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Businesses make it seem that with the pandemic, every service-related customer feature has slipped back by a few decades. Calling in to resolve an issue has become quite the thankless task. Image Credit: Gulf News Archive

There is an unreported side-effect of COVID-19... and from what I can see, there’s no let-up in sight. Before you start to panic, it isn’t a serious health condition or incurable disease; in fact, it’s not a medical complaint at all.

What I’m talking about is the rapid and indiscriminate spread of shoddy service and a prevailing sense that the good practices we abided by pre-March, no longer apply.

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For most of humanity, coronavirus has been catastrophic, but for some companies, it’s the gift that keeps on giving. A perfect excuse to charge more, offer less, deliver slower, and squirm out of commitments. Making matters worse, it’s an excuse that compassionate consumers dare not challenge.

This is a global pandemic, we remind ourselves. I must be patient because companies are doing their best.

Only they’re not. Or at least, that’s how it’s starting to feel. I don’t mean to tar every business with the same brush - only a minority is at fault. But it’s a sizeable minority and the anecdotal evidence is growing by the day.

Lethargy on delivery

Delivery schedules haven’t just been slightly adjusted to allow for reduced workforces or disrupted supply chains, they have fallen off a cliff-edge and into oblivion. I have a string of infuriating examples myself, but let me just give one.

Back in early June, I ordered some summer clothing from a large online marketplace, with an estimated delivery time of 3-5 working days. A week later, the weather outside was heating up and I was starting to get twitchy.

With the customer service line out of action (you guessed it, closed due to COVID-19), I resorted to the only option available. An automated portal that instructed me that my order would now be arriving on September 26, three-and-a-half months later than promised.

Devoid of logic

With no complaints department to reach out to, I took to social media and hounded the company for a reply. After a cursory and insincere apology from a suspected automaton, I was informed that the items had already been dispatched and, as such, the company could neither offer a refund nor halt the delivery.

I was, however, welcome to return the items once they arrived – at which time the autumn leaves would be falling and the new clothes were no longer required. Great.

The problem is not just rampant in online retail. It’s everywhere, from clients who take the opportunity to drag their feet in paying suppliers, to holiday destinations that hold customers’ money to ransom, simply because they can – and despite a surge in bookings as virus-weary populations clamour to secure last-minute escapes.

And don’t even get me started on customer service lines. Almost without exception, every call to every company I can think of begins with an unapologetic message informing customers of two things: First, they’re experiencing extremely high volumes of calls (to which you’re contributing). Second, response times are longer because of the measures introduced to protect the health and wellbeing of their staff (and no-one with a heart could argue with that).

End results are the same

There is a pattern emerging, with companies usually choosing one of two strategies: either they tug on consumer heart strings, or they take the shoulder-shrug approach. It is what it is, and it’s out of our hands, without so much as an apology.

I totally get the stress and uncertainty that has befallen the world of business – I feel it myself – but there’s something that doesn’t add up. One of the surprises of COVID-19 is that pent up customer demand for a whole range of products and services is through the roof.

So why aren’t companies putting their best foot forward and rising to meet it? Instead of laying employees off, now is the time to get people back in to work, restore consumer confidence, and make up for lost time.

This crisis has brought the best out in some people, but the worst out in others. Don’t use coronavirus as an excuse for poor service, use it as an excuse to up your game.

- Tommy Weir is CEO of enaible: AI-powered leadership and author of ‘Leadership Dubai Style’. Contact him at tsw@tommyweir.com.