Are we on the cusp of the post-human customer service era?


The coronavirus crisis has seen a spike in digital and automated customer service channel use. But is this trend expected to last?

7th Jul 2020

In the UK, adults now spend over a quarter of their waking day online.

Given that, in recent months, the population has largely resided indoors due to COVID-19 lockdown, this may not be overly surprising.

Yet even before coronavirus, the average Brit was spending 3 and a half hours a day online.

In this context, it’s also of no surprise that customer service continues to shift its focus to digital channels. However, with the pandemic, this trend has been accelerated.

According to Contact Babel research in June, 51% of contact centres have reported an increase in email use, with 47% reporting increases in webchats and 37% report an increase in social media use. 

Customer service trends
Source: Contact Babel/ Genesys

Zendesk research also highlights that customer support tickets have seen a huge surge in usage on messaging channels such as WhatsApp, which has increased 148% since late February. 

The Gartner prophecy

Whilst use of digital channels may be accelerating, the question remains whether we are on the verge of the ‘post-human era’ that was previously prophesised by Gartner in 2017, when it stated that, by 2020 “customers will manage 85% of their relationships with businesses without interacting with a human”.

Indeed, many of the digital channels that have seen spikes in numbers during the coronavirus lockdown are predominantly manual, human-controlled channels – email, web chat, social media and messaging.

Perhaps the clearest example of a shift to post-human service lies with self-service usage during COVID-19 lockdown – which has also experienced a spike, according to Ted Smith, senior director for market intelligence at Zendesk. However, as Smith explains, this trend may be uniquely attributed to factors related to COVID-19:

“As higher-than-normal ticket levels continue to overwhelm (human) support teams, help centres (self-service) are stepping in for some key industries. For remote work and learning platforms, help centre views – up 200% -  grew five times faster than customer support requests during this period.

“Industries that saw help centre usage outpace the growth in tickets include logistics - up 110%   compared to a 16% increase in tickets – fitness (up 90%, compared to a 2% drop in tickets), and food delivery (up 40%, compared to a 17% increase in tickets).”

Customer service trends
Source: Zendesk Benchmark Snapshot

Alongside self-service, another automated service channel – chatbots – have seen a renaissance during the last three months. Even the World Economic Forum has acknowledged how the COVID-19 pandemic has helped widen global usage for chatbot technology.  

The WHO and CDC have included chatbots on their websites to provide up-to-date information on the virus and the WEF now predicts that the use of chatbots will continue to grow after the pandemic – particularly in industries such as healthcare.

Consumer preference

So are we on the cusp of a post-human service era, as Gartner previously predicted?

Ultimately, customer preference will likely guide the way, and the coronavirus lockdown is unlikely to be the touch paper on its own.

Indeed, a new survey from ResponseTap highlights that, despite the behaviours driven by lockdown, consumers still rely on human interaction during specific stages of the customer service journey.

Only 15% of people don’t think human interaction is important at all.

Indeed, the requirements for more specialist customer support from service agents is on the rise, and regardless of age range.

46% of 16-24-year olds believe speaking to a specialist is important. The group where this mattered most was 35-44-year olds, where 67% believe it makes a difference.

“Customer expectations are higher than ever before and specialised experiences across channels are clearly being craved,” said Ross Fobian, CEO of ResponseTap.

“As we emerge from lockdown, those businesses that can meet and exceed customer expectations could well be key to their survival. The survey proves the value of human interaction and it’s reassuring to see young people continuing to embrace this.”

On a similar theme, Sitel’s latest survey and report, COVID-19: The CX Impact, also reveals that 87% of consumers want to connect with a human to resolve critical issues, despite having a preference for resolving problems with self-service.

21% of consumers indicated they were happy to start using voice assistants such as Amazon Alexa as way of engaging with brands, yet a huge proportion of the research’s survey also acknowledged they valued emotional intelligence and empathy in a customer service interaction, something they were unable to obtain from automated assistants and bots.

“The last three months have challenged consumers and brands like never before, and we are all faced with understanding a new reality: How do we shift from adapting to the crisis to driving a success strategy in this future world?” said Martin Wilkinson-Brown, global CMO at Sitel Group.

“In this quickly changing world, customer experience is truly one of the only ways for brands to stay competitive within their industries and now more than ever it’s critical to meet consumers where they want to interact with brands.

“Combining human-led technologies with searchable knowledge bases and even branded online communities to handle common issues and typical contact drivers will reduce inbound call volumes and traffic to other live channels. This will actually drive costs down while improving CX for all customers, regardless of their channel of choice.”

So whilst coronavirus may have temporarily accelerated consumer use of digital and automated channels, the long-term future looks like a return to more blended customer service. It may be premature to announce the beginning of the post-human service era just yet.

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