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By Jo Causon, CEO, The Institute of Customer Service

There is no doubt that we have now entered a third phase of dealing with the Covid pandemic. The first phase was characterised by a strong sense of ‘all in it together’ as we battened down to see off the virus and businesses and their staff mobilised to keep services going. The second phase saw lockdown being eased and life beginning to open up again: a period of stabilisation and greater optimism. Now, in this third phase, we are realising that we are still very much in a battle with the virus – that it’s a marathon rather than a sprint.

There are three main effects of this. Firstly, it makes planning much more uncertain for businesses again, as it is so hard to know exactly what the future holds. Secondly, as furlough draws to a close it means that many organisations are really starting to feel the pressure. And finally, for many individuals, things are beginning to feel potentially starker and more worrying.

I am conscious this sounds gloomy. Of course, we will come through this and the daylight will come again. The uncertainty is how long it will take and how much the economy – and individuals and families – will suffer from the ripple effects.

During such a time, strong business leadership can make a powerful difference. This means staying true to an organisation’s values and purpose, keeping the long-term vision in view as an inspiration and a goal.

It also means being sensitive to the day-to-day issues that affect us all and in particular thinking about how the business is supporting its staff. These are tough times for many and so it’s vital that leaders and managers are sensitive to how individuals are faring – checking in regularly, listening and responding. We need to show that it’s OK not to be OK. There is no stigma to this. “I hear you, I understand, and I’m here to support you” – that’s a message that can give a genuine lift.

Another important factor, though, is that it’s tough for leaders too. So don’t forget to listen to yourself. Take some down time if you need it; share concerns with close colleagues; make sure you are always keeping things in perspective and can see the bigger picture.

There’s no doubt that some people have become weary through the strangeness and (for some) isolation of these times. Many are ‘Zoomed out’ by endless video meetings. So one small practical tip is to mix up and refresh your communications. Build in some Covid-safe face to face meetings where you can; try phoning people for a change sometimes; look for ways to build variety into how you interact with your teams. Don’t lose sight either of some of the good things that have come out of the pandemic to date – the efficiencies that have been gained by new ways of working, the ability to reach and connect people up. Retain these positives.

Good leaders support the people around them – and they also help them to excel. They get the balance right in ensuring we don’t settle for second best. Another positive from the pandemic so far has been the huge recognition of the importance of service. And so it’s vital that we don’t let those service standards slip. Covid should not become an excuse for poor service. It is really important that as service leaders we don’t begin to accept mediocre performance. Part of staying true to the long-term vision and purpose of a business is staying true to the highest standards in everything we do, every day.

While service has, overall, become more widely appreciated through the pandemic, at the same time many staff have sadly had to deal with instances of aggression or abuse. That’s why at The Institute we launched our Service with Respect campaign – and I was absolutely delighted when the number of organisations that have signed up to support it passed the 100 mark. It’s a great endorsement of the campaign. But it also serves to underline that, as champions of customer service, we must keep working tirelessly to earn the respect of customers everywhere by living up to the standards we have set ourselves.

These may be testing times – but those are the times that can make organisations stronger. Businesses need to stay true to their core purpose and goals, support their people, and retain their commitment to service excellence. They will then be well-positioned for success when, once again, better days arrive.

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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