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By Jo Causon, CEO, The Institute of Customer Service

Last week’s announcement of a ‘roadmap’ ‘for our gradual emergence from lockdown will be welcome news to business, and their customers, across the country; providing a much-needed glimmer of hope that better times are on the horizon. Yet, if there is one thing we have learnt over this challenging year, it is that navigating this crisis is a marathon, not a sprint – and recovery will take mammoth efforts from businesses and the people within them. As we look to the future, we should remember that our employees will be crucial to our successful recovery from the crisis – and with 80% of the UK’s GDP generated by the service sector, this is particularly true for those working in customer-facing roles.

It is even more concerning, then, to see a continued rise in instances of hostility and abuse towards our frontline service workers. This worrying trend has continued throughout the course of the pandemic, as these employees have had to deal with an increasingly frustrated and disenfranchised public. Through our own research, and discussions with our members, we have had perturbing reports coming out of organisations across all sectors – with instances ranging from being shouted and sworn at to, in extreme cases, physically assaulted. It’s important to note that the issue is not isolated solely to the retail sector, or indeed to face-to-face interactions. We have increasingly seen reports of abuse faced by customer service professionals working in contact centres or from home, when dealing with customers over the phone, email or live chat – often without adequate training and support.

As lockdown begins to ease, many frontline workers will be required to take on even greater responsibility for ensuring customers follow health and safety rules; from enforcing the wearing of face masks to ensuring social distancing is maintained – and we should do all we can to protect them from unacceptable instances of abuse and hostility.

That is why we launched our Service with Respect campaign last year, calling on the Government to do more to protect these vital workers by introducing a new, standalone offence for those who assault customer-facing employees. We are delighted to have seen over 130 organisations – both members and non-members – sign up to support the campaign to date, as well as MPs from across the political spectrum helping to push for it. This morning, we are hosting the latest in a series of All-Party Parliamentary Group meetings on this topic, where along with some of our members, we will share the evidence we have gathered and the findings of our latest research on the issue.

Yet a change in law alone is not enough – organisations must also play their part; stepping up to ensure their people have the level of support and training they need to handle the challenging and ever-growing requirements of their role. This is not only the right thing to do, but a business necessity. Employee satisfaction levels are intrinsically linked to business performance – plus, our research shows customers are increasingly likely to avoid brands whose employees they perceive as being poorly treated. To assist, we have launched a series of training modules designed to support our members in dealing with challenging customer interactions.

Our customer service professionals deserve respect and protection from abuse, both now and in the future. Not only have these people played a vital role in keeping the nation running throughout the past year, but they will also be the backbone of efforts to rebuild our economy as we gradually emerge from lockdown. As organisations, and as a nation, we must do all we can to ensure they receive the protection, support and training they deserve to safely carry out their crucial roles.

Jo Causon

Jo joined The Institute as its CEO in 2009. She has driven membership growth by 150 percent and established the UK Customer Satisfaction Index as the country’s premier indicator of consumer satisfaction, providing organisations with an indicator of the return on their service strategy investment.

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