Maintaining Good Customer Service Following a Disaster

Customer Engagement
Customer Experience
Disasters cannot always be avoided, but organizations can prepare for them and try to deliver good customer service both during and after catastrophes.

Hurricane Sandy has come and gone, leaving behind it a path of destruction to some of the most populated areas in the United States. As life starts getting back to normal for millions of people on the East Coast, organizations are takings stock of the situation and looking at what they could have done better.

Some companies have taken the opportunity to reach out to their customers to offer help. AT&T, for example, is offering people who are still without power a place to charge their devices. This is especially important for people who have sustained damages and are waiting for insurance companies to contact them.
While it's difficult to be fully prepared for such instances, mainly due to uncertainty, organizations need to have a disaster plan in place, allowing them to be as agile as possible in getting back to normal service. "They need to be prepared ahead of time," notes MJ Crabbe-Barberis, director global product marketing at Infor. This includes having messages prepared ahead of time, allowing companies to immediately send them to customers when disaster strikes and keeping them informed. Crabbe-Barberis suggests looking at different events or disasters that could impact customers and prepare contingency plans.

In cases of negative impacts due to bad weather, organizations can also inform customers beforehand about what they can expect. Con Edison, for example, told customers to expect power cuts before the storm, allowing them time to charge devices, stock up on candles and batteries for torches, and in buildings where power cuts would lead to water stoppages, fill receptacles with water.

Crabbe-Barberis highlights the importance of data to determine the best channel to reach both customers and employees. For example, if power cuts are expected, customers might not have access to a television and might not be checking their emails. Instead, a text message might be the most appropriate way to deliver time-sensitive information.
Just like any other occasions, relevance is key, Crabbe-Barberis insists. With customers likely to be inundated with messages from several organizations, it is even more important for companies to make sure that the information they're sending is relevant to that particular customer. "Segment customers to make sure that the message is relevant to the person because now isn't the time for customers to sift through details that aren't relevant," Crabbe-Barberis says. For example, an insurance company might want to think twice about sending auto claims information to customers who only have a home policy with them.

Companies also need to have a plan for instances where they need to contact a large number of people within a short period of time. Crabbe-Barberis says some companies are starting to make use of recorded messages that they can call to customers' phones. This is how my building contacted the tens of residents to alert us of an impending power cut when the street started flooding during Hurricane Sandy.

It's also imperative for companies to plan for staffing, especially if they expect an increase in their workload. This is especially relevant for insurance companies which expect to see a spike in the number of claims following a natural disaster. "When it comes to weather-related disasters, companies might be able to plan ahead and bring employees from other regions," Crabbe-Barberis says. "If you can predict it, try to staff for it."

Despite companies' best intentions and preparations, customer service might suffer during and after a disaster. This is when companies need to formally apologize to their customers for any failures. This apology, Crabbe-Barberis notes, needs to come from a high-level executive, and be coupled with a plan to resolve the problem and keep it from happening again. "Most companies will engage their customers in the solution, asking what worked and what didn't," she says.

Finally, it's important to show empathy. There might be very little that a frontline employee can do to lessen a customer's inconvenience or outright suffering, but they can offer some understanding. This is very relevant to insurance agents who will be facing tens of people who have suffered damages or even lost their homes and need to hear a kind word.