Compassion, flexibility, and empathy: How we managed our Customer Operations team during the pandemic

Article

Nichole Vine

March 29, 2022

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By Nichole Vine, Customer Operations Manager, Momentive  

What do you do when there’s a global pandemic, and you manage a team of frontline customer service agents at one of the largest customer experience companies in the world? That was the question we were all asking ourselves as Customer Operations Managers at Momentive, the maker of GetFeedback. Even as the coronavirus crisis unfolded, we knew the next few months (what turned out to be years) were going to be critical. Our service agents and our customers would need more support than ever before. Financially and emotionally, compassion became our North Star.

It’s no surprise that this experience caused an unbelievable amount of stress. No matter who or where you were, it was a frightening experience. Understandably, at Momentive we saw customers become very emotional; asking for refunds, requesting extensions, inquiring about discounted rates, or becoming frustrated with longstanding policies that became prohibitive in the current landscape. In some cases, customer distress could turn into anger, and our service agents were tasked with de-escalating difficult conversations at a moment’s notice. Though we understood where this change in behavior came from, it was a new experience that we knew we’d have to navigate carefully. 

As we sifted through new waters, it turned out that our customers and employees needed much of the same things. At a high level, they needed support. Specifically, understanding, flexibility, and options, paired with compassion, resources, and empathy. These were things we were more than prepared to offer. The one thing we needed that we didn’t have, was time. 

As COVID-19 continued to affect our day-to-day lives, our service agents were looking for support while also providing support to customers at the same time. As managers, we worked to ensure the mental wellbeing of our employees, while they navigated the twists and turns of a changing customer service landscape. It became more important than ever to talk about how the emotions of others in our lives, strangers even, began to affect our own emotions as we moved through the day. 

In our newest guide, The ultimate guide to customer service, we highlight a number of new job functions that customer service agents have been given since the start of the pandemic. Negotiator, therapist, cop, and conflict resolution expert, to name a few. At the same time, managers have now assumed the role of bodyguard or bouncer, defending the line between professional and personal that the coronavirus has made so fuzzy. Of course, not every interaction was challenging, but as the pandemic roared on, we knew that if we wanted to retain and support our customer base, we would have to first support our agents on the front lines. Customers will choose a company because of its product, but they’ll leave because of the service. As of March 2020, our priority in Customer Operations remained consistent: help our employees navigate the pandemic, and empower them to help our customers do the same. 

Here are five ways that you can thoughtfully support your customer service agents, in what continues to be one of the most challenging customer service landscapes many have seen to date. 

1. Get to know your team, and meet them where they are

In customer support, our people are our product. Just as a product team works tirelessly to develop their product, Customer Operations teams have to do the same to develop their people. Employee engagement and job satisfaction shouldn’t be seen as separate tasks, rather part of the core job that Customer Operations has at a company.

When it comes to employee experience, our core objective in Customer Operations at Momentive is to create an experience that feels good. Balanced, fun, challenging, exciting, and rewarding. In order to do this, we need to know what’s important and valuable to our teams. Though every employee relationship is different, it’s important to know what your team members care about and what keeps them motivated. If you haven’t had the chance to get to know your team members personally, now is a great time to start. 

When doing this, take care in getting to know your team, and consider that everyone has different comfort levels. This is especially important in a world where many employees have been onboarded remotely. It may take time to build that relationship solely on a digital platform. Let your team members know that you want to get to know them, and take their cues as you move forward at whatever pace feels right. Never assume that what’s challenging for one person, is challenging for everyone.

Making an effort to get to know your team members on a level that’s appropriate for the working relationship signals that they have support from someone at work who cares about them as a person. This feeling of inclusion and belonging can ease employee fears during times of uncertainty and improve employee engagement.

At Momentive, this continues to be a priority for all managers. When the pandemic first started, workstyles changed, our environments changed, and many people had personal matters to attend to, be it childcare, care for family members, and other related challenges. By getting to know your employees on a more personal level, even at a small scale, you create space to talk about the things that may be challenging them in that moment, and open up the opportunity to work on a solution that promotes work-life balance, together. 

