When Rose Wang called the customer service line at Zappos, all she wanted was a quick confirmation that a gift receipt was included with the hot pink Crocs she had ordered for her mother for Mother’s Day.
But a few minutes into the call, Ms. Wang, 33, realized something felt different.
After helping her with the gift receipt, the customer service representative, who was based in Las Vegas, started making small talk. In a calming voice that reminded Ms. Wang of a grandmother, the representative told her that she, too, found it nearly impossible to buy gifts for her mother.
Amid the isolation of the coronavirus pandemic, Ms. Wang was willing — eager, actually — to chat. The two women ended up discussing mother-daughter relationships, a favorite Brazilian restaurant in Las Vegas and a girls’ trip to Hawaii.
The conversation lasted nearly 45 minutes.
“To hear someone on the West Coast commiserate with me and talk about their plans and what they wanted to do after the quarantine — it felt very connecting,” Ms. Wang, who lives in New York, said.
Customer service representatives, even on the best of days, typically field a lot of complaints — missing deliveries, unsatisfied customers and other gripes. But these days, with people grappling with financial insecurity, separation from their friends and family, and uncertainty, the tone has changed. Rather than viewing calls as a form of drudgery, some people seem to relish having a person on the other end of the line to talk with.
Sensing the shifting need, and wanting to make use of customer service representatives whose call volume was down, Zappos, the online merchant best known for its shoes, in April revamped its customer service line: People could call just to chat — about their future travel plans, Netflix shows or anything on their minds.
“Sure, we take orders and process returns, but we’re also great listeners,” Zappos said in a statement on its website. “Searching for flour to try that homemade bread recipe? We’re happy to call around and find grocery stores stocked with what you need.”
With plunging retail sales, businesses are trying new ways to retain customers.
Brian Kalma, one of the Zappos employees who came up with the idea for the revamped customer service line, said the company’s use of Holacracy, a self-management system in which there are no managers and employees define their own jobs, had helped to create an environment where the idea could come to life.
Mr. Kalma said Zappos, which was acquired by Amazon in 2009 but runs independently, was considering adding to its 400-person customer service team to keep the new service line running longer.
“We’re seeing signals that this is something we may want to maintain as the world reopens,” he said. Even before the new service line officially started, Zappos had said its customer service representatives were available just to chat. One call, several years ago, lasted nearly 11 hours, the company said.
People have called to have conversations about their life stories. Single parents at home with small children have called, grateful to speak with another adult. Teenagers have called asking for homework help.
The most common questions, Mr. Kalma said, are where to find a nearby medical center or how to find household supplies that are out of stock at local stores.
But the new line is good for more than helping to stock toilet paper.
In mid-April, around the time when coronavirus patients were filling New York City hospitals and equipment was in short supply, David F. Putrino, the director of rehabilitation innovation for the Mount Sinai Health System, reached out to Zappos looking for pulse oximeters, devices that indicate blood oxygen level and heart rate.
The devices were sold out or on back-order everywhere he looked. To his amazement, Zappos was able to locate the devices. Within days, the company had shipped 500 oximeters to Mount Sinai — and later donated an additional 50.
“It was, like, unbelievable from our perspective,” he said.
Crystal Mouzon, the Zappos customer service representative who spoke with Ms. Wang, the woman in New York, said customers regularly told her that her voice was soothing.
“I bring ’em on in,” Ms. Mouzon, 60, said. “If they have an anxiety, I just calm them down, and we just talk about anything.” She said she chatted with callers as if they were her friends.
“We laughed and talked about so much,” Ms. Mouzon said of her conversation with Ms. Wang. “Every time she was going to hang up, she would ask me something else, and then we laughed and talked about that.”
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