Like just about every other aspect of business, the COVID-19 pandemic drove customer service to digital channels as well. But now, as businesses reopen and workers return to offices, experts expect the digital shift to continue.
Michael Ramsey, vice president of product management for customer workflow products at ServiceNow, sees huge potential in all that. “It amazes me. I’ve been in the customer service field for 20 years, and I still come across greenfield opportunities for digitizing,” he says.
Even as interactions move to digital channels like chat, email, and social media, the companies providing the best customer service are ensuring that they don’t overdo digital to the extent that customers can’t reach a live agent when necessary.
“Organizations for the longest time have been talking about digital transformation when it came to customer service, making things more digital and finding ways to use [artificial intelligence] some day in the future. What the pandemic did is force organizations to rush to the starting line,” observes Jeff Nicholson, global leader of CRM strategy at Pegasystems, a provider of software for CRM, digital process automation, and business process management. “Today’s challenge, however, is that many traditional approaches still lack the journey-centric technology needed to achieve fast resolution via a customer’s preferred point of contact. Just being present on a range of channels is no longer enough. The next great opportunity is to up-level the quality of service on all channels so they can consistently resolve the same critical customer issues.”
To that end, more than half (51 percent) of IT decision makers are planning to invest in new contact center systems because their current setups lack the functionality needed to support current demands over a longer term, recent research from Avant Analytics discovered.
Charles Hicks, general manager of customer service at SugarCRM, agrees: “Contact centers retooling around remote work and digital transformation are the new normal,” he says.
And while some contact center leaders thought early on that they could solve COVID-19 challenges simply by hiring more agents, most quickly found that the pandemic wasn’t going to be a short-term issue that could be solved that way, adds David Singer, vice president of go-to-market strategy at Verint Systems, a customer engagement systems provider. “People are thinking much more strategically and sustainably. Every change, every evolution has to be something that could continue. I’m seeing a lot more thoughtful use of digital channels and automation. The major trend I’m seeing in customer service is the need to act in a way that makes the business operation sustainable.”
COVID-19 also changed customer behavior, pushing even reluctant customers into self-service technologies, customer service experts agree.
Here, too, companies found their self-service capabilities to be lacking, according to Nicholson.
In a recent survey, Pegasystems found that the desire for self-service is stronger than ever: 45 percent of customers are more likely to use self-service today than before the pandemic. And while 82 percent of consumers are willing to use self-service, almost half (46 percent) still don’t expect it to work.
The problem, Nicholson says, “was that the way self-service had been set up had been very inside-out in nature. Companies put information online and hoped that customers could figure it out. The problem was that sometimes the information was very difficult to find.”
The pandemic also put a spotlight on long-standing customer service frustrations, such as having to repeat the same information to multiple agents and being passed to different departments to resolve a single issue, according to Nicholson, whose company found that bad service could be so irritating that nearly 27 percent of consumers surveyed felt it had ruined their day and even caused one in 10 to cry or nearly cry.
That’s a temporary situation, but it’s one that has far more wide-reaching drawbacks. Consumers’ most consequential reaction is often expressed through their wallets: 77 percent of customers responding to a recent Pegasystems survey said they would take their business elsewhere if they received poor service. The pressure is on executives, therefore, to address service issues before they do further damage, something few can afford as they move from lockdown to pandemic recovery mode, Nicholson warns.
Even though there is still a ways to go to resolve many self-service shortfalls, experts point out that self-service technology has improved greatly in a short amount of time and will only continue to get better.
Customers are already seeing a more consistent experience with self-service than they had in the past, Verint’s Singer reports. And the better the experience, the more accepting customers were of self-service and of the AI behind it. “Success breeds success. The more people are using enterprise-grade capabilities, the more they will continue using it,” he states.
Seb Reeve, who oversees intelligent agent market development at speech and customer engagement software provider Nuance Communications, agrees that since customers have gotten used to digital experiences and how easy they can be, they don’t want to go back to the pre-COVD methods of customer service.
Among the major new or improved capabilities that companies are using to deliver digital customer service are online portals, communities, product information repositories, FAQs, chatbots, and social media, Hicks points out.
Singer has also seen a marked increase in the use of conversational artificial intelligence.
AI INCREASES IN IMPORTANCE
While an increase in self-service helped alleviate some of the extra volume contact centers saw during the pandemic, chatbots, interactive voice response, and other technologies that provided self-service or agent-assisted service started to incorporate more evolving artificial intelligence capabilities to resolve customer issues.
And they’re using the technology in new ways, and on their terms. James Isaacs, president of Cyara, points to Bank of America’s Erica virtual assistant as the perfect example. Bank of America, he says, saw consumers using Erica to find the best course of engaging customer support teams. Rather than asking Erica questions to fix issues directly, customers simply asked Erica how they should go about reaching out to the customer service team to rapidly resolve their problem with the appropriate human agent.
Bots, too, are not without their flaws. Johan Liljeros, general manager and senior commerce adviser at Avensia, a digital commerce solutions provider, says the main issues with bots today is that “they don’t build trust, they don’t speak to the brand, and consumers do not really like speaking to them.”
