Coronavirus and Customer Service: 5 Ways to Optimize Customer Support Operations in Stressful Times

Written by Dylan Max on Mar 9, 2020

Nearly every company is experiencing some level of adversity from the Coronavirus. According to an opinion article in The New York Times, “The outbreak threatens the stability of everything from information systems to Amazon orders1.”

Travel-related customer service Google searches have shot up 888% between mid-February and mid-March 2020 compared to a 30-day average between 2004 and 2020 (79% of top trending queries compared to 8% of top trending queries).

Source: Google Trends

Airlines and hotels are managing last-minute cancellations and addressing travel safety concerns. Retailers, too, are struggling: 24% of British retailers said supply chain disruption was having a significant impact on their business, which could lead to delivery delays2. Grocery and food delivery companies, on the other hand, are expected to see a surge in orders as people isolate themselves with “social distancing measures3.”

How do businesses handle the threat of Coronavirus?

There’s the element of hygiene that we’re all familiar with: washing our hands, staying home when we’re sick, cleaning our keyboards and our phones4. These tactics are critical to containing the spread of the virus. But responding to COVID-19 ripple far beyond the medical-related.

Customer Service and the Coronavirus

The outbreak is catapulting customer service operations into the spotlight. In times of adversity, new issues arise and we see an uptick in ticket volume. Stressed customers want answers quickly. Companies need to adjust; they need to respond quickly, be transparent, and communicative.

It’s no surprise that “customer service” as a topic has the highest trending search volume in March 2020 than any other March over the last two decades.

“Customer Service” as a topic has the highest trending search volume in March 2020 than any other March over the last two decades.

In this article, we’re exploring how companies can optimize their AI customer support operations in stressful times, like during the Coronavirus outbreak.

Five Ways to Optimize Customer Support to Deal with the Coronavirus Outbreak

1. Provide Proactive Communication

Notify customers as soon as your company knows that there could be an issue or unforeseen circumstance.

For example, one industry that is feeling a huge impact from the Coronavirus is the wedding industry. Delayed fabric and wedding dress shipments are leading to wedding dresses being delayed up to six weeks, or more5. Retailers must keep brides in the loop as soon as a delay is anticipated. From there, they can offer actionable advice or alternative solutions.

This reminds me of how Odwalla Foods managed a recall after an e-Coli outbreak that led to the death of one child6. The company took out full-page newspaper ads to clearly explain the situation and new safety measures underway.

2. Be Available, Always

In 1982, Tylenol faced a crisis when pills that had been laced with cyanide led to the deaths of seven people in Chicago. The company immediately recalled  31 million bottles, sent 400,000+ warning messages to doctors’ offices and pharmacies and set up a 24/7 hotline to answer questions around-the-clock7.

People today expect immediate, convenient resolutions to their issues – even more so in stressful times. Like Tylenol, companies need to scale a 24/7 customer service operation to answer questions. Unlike in the 1980s, companies don’t have to rely on a human-only workforce, which is difficult to scale up in times of emergency. Today, companies are bringing AI customer service into the workforce to offset the costs of ramping up hiring, onboarding, and training of human agents. Scaling support across every digital channel including email, chat, messaging, social, as well as SMS customer service – is now more crucial than ever before.

Virtual agents can respond to repeatable tickets and act as the first line of defense – gathering information from a customer before handing off to a human agent. Whether resolving autonomously or acting as a co-pilot to human agents, virtual agents will help to significantly decrease resolution time, getting customers the answers they need quickly.

In addition to providing faster resolution to issues, this is also a smart move for companies looking to improve the response rate and ratings in their customer satisfaction surveys.

3. Prioritize the Long-Term Value of Your Customer

In February 2007, a powerful ice storm rocked the east coast. As a result, JetBlue canceled 1,000 flights in five days, leaving people stranded in airports for days and some stranded on the jetway at JFK for eight hours8. The company took responsibility, didn’t blame the weather, and apologized. As a result, the airline launched a Passenger’s Bill of Rights that “would financially penalize JetBlue and reward passengers for any repeat of the current upheaval.”9

With the Coronavirus, some customers might want to cancel an order due to delayed delivery or want to cancel a trip over fears of contracting the virus. This is a stressful situation for both the customer and the agent. The way businesses treat their customers in times of stress is imperative. A positive experience will pay lasting dividends in your relationship. However, a negative customer experience during this time could sever the relationship completely. Treat customers well in times of stress, and watch loyalty solidify.

4. Let AI identify new issues, route accordingly and learn from human agents

Virtual agents can quickly uncover new patterns and potential situations that a company needs to prepare for and respond to. For instance, if there is a spike in customers asking about delays or refunds or complaints around potentially contracting a virus at a specific location, AI can route these trending topics to customer service management.

In response to the Coronavirus, Gartner suggests that companies “use chatbot AI in digital channels to address the most commonly asked questions to offload volumes to service agents.”  

Many customers’ needs in a crisis qualify as high-risk or critical and should be routed to human agents. However, there are some situations, like simple policy or refund eligibility questions, that AI could manage. When human agents are overloaded with a spike in tickets, keeping mundane tickets out of their cone of responsibility will be essential for agent and customer satisfaction (CSAT).

Initially, AI and chatbot tools can monitor how human agents respond. Eventually, AI will earn the authority to interact directly with customers on these new issues.

If your company hasn’t yet brought AI into your organization, Gartner suggests that you “find vendors and test solutions quickly.” The analyst firm recommends companies “prioritize solutions that are easy to implement.” In times of stress, companies can’t afford to delay, slow implementations.

5. Update the tone and conversational design of your virtual agents

Depending on your business and how closely you’re affected by the Coronavirus, you may need to update the tone of your virtual agents or provide specific information upfront. For instance, Cruise Lines would want to immediately provide an update on policies and procedures, instead of greeting someone with a meme on getting away for Spring Break.

It’s important to surface the right information immediately. Don’t make your customers search for information. Proactively communicate relevant information immediately, and keep the tone appropriate for your customers’ context.

The Coronavirus is creating crisis-management situations for a lot of companies. Customers are going to have more questions and issues during times like this. Make sure that you’re bringing together machine and human intelligence to provide excellent customer service. It’s the companies that are proactive, transparent and flexible that will be the heroes in their customers’ eyes.

Business stressors are as unpredictable as they are unavoidable. Looking to optimize your customer service operations during stressful times? Let’s chat.

To get more of our insights on retail customer service before you contact us to request a demo.


  1. The New York Times: 
  2. The Guardian: 
  3. MarketWatch: 
  4. CDC:  
  5. Fox News: 
  6. BizJournals: 
  7. CommuniquePR: 
  8. CNNMoney:
  9. The New York Times: