confusion. The bank had broken another rule: Keep it simple.

Diverse Channels and Impact

Given that many brands have been designing to meet an omnichannel strategy for a few years now, I wondered whether providing different channels was improving the customer experience and customer satisfaction. The short answer: No, it wasn’t. According to a Gartner study:

“Customers’ effort levels do not statistically differ between channels. In other words, customer effort is relatively the same regardless of which channel is used. The same holds true for customer satisfaction. Even better, customer loyalty is not affected by use or availability of a preferred channel.” [1]

Not only is offering diverse service channels not increasing customer satisfaction, the introduction of these different channels makes things more complicated for customers—and for the organizations themselves.

“Adding channels leads to more complexity and requires you to divide your resources in more ways, which makes it hard to deliver a low-effort, high-quality service experience. The addition of digital channels often results in varying levels of maturity and an inconsistent experience. Worse still, live call volume and associated costs for issue resolution aren’t decreasing.” [1]

Evolving Expectations Post COVID-19

So not only has the COVID-19 pandemic challenged our existing assumptions about what makes a great customer-service experience, it has also turned the overall service ecosystem on its head. Customers now more strongly prefer self-service and contactless service experiences and want to trust that companies are considering their safety and well-being. They need assurances from companies that they are mitigating the risks of COVID-19 throughout their entire journey. They want more transparency into a product or service and what happens behind the scenes: How many people touched this before me? How much time has passed? Were they wearing gloves? In essence, customers want to understand the entire journey of the product or service itself—even the supply chain—to feel comfortable prior to purchasing.

One of the most important aspects of a service that customers now care about more than ever is how companies treat their front-line employees. Customers want to see that companies are providing the right personal-protection equipment (PPE) to their employees and that companies are enabling employees to maintain adequate distance from each other—for everyone’s safety. For employees who are providing services and can work from home, the shift has not been easy. For example, many customer-service employees now must work remotely, which presents new challenges to customer-service representatives who have historically worked in crowded call centers—environments that better support their job duties—for example, the use of a phone on a landline and a headset eases the handling of calls, as does the ability to ask a colleague or a manager for assistance.

While diverse channel options are not improving the customer experience, they’re adding complexity and costs for the companies that must manage them. COVID-19 has changed our customer-service experience priorities. Therefore, we need to rethink the assumption that offering diverse channels is important to the optimal service experience.

Let’s look at some examples of what organizations can do to come up with a service-experience strategy that supports both business goals and changing customer expectations post-COVID 19.

Focusing on Enhancing Self-service Capabilities

A Gartner study of 8000 customer journeys found that 70% of customers now use self-service channels, but only 9% of them can completely resolve their issues using self-service channels. [1] Thus, there is a significant opportunity that COVID-19 has made more urgent: enabling more customers who prefer self-service channels to be able to completely resolve their issues via those channels. This means not only offering functional self-service options but also ensuring they are easy to understand and use, enabling customers to completely and confidently fulfill their service requests.

Creating Journey Maps Is Critical to a Holistic Service Strategy

Understanding the types of service requests for which self-service channels make the most sense and which may require additional support channels is key to creating a holistic service strategy. You need to understand where your business, your customers, and their journeys intersect. This means identifying key moments in your brand experience, outlining all roles that are involved in that experience, understanding the complexity of the key moments, and determining the customer mindset across the journey, while maintaining a keen focus on COVID-related concerns. Businesses, small and large, are pursuing some version of this activity to become more transparent to their customers. This requires them to think about their business in new ways. For example, in retail, groceries, and restaurants, businesses are having to manage customer flow, enable online ordering and delivery or curbside pickup, and choreograph customers’ and employees’ interactions in greater detail than before, requiring a thorough assessment of their service experience. As businesses prepare to reopen, they’re even creating flow diagrams to figure out how customers would navigate their physical space to minimize contact with other people—a service-experience document we’re all too familiar with as designers.

