Jo Causon, chief executive of The Institute of Customer Service says consumers will remember brands’ behaviour during the Covid-19 crisis 

There is no escaping that the Covid-19 pandemic has dealt a huge blow to our economy, in particular travel and hospitality sectors.

Travel corridors, cancellations and rising unemployment, with economic uncertainty have triggered a significant drop in consumer spending, and the impact of what is likely to be the deepest recession since records began will be felt long into the future.

However, as we begin to emerge from lockdown, we are seeing a cautious confidence in a long-term recovery. Cruise and luxury holiday bookings for 2021 remain strong thanks to consumers holding over this year’s holidays.

Yet, many customers are still hesitant about returning to pre-pandemic travel behaviours. Hard though it is, organisations need to focus even more on how they differentiate themselves through their service offering. Restoring confidence is key – and the service experience is a critical element of this. As a consumer, I will be seeking assurance that I’ll get my money back if the holiday is cancelled and will be asking if the hassle required to do this be worth it.

Much has changed in the travel sector since the last recession in 2008. In the immediate fallout of the crisis, consumers pulled back on discretionary spending, cancelling or reducing planned holidays while businesses tightened their belts, slashing corporate travel expenses. Alongside this, we saw a collapse in customer satisfaction, with an increase in both complaints and the cost to serve customers. If we are to recover from the impact of the coronavirus pandemic, we mustn’t repeat the mistakes of the past.

As we have seen play out time and time again, customer satisfaction is intrinsically linked to business performance. Excellent customer service delivers better financial results and helps improve productivity. The actions of those organisations failing to provide, or delaying, refunds will not be forgotten. If we are to successfully pull the nation out of recession, allowing the travel sector to begin its recovery, service must remain a high-level boardroom priority.

Customer satisfaction also builds trust and reputation, which will be more vital than ever as we emerge from the crisis. Consumers will look towards brands they trust when making purchases. Economic uncertainty will lead customers to become even more discerning with the brands they choose to engage with, and one bad experience could send them running into the arms of a competitor. Businesses must keep a sharp focus on the changing needs of their customer base, listening to feedback and adapting business models to meet shifting priorities.

As consumers look towards brands and businesses they can trust, those local independent travel agents who have emerged from the crisis may see a rise in business, with people opting to shop local and support local businesses rather than buying direct from a tour operator or OTA.

Despite shutting 166 shops, it has been good to see Tui’s home working customer service centre embrace staff from its closed high street shops. A move like this is likely to be viewed favourably by consumers at a time when badly-handled and communicated layoffs are receiving much negative attention.

It has been encouraging to see the increased focus on service shown by many organisations over the course of the crisis; with businesses across the country working hard to deliver in the face of increased restrictions and an ever-growing number of vulnerable customers. However, there have been an equal number that have fallen short – and the results of our latest UK Customer Satisfaction Index show customer satisfaction has flatlined in the past six months.

There will be many difficult decisions and complex issues to come as we navigate our way out of the crisis. But organisations, in particular those in the travel sector, must balance the need to reduce costs in the here and now without burning the long-term customer relationships they have fought for years to establish.

Now is not the time to take our eye off the ball. We must put service at the heart of rebound efforts – and in doing so we can unlock customer satisfaction, boost productivity and build a true service nation.