2. Listen with intent to understand, collect feedback, and make a plan for action

Like we alluded to earlier, at Momentive our incoming support case volume increased with the pandemic. This is not unique to Momentive however – with the need to operate lean and save money, many companies saw an increase in refund requests and additional customer support requests as uncertainty rose. Businesses had to find a way to maintain revenue and keep their doors open, while still offering compassion and understanding to their customers. All the while, looking out for their employees as everyone navigated uncertain times. 

Policies and product offerings that were put in place pre-pandemic became problematic as customers required more flexible options. Customer service agents on the other side were tasked with finding creative solutions and de-escalating stressed out customers. In some cases, customers became frustrated, impatient, or unhappy as businesses raced to implement new policies and product offerings that were more suited to the current landscape. 

If your service agents are telling you that they’re experiencing more challenging customer conversations than before, listen with the intent to understand and take that valuable opportunity to collect their feedback. As workers on the front lines, customer service agents are hearing first-hand what customers are struggling with, and what’s making them happy or unhappy. As a result, they’re also the most well-equipped to inform decisions and changes in the future, as our direct line to customer sentiment. 

As a manager, it’s more important than ever to listen to and learn from your agents. Listen carefully and remain open to their feedback. Show employees that you’re listening by committing to actioning that feedback and updating them regularly. They want to feel heard just as much as your customers do. 

3. Understand and support the individual needs of your team members 

In our employee experience guide, our findings show that work-related stress is the number one reason for employee turnover today. Losing your valuable employees is costly in the best of times, but if your workers start resigning en masse, the gaps in your workforce can make it challenging to drive your business imperatives forward. Not to mention, it creates a challenging company culture shift when tenured team members, culture carriers, start to leave the company.

It’s important to let your team know that you’re there for them, and that you recognize the challenging circumstances the company is working through. Whether it’s in a small team meeting or a company-wide Town Hall, at Momentive there is no sugar-coating. Recognizing and talking about the challenges that we face helps humanize the experience that we’re all going through individually, and allows us to then experience those challenges together, instead of alone. It’s also important however to check in with your team members on a one to one basis. 

In customer service especially, the average day of a customer service agent can be a rollercoaster of other people’s emotions, fed to them one after the other without much warning. Every interaction will be different. Since the challenges COVID-19 has created are different for those who work in a customer-facing role, it’s important to check in with your team members individually to understand how they’re feeling and what support they need. 

Get a sense for how their week has been going, what they’re struggling with, what they’re excited about, and what they need from you as a leader. Creating and nurturing psychological safety at work is the best way we can take care of employee needs, which in turn should be empowering for both them and our business. Offering this support and showing you’re there with them on this journey can help them feel supported in their role, and in turn be less likely to seek other opportunities. 

It’s important to note that even though we’re in the wake of a global pandemic, it’s likely that your employees still want to grow and develop in their career. Checking in with them and understanding their needs can help you gain clarity on  what’s important to them personally and professionally. 

4. Empower service agents to make resolution-oriented decisions 

Changing customer needs throughout the pandemic have created a number of challenges for our Customer Operations team to navigate. With challenge however comes opportunity, and the chance to put greater focus on training and development. For us, this meant empowering customer service agents to advocate for their customers and make resolution-oriented decisions. 

A deeper focus on training, development, and cross-functional work, and a slow move away from decision trees and scripts, allows individual team members to exercise autonomy and make customer-focused decisions. This flexible approach also provides agents with the ability to find creative solutions to problems while interacting with customers in the moment. If the agent feels there is an extenuating circumstance or strong customer need, they are empowered to find a solution for their customer; asking for an exception to a policy, extending a subscription timeline, or providing creative support in alternative ways. 

Giving customer service agents this autonomy and flexibility generally leads to a better customer experience, but it also helps promote open communication between different parts of the business. When working to find a creative resolution to a customer’s issue, agents may work with their manager, Customer Success, Sales, and other parts of the company to find a solution that works well for both the customer and the business. 

