Few have felt the impacts of COVID-19 more than small businesses. In April, a survey conducted by the National Bureau of Economic Research found that nearly 40 percent of small businesses in the US could close down for good if the crisis lasts six months. Nearly two months in and small companies worldwide are facing numerous challenges, not least of all a staggering increase in the number of customers needing assistance.

In fact, small and large companies have seen similar volatility when it comes to support requests. But with far fewer resources, it’s much harder for smaller businesses to scale and meet customer demand. So how have they been weathering the crisis? And what lessons can teams learn to help them successfully navigate these challenges in the weeks and months ahead?

To better understand the impacts of COVID-19 on SMBs, we turned to our Benchmark Snapshot dataset, which tracks key indicators for nearly 15,000 small businesses.

Tickets rise as smaller companies undergo rapid change

Agility is an essential part of any pandemic playbook. And smaller companies are no exception. Staying afloat has meant rapid changes to day-to-day operations, even as rising support requests have inundated support staff.

Over the past few weeks, SMB ticket volumes have tracked closely with the increases seen by our largest companies. And while meeting customer expectations can be a challenge, even in normal times, these sudden surges place even greater pressure on small teams. Many have had to quickly transition to a fully remote support system, all while managing more tickets than they ever have before.

Mercahigene, a Madrid-based supplier of professional cleaning products, went from receiving about 30 requests a day to over 2,000, leaving founder Jesús Pagador struggling to respond through the company’s general email inbox and live chat feature. Suddenly faced with the need to build an actual customer support department, he partnered with Helping to outsource staff, expand his channel offerings, and centralize all incoming requests into one platform — all in the span of a week. Even so, it took the team a month to clear a 6,000 ticket backlog.

And remote work comes with its own set of obstacles. Local operating conditions can undermine the effectiveness of dispersed teams, while onboarding remote hires can make it difficult to quickly scale. TuneCore, a digital music distributor, had customer service requests more than double as homebound musicians looked to sell their music online. But their Mauritius-based staff has faced rolling blackouts and unreliable internet, which has limited their availability to assist customers.

Sectors that help people stay connected see some of the highest surges

As the pandemic wears on, demand has soared for products that help people connect, and it’s not just larger companies that are seeing usage rates and support traffic rise. Niche dating and social networking sites are receiving 55 percent more tickets than they did in late February — the largest increase of any SMB sector. Remote work and learning platforms are a close second, after a slight decline in support requests over the past two weeks.

And the impacts vary by region:

  • APAC: Small food delivery companies (up 150 percent) and on-demand grocery services (up 60 percent) take the top two spots as residents shelter in place;
  • EMEA: Shoppers needing assistance boost e-commerce (up 59 percent) and retail (up 50 percent) despite a drop in tickets from the previous week;
  • LATAM: Requests to hospitals (up 208 percent) and online health services (179 percent) rise dramatically as cases spike;
  • AMER: Tickets jump for dating sites (up 75 percent) and remote work and learning platforms (up 65 percent) as customers look to stay connected.

Not all small businesses are simply dealing with increases. Some, like ride or car sharing companies, have seen engagement plummet as shelter in place orders took effect. Others in travel and hospitality saw initial surges from cancellations and rebookings, only to have requests drop off to record lows. The Groomsman Suit, a tux and suit rental company, saw sales fall some 80 percent as the wedding industry came to a screeching halt. With engaged couples now in a holding pattern, the company has shifted its support resources to addressing immediate customer concerns and prepping for the inevitable onslaught of business when the crisis subsides.

Customers turn to familiar channels during the crisis

We all like a little comfort in times of crisis, and it turns out that customers do too. So much that they’re changing the way they communicate with small businesses. Messaging channels typically used to chat with family and friends have become popular choices for ticket requests. Submissions over text and WhatsApp jumped an average of 46 percent globally since late February — faster than both email and chat — as SMBs try to make quick decisions on where to scale their support efforts.

And for SMBs operating globally, there’s no one size fits all solution for each region. WhatsApp is a hugely popular platform outside the US, but only Latin America saw usage rates spike as high as 98 percent. SMBs operating regionally, or even locally may find it equally difficult to assess their channel needs as customer preferences are shifting quickly, particularly in Latin America and APAC.

Make your people count

These are uncertain times, particularly if you’re a small business owner. But it’s not all bad news. If you can lighten the load on your most important asset (your people), you can build a CX response that punches above your weight. Powerful tools like AI-powered chatbots, automation, and online help centers, for instance, can answer common questions and resolve simple customer issues. Customers get a quick answer, and your team is freed up to handle stickier issues. It’s a win-win.

 

“Automation is less about replacing human interactions, but making the human interactions that you do have more effective.”
Erica Clayton, Director of Customer Care at TuneCore

 

Among smaller companies, usage of Zendesk’s AnswerBot has increased 70 percent since the start of the year, helping companies like BombBomb, a marketing platform, reduce the strain on agents. But AI is often only as good as the self-service content on your website, so continuing to add and update articles as conditions change is key.

As is building automation into existing workflows. Small businesses that have managed to keep resolution times stable, even as volumes increase, rely on automation to help them work smarter. In fact, we found that nearly 20 percent of these companies have added at least 10 new tools since late February to make their process more efficient.

“Automation is less about replacing human interactions, but making the human interactions that you do have more effective,” said Erica Clayton, TuneCore’s Director of Customer Care. Her team has been using tools like macros and triggers to help ensure that tickets get to the right person while volume is up. Automated replies can also save agents valuable time and set customer expectations around when to expect a response.

What you do now matters

These days, getting customer support right is more important than ever. It’s not just about making sure a ticket gets answered, but going above and beyond to deliver an exceptional experience for your customers. Though you never see them, support agents have been on hand to listen to us gripe about our days, share our fears, and offer a human connection in times of crisis. What small companies do for their customers now, could earn them a lifetime of loyalty.

Earlier this month, unprompted, a local flower company overnighted bouquets of flowers to their customers' moms after their original shipments had gotten snagged in shipping delays. It's a gesture that won't soon be forgotten. “How you make your customers feel right now, people will remember for a very long time,” said Jonathan Bolton, BombBomb’s Senior Vice President. “Automation and AI are high value in this effort, but you and your people are too.”

 

Watch our recent LinkedIn Live event to learn more about the trends we're seeing and how businesses can respond with quick decisions on how to adjust their support channels.