Customer service, especially in the travel assistance sector, was suddenly at the forefront of everyone’s mind when the pandemic hit. It highlighted the importance of assistance providers to customers; and to assistance providers, it underlined the importance of putting customer service first when information from multiple sources was confusing and clear communication was needed.
While customers’ expectations for customer service hit an all-time high, customer service reps simultaneously saw more difficult calls and increased escalations in 2020. HubSpot’s Industry Data, for instance, shows a consistent rise in support tickets since the beginning of the pandemic – from six per cent in March of 2020 to over 90 per cent in August 2021.
During the pandemic, especially during the first few months, travellers were stranded abroad as borders were closing. “Once travel bans were being put in place; our customers were in panic. The question was how do we get them back in the US?” LaShanta Sullivan, Manager of Travel Assistance at Allianz Partners USA, remembered.
Since then, borders have reopened, and travel has resumed. However, travel restrictions are constantly changing, and it has made it difficult for travellers to stay on top of all the recent developments. Keeping customers informed while they are travelling is one of the ways assistance providers have had to adapt.
“The ongoing pandemic has highlighted the importance of providing timely information to our travelling customers,” Sullivan told ITIJ. “In addition to the traditional travel assistance that we provide while our customers are on their trip, we are now frequently providing information on the specific travel requirements and restrictions that may affect our customer’s trip.”
Putting the customer first
While the pandemic has made assistance providers’ daily jobs a lot more difficult, they have learned to put the customer first throughout it all – even in the most stressful situations, says Yvonne Chek, General Manager at EMA Global. “It is important to put a lot of effort into empathising with our customers while trying to survive the difficulties brought by the pandemic,” she said. “Our team members have experienced a lot these past two years, but it was remarkable how the team remained steadfast in delivering exceptional service. It was a lesson for all of us that we may always be challenged by things beyond our control, but we can absolutely do it all together.”
“As with many workforces, Collinson’s customer service team started working from home permanently during the pandemic, which in itself required a huge pivot in terms of technology and training,” said Sacha Puffett, Group Customer Service Director at Collinson. “However, customer service in the digital age revolves around multiple communication channels. Whether it’s via email, phone, or social media, 86 per cent of consumers expect brands to communicate with them across their preferred channels, and there’s a clear risk of a customer being dissatisfied or looking elsewhere if they’re not able to speak to a brand and receive the answers to their questions as and when they need them.”
We had always spoken about business continuity and disaster recovery plans ... but never to the level we had to do it in March 2020
Additionally, the pandemic has forced assistance providers to become more creative and innovative in how they problem solve for their customers, Sullivan said. “The many travel restrictions we now encounter, which vary greatly by destination, have created a level of complexity that has made many of our more routine operations more challenging,” she explained. “For example, evacuating a Covid-positive customer from abroad now takes a great deal of logistical planning. We work closely with our evacuation providers to meet all requirements and get our customers home as quickly and safely as possible. We’ve become experts in overcoming barriers that may prevent us from helping our customers.”
One way of making sure customer service is always the best it can be is to constantly educate the travel assistance team about how they can help their customers. “We’re fortunate that we’ve been able to adapt to the challenges that have been presented by the pandemic. We’re constantly updating our travel assistance team, so they have the knowledge and tools necessary to provide the outstanding service that our customers expect and need,” added Sullivan.
Customers are using service offerings more than before pandemic
However, some assistance providers were prepared for the worst already, and say their customer service hasn’t changed much since Covid. However, customers have started using their offerings more than before. “As far as our experience goes, there have not been real changes in the way we take care of our customers,” said Federico Tarling, Chief Service Officer at Assist Card. “Certain services, like telemedicine, which our company has made available to our clients since 2017, has seen a much bigger adoption rate since the pandemic began and it has skyrocketed since Omicron took over as symptoms were much milder and people just wanted to speak to a doctor rather than seeing one physically.”
the pandemic forced Assist Card to accelerate the implementation of new features
Tarling told ITIJ that the pandemic forced Assist Card to accelerate the implementation of new features in its app, like implementing a proprietary telemedicine solution (it was outsourced before the pandemic) and the improvement of its reimbursement process which is now 100 per cent digital regardless of the amount, whereas in the past app-based reimbursements were only for reimbursements of small expenses.
“Lately, usage rates have gone up and we had to escalate our operations at a speed that we’d never done before, and of course that comes at a price, but also it helped us learn how to do that, so if we must do it again, we will be much better prepared. Maybe the only thing that has affected our service quality in certain moments of the pandemic was the delayed responses from medical suppliers, but who could reasonably blame them given the terrible demand they were subject to, right?” asked Tarling.
Difficult repatriations changed customer service attitudes
It is important to put a lot of effort into empathising with our customers while trying to survive the difficulties brought by the pandemic
Sullivan remembers one complicated mission during lockdown that changed her mind on customer service for good. Allianz Partners USA had three former travel agents on the team in the case manager role. They were able to quickly organise flights and routes to get them back in the US and they were able to get them back home before borders closed. “Our customer was only stable enough to travel with an escort, but we couldn’t get a nurse into the country due to Covid restrictions,” Sullivan remembers. “The customer was travelling with her daughter, so we were able to instruct the daughter on how to care for her mother during travel. If this had not been possible, our customer wouldn’t have been able to travel home for quite some time.”
When another 80-year-old customer was released from hospital, they needed to convalesce before travelling. Hotel rooms were very scarce at the customer’s destination and the only hotel available had no food service, so Allianz Partners USA organised meal deliveries to the customer. The customer ran out of medication and had no funds for a refill, so the company reached out to their physician in the US, located a pharmacy and refilled his prescription, which was covered by his insurance policy since it was a medical emergency.
Helping customers in time of crisis is rewarding
Tarling concludes: “Honestly, the thing we are the proudest about since the beginning of the pandemic is our ability to move our operations to our homes in 48 hours in seven different locations without affecting our capacity one bit. We had always spoken about business continuity and disaster recovery plans and had tested those to a certain extent every now and then, but never to the level we had to do it in March 2020. We were put to the test, and we delivered!”
At the end of the day, what it all comes down to is assisting customers in difficult situations – however they can. “We will never forget all of our Covid-19 positive patients who were flown in and out of different regions,” Check says. “Helping them during a worldwide season of crisis was very fulfilling for our team.”