We also try to encourage blending communication styles that worked pre-pandemic and styles that work now, in a hybrid working environment. If you’re working in the office, book some time with your cross-functional partners to talk through an idea, or tap someone on the shoulder if you have a question. If you’re working remotely, leverage video conferencing tools to stay connected to cross-functional teams, and don’t be afraid to still hop on a quick Zoom to hash something out, or ask a question. 

Encouraging your team to cultivate cross-functional partnerships to resolve customer issues generates a vibrant learning opportunity for employees, and more options for the customer. Plus, it makes things more fun! 

5. Encourage wellness and demonstrate compassion 

A Momentive study found that stress is the number one reason causing people to quit their jobs today across the greater workforce. More importantly, 22% of people planning to quit explicitly stated that the main driver behind this decision is the need to focus on mental health.

If there’s one thing we can all agree on, it’s that the pandemic has affected everyone differently. The challenges caused by coronavirus look different for each individual person, and for some people, there may be little to no challenges at all. At Momentive, the best thing our company did was provide flexible resources that met a variety of employee needs. This started at the executive level, and flowed through the business from the top-down. 

Services like Ginger and Headspace were available for free to employees right away, which gave access to virtual mental health resources and tools to work through stressful times. Flexible time was granted at the beginning of the pandemic for anyone who contracted COVID-19, or was caring for someone who had. A stipend to pay for costs associated with getting set up to work from home was granted to each employee. A handful of “care/flex days”, time in addition to paid time off and sick leave, were given to all employees each quarter to allow for more time to care for themselves, whatever that meant to them personally. And company health benefits continued to support employees’ varying needs. 

Whether you were working from home in a house full of family members and children, or living alone and connecting with those around you virtually, Momentive did everything it could to both encourage and exercise patience, flexibility, and understanding. The services and benefits that the company offered ensured that no matter your experience with the pandemic, you were still able to move through each day,  take new opportunities, and grow your career. 

In Customer Operations, wellness was a key priority. Mentioned above, we recognized right away that in addition to our own challenges and feelings, customer service agents would also be fielding the emotions and challenges of customers around the world. In conjunction with the services and resources that the company provided, one thing we found to be helpful was reframing to a positive outlook as much as we could. Asking our team members questions like “is there anything about working remotely that you’ve come to like?”, “Did you learn anything new about yourself or your working style as part of this experience?” or “have you tried anything new that you might not have tried before?” allowed us to carry through each day with a silver lining. 

Senior leaders in Customer Operations were also very in-tune with the organization, encouraging the use of our flex days, reinforcing the importance of decompressing, and supporting a flexible working style whenever possible, to ensure we had a chance to care for ourselves and those around us. Encouraging the wellness and mental health of your employees, while providing access to resources at the right time, will help to keep employees feeling supported and motivated at work and at home. 

As the pandemic moves to an eventual endemic, we’re seeing the business and our workplace shift to a new sense of normalcy. Offices are opening up, including Momentive offices, which gives our team a sense of hope. Though the pandemic posed a lot of challenges, it also brought to light the benefits of a flexible working style. In customer Operations at Momentive, employees have the option to return to the office full-time, adopt a hybrid working style, or stay as a fully remote employee. 

Through this flexibility we’ve seen team members move into homes outside the city, visit friends and family in other countries while working remotely, welcome new furry friends into their lives, and even start new hobbies that have become more accessible in a work-from-home environment. Flexible working locations have offered personal and professional growth in ways we never considered before the pandemic, and it’s a benefit we look forward to continuing to offer our employees. 

What we learned throughout is that our teams are resilient and optimistic, and so are our customers. We learned to live with uncertainty, and most importantly we learned about ourselves; the importance of giving ourselves grace, and making space for each other. I’m so proud of my team, and so inspired by the company as we continue to live by our values: #TrusttheTeam, #MakeitHappen, and #InnovateforCustomers. 

A special thank you to Momentive Customer Operations leaders Laura Hayes, Darren Bjers, Ben Storey, Sharon Foley, Therese Bosson and Lisa Griffin for their wonderful contributions.

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