Establishing a CX Measurement Framework and KPIs

You’ll really know whether you’ve achieved the right service experience and channel mix only once you can see their usage and the analytics behind them. You should establish a CX measurement framework to identify the drivers of the ideal customer experience, the associated key performance indicators (KPIs), and subsequent mechanisms for the collection of data and insights. Ensuring that you’re tracking the data and insights that customers care most about in relation to COVID-19 is key.

Customers don’t just want to read or hear marketing messages about what companies are doing to address their concerns; they want proof. Measurement strategies must now include metrics that prove success around issues such as safety and employee well-being. This data collection may take the form of surveys that capture data specifically about whether customers felt comfortable with the experience and whether they trust the company with their health. It may also mean exposing data about how a company produces a product or service, as well as data about employee operations, which companies have historically kept private within their organization.

Remembering the Importance of Proactive, Value-adding Communications

While customers often initiate many service interactions, your company can increase loyalty by proactively reaching out to customer and providing reminders, notifications, or helpful updates, especially relating to COVID-19 and customer and employee safety. The key is to ensure that your communications are meaningful to customers, are timed appropriately on the customer journey, have their basis in customers’ communication preferences, and reflect the relationship your company has with your customers.

For example, many brands are proactively communicating with customers about what they’re doing to help mitigate COVID-19 risks to both employees and customers and what the rules of interaction are, including the number of customers they’ll allow in a space and whether patrons must wear masks. This information is valuable to customers because they communicate what they can expect. But messages touting “We’re in this together,” without providing any information of substance to support that claim are not meaningful to customers. In fact, most customers would be likely to think they’re making empty claims.

Designing for the Greater Good

Historically, the most successful brands were those who offered exceptional service experiences to their customers. We held up companies such as Amazon, Target, and Starbucks as the gold standard because they exemplified customer-experience best practices such as seamless interactions across digital and physical channels, efficient processes, clear communications, and consistency. Common CX success stories took this form: “I placed my order, knew when it would arrive, and received exactly what I wanted! Happy customer!”

However, we’ve not previously needed to care about things such as this: “If I open this package, am I risking my health?” or “I wonder if that employee is sick?” With the COVID-19 pandemic, customers have many new, often sobering thoughts when using a service, and designers must now understand and design solutions for these concerns.

A growing group of socially conscious customers is already making social statements with their wallets and choosing what companies they’ll support. COVID-19 has now magnified this contingent. Many customers now care about the financial well-being of employees, as well as their health. They want companies to offer paid sick time, increase over-time wages, or provide other financial benefits to their employees. Socially conscious customers have also demanded greater transparency into how companies create their products and services, as well as their associated supply chain, to ensure that these processes reflect their own ethics—for example, sustainability, animal rights, and human rights. COVID-19 is now further magnifying this because people want transparency in these operations and proof of good, healthy practices. The companies that inspire their trust will garner greater loyalty from their customers.

A motivating factor for all service designers is that, if we can design customer experiences that make both customers and employees feel safe and well cared for, we’ll be designing experiences that achieve a greater social good that goes well beyond customer-satisfaction (CSAT) scores. 


[1] DeLisi, Richard, and Devin Poole. Does Your Digital Customer Service Strategy Deliver? Stamford, Connecticut: Gartner, 2019.

Director of Strategy & Experience Design at NTT Data

Woodbridge, New Jersey, USA

Laura KellerLaura’s 10 years of experience have focused on representing the human element in any interaction with a brand through actionable, business-impacting insight gathering and design. At NTT Data, Laura leads cross-channel experience design strategy engagements for clients. Clients have included AstraZeneca, Hachette Book Group, GlaxoSmithKline, Prostate Cancer Foundation, Honeywell, and the NBA. In addition to her Service Design column for UXmatters, Laura has written articles for the Service Design Network’s Touchpoint: The Journal of Service Design, User Experience Magazine, Communication Arts, and Johnny Holland. She has presented on service design at SDN’s Global Service Design Conference, the Usability Professionals’ Association International Conference, IxDA New York City, and IxDA New Jersey.  Read More

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