The scope of COVID-19's impact on the business community is still unfolding, but one of the most visibly-strained sectors is customer service. Even in a thriving economy, providing effective customer service can be difficult; during national emergencies and crunch times, it can become even more challenging. The coronavirus crisis in particular has resulted in a situation where those on the front line, interacting directly with customers, are often in the position of bearing the brunt of the widespread panic--with no script for some of the customer concerns they are encountering, and more pressure to come up with novel solutions.

Many companies have already begun viewing this crisis as an opportunity to evolve how they provide customer service. Katie Gilstrap, an assistant professor of marketing at Virginia Commonwealth University, told Forbes that improvements in customer service have become widespread as the pandemic has forced businesses to become more consumer-focused. "We have seen creative changes in business models to accommodate customer and business needs," she said.

From businesses that have streamlined their online ordering systems--in some cases even adding an e-commerce option for the first time--to businesses that have acted quickly, hiring staff to build programs that automate high-volume client requests, COVID-19 has the potential to improve customer service. Here are some steps that just about any company can put into place.

1. Practice Active Listening

One of the many challenges that businesses are having to adapt to is how to continue their high standards of customer care when they can no longer interact in-person with their clients. Harvard Business Review recently completed a study to better understand the impact of the pandemic crisis on customer service departments. Between March 11 and March 26, it used Tethr (an AI and machine learning venture) to analyze one million customer service calls across different industries; among their findings was a noticeable increase in the number of instances of both customers and customer service representatives saying the phrase, "I don't understand you." 

One solution can be active listening. While the most important aspect of active listening are the visual cues that you provide for the other party-maintaining eye contact, nodding your head and smiling-you can still practice it over the phone. Customer service reps can indicate they are listening by simply saying "yes" or "mmm-hmm" periodically. This will help the customer feel at ease and more likely to be able to articulate what they want. 

Active listening can also include asking clarifying questions or repeating the information back to the customer to make sure that you've fully understood what they've said and remember it. Rather than making assumptions based on incomplete information, try using phrases like, "What I hear you saying is...." and "Tell me more about what happened when you did..." This approach to listening can reduce customer frustration. 

2. Update Your Business Policies

It's important that you update your business policies to reflect the new circumstances, and remain flexible to adjust them even more if it becomes necessary. Standard customer service policies likely reflect a certain level of economic activity or assume a certain kind of customer behavior that may not make sense anymore, or simply might not be applicable in any of the scenarios you're encountering. Some businesses have already changed their refund or return policies or adjusted their guidelines for extending bill payments. If your business offers gift cards that typically expire in six months, consider extending it to 12 months; if you have never offered flexible payment plans, now might be the time to make an informed choice about implementing them.

3. Make Generous Gestures

Perks and generous gestures--no matter how small--can go a long way in helping customers cultivate a positive feeling towards your business. 

Some businesses have introduced discounts, created or extended flash sales, or instituted free shipping/delivery--all to help people feeling a financial pinch. Even little freebies, like including samples with every purchase or providing complementary coffee for waiting customers can go a long way in cultivating gratitude and good feeling.

Extend the love in broader acts of charity as well. Some companies have implemented various offerings--from live broadcasts of musical performances to streaming exercise classes--through a pay-what-you-wish or a donation-based model, with the money going to people whose jobs and livelihoods have been more impacted by the crisis. Others have made outright donations of cash, goods, or in-kind services to non-profit organizations and community groups.

Discreetly and tastefully communicated, these philanthropic actions demonstrate a "we're-all-in-this-together" type of attitude. If you can show you aren't just about profits, but are genuinely interested in helping others, the more likely you are to gain a loyal customer in the future. 

4. Keep Employees Connected 

It is likely that some of your workforce is working remotely. This means that they are not in the same space, and do not have physical access to their peers or managers to seek answers. But even one person providing the wrong information to a customer can be costly. The good news is that modern communication tools--like Slack, Microsoft Teams, and Google Chat, among others--allow employees to connect in real-time even when they aren't sitting next to each other. A messaging platform can be conducive to problem-solving amongst peers. 

And if you have updated any of your business policies, as per above, make sure that your employees have access to an electronic version of them. Similarly, if the expectation is that your employees are going to be able to communicate with customers (and each other), they should all have access to a reliable, but secure, phone and/or an internet connection so that there are no interruptions in their service.

5. Ramp Up Customer Feedback

Perhaps you have implemented a new online ordering system or you have pivoted to offering webinars or events online through a video conferencing platform. Provide an email or a phone number where customers or clients can reach out to you if they have questions--and listen and respond promptly to the feedback that they have. If they're having a hard time navigating the interface or see that a feature is missing, move promptly to rework and evolve to meet your customer's unique needs. You could even go one step further and draft a document with FAQs or specific instructions. Don't leave them to flounder and figure it out by themselves.

One potential positive impact of the COVID-19 crisis is that people will begin to see how interconnected we all are. Human connection has always been the most important ingredient in providing good customer service--and now, more than ever, it may be the best solution, in combination with technology and empathetic management. Once the most immediate impacts of the pandemic have passed, enterprises that have adapted will ultimately have a business model in place that better serves both the needs of their company and of their customers.