Customers also don’t like to be tied to just one channel, according to many experts, who noticed a growing trend whereby customer service interactions start on the web, then shift to email, and then involve a phone call that gets interrupted, prompting the customer to return to one of the previous channels or another altogether to complete the communication. This, Ramsey says, has led to an increasing emphasis on the need for companies to offer asynchronous communication capabilities.
At the heart of all this, though, is AI, which experts agree has evolved to the point where communications can be more intelligently routed to the right agent or department and to where companies can provide more proactive customer service, Ramsey says. “Companies are solving customer issues before it becomes a problem for them.”
There are increasing examples of this, as smart devices can alert field service operators about equipment issues and connected modems can alert cable providers about outages before the customer has a chance to complain.
AI is also being used by contact center leaders to forecast staffing needs and agent availability. But its affect on management of agents can go even deeper.
When agents went remote, they also had more opportunity to change jobs since proximity to a physical contact center was no longer an issue. “It’s impacted contact center hiring,” Hicks says. “Contact center leaders are struggling to keep employees engaged, especially on the customer service side, if they don’t have the right kind of benefits and career tracks. Employees are being more selective about where they work.”
To be successful in hiring customer service agents, companies need to make the work more interesting and offer agents the autonomy to make decisions, Hicks says.
Automation and training will also play a role, according to Singer. “The quality of customer service is going to start to go up, because there’s going to be a need to make customer service jobs more attractive. And when you do that, there’s going to be expectation that people perform at a higher level.”
CUSTOMER SERVICE NEEDS TO STAY HUMAN
If there was one thing to come out of the pandemic, though, it’s that companies cannot afford to overlook the human element in their customer service interactions.
“Conversations with a real person are not going away. There are still moments in your customer journey where you need reassurance [from a human agent],” Nuance’s Reeve says.
This need was particularly strong early in the pandemic when people were practicing social distancing and sorely missed human interaction.
“The best practice isn’t to blindly automate everything,” Verint’s Singer says. “It’s making those thoughtful decisions about what is best for the customer and what’s the most supportive of our employees.”
That means combining conversational AI and other technologies to provide the optimal level of customer service, Singer adds. Companies shouldn’t take the most advanced technologies, like AI and chatbots, and just add them to their websites without taking into consideration how they might impact customer service and customer experience.
Chatbots, he says further, need to be tied to company knowledge bases to ensure that they provide the same answers customers would receive from an agent. FAQ answers also should be the same across channels.
CUSTOMER SERVICE CHALLENGES
Providing that human touch, when necessary, has been a challenge for some companies, Hicks says. Either they didn’t have the right technologies to provide full self-service capabilities, didn’t have integrated tools to efficiently move customers to agents when necessary, or didn’t have the necessary staffing.
Customers didn’t care, though. As the pandemic upended most business operations, customers demanded high levels of remote service anywhere, anytime, any way they wanted it, and they aren’t going to expect anything less as their in-person options come back, Singer says.
“The engagement capacity gap is going to continue to increase as increased expectations for customer service are going to stay in place and grow as customers want what they had before without losing anything,” he says.
Automation is one way to close the engagement capacity gap, Singer states. But there is widespread agreement across the customer service industry that other steps are needed.
“As customer service laggards achieve digital maturity, there will be a slingshot effect to re-draw the entire customer experience,” Hicks explains. “Companies will see the benefits of their CX initiatives and continue to invest in and tinker with this aspect of their business. As confidence and ability grow in CX transformation, we’ll see more bold investments and brand changes.”
Some of that tinkering has led to changes in how CRM and customer service technologies are deployed. Although customer service functions were already migrating to the cloud long before the pandemic hit, COVID-19 accelerated that shift. Avant Analytics recently reported that the global contact-center-as-a-service (CCaaS) market is currently valued at $3 billion, and it could climb to $10.5 billion by 2027. Additionally, 32 percent of IT decision makers are looking to CCaaS to enable or expand their remote workforces, which are also here to stay for a while.
Some companies might adopt an exclusively work-from-home structure; however, the greater likelihood is that companies will adopt a 60-40 mix, with at least 40 percent of employees working remotely, the company predicts.
Regardless of what the return to normal looks like, companies cannot afford to put their own needs above those of their customers, according to Jeff Mosler, CEO of Nexa, a virtual receptionist service provider.
“The best customer service is to start with the customer and the goals of that engagement and then work backwards in everything that a company does,” he says.
For all that has changed, the old adage still applies. Customer service, in the end, needs to fulfill the customer’s needs, be it scheduling a service call, resolving a credit card dispute, confirming an order delivery, finding a lost package, or something else. “These issues might be handled by different parts of the organization, but the customer still expects a low-friction or frictionless solution,” Ramsey maintains. “If you don’t get what you want from the company, you’re not going to have a good experience.”
Phillip Britt is a freelance writer based in the Chicago area. He can be reached at email@example.com.