Four positive customer service trends to take away from 2020


We end the year on an upbeat note as we pick out four positive customer service trends from 2020 that make us optimistic for the future.

7th Dec 2020

2020 may be a year that most - if not all - will be glad to see the back of, but that's not to say that it wasn't totally without merit. 

Some incredible progress has been made in some areas of customer service in the last year, and according to KPMG the overall rating for UK businesses actually improved despite COVID-19. 

So we're going to end the year on an optimistic note as we pick out four positive customer service trends from 2020 that make us optimistic for the future, despite the difficult times we find ourselves in presently. 

The dash to digital has enabled organisations to accelerate their transformation plans

Customer support queries soared as a result of the coronavirus, putting contact centres already struggling with absent staff under further strain. Travellers wanting to change their itineraries with airlines, for instance, reported waits of over 10 hours, while  longer than average hold times at banks and credit card companies were also reported by customers, with some even having their calls disconnected.

With phonelines jammed or unresponsive, huge numbers of customers turned to alternative, digital channels. According to Contact Babel research, 51% of contact centres reported an increase in email use, with 47% reporting increases in webchats and 37% report an increase in social media use. 

Self-service channels such as chatbots also experienced a spike in use. 

Peter Dorrington, founder of XMplify Consulting, notes: “Whether by choice, or compulsion, many customers found themselves having to self-serve as direct access to agents became more difficult. For many, this was a convenient change that suited their needs, but certainly not for all and especially when it became increasingly difficult to reach a live human.”

A shift that was already in motion, the pandemic served to accelerate the migration to digital service dramatically. And there are indications that things will not snap back to pre-pandemic levels. 

Research by SAS, for instance reports that 15% of customers can be considered digital adopters during 2020, and 70% plan to keep using the new channels going into 2021 and beyond. Elsewhere, research from Mitel polled more than 4,000 consumers in the United States, United Kingdom, France and Germany to find that - unsurprisingly - over 40% of those surveyed said their use of online customer services has increased this year. But of that number, more than 70% said they will rely on digital options more going forward.

All of which has meant that brands have had to accelerate their digital transformation plans as a result of the coronavirus pandemic, leading to some dramatic activity. Twilio’s Covid-19 Digital Engagement Report, for instance, surveyed 2,000+ customer experience, marketing, operations and IT professionals, and found that brands had had to accelerate their customer communications transformation strategies by an average of 6.1 years. The research revealed that 27% of respondents said COVID-19 had fast tracked their transformation plans by between 5-9 years, while incredibly 19% said they had pushed things forward by between 10-14 years.

Digital transformation

Source: Covid-19 Digital Engagement Report

As well as breaking down barriers, COVID-19 has also propelled brands’ omnichannel communications strategies. 54% of brands have increased their focus on omnichannel communications, with 53% adding new communication channels since the start of global lockdowns in March, and 52% ‘speeding up their digital communications strategies’.

“Over the last few months, we’ve seen years-long digital transformation roadmaps compressed into days and weeks in order to adapt to the new normal as a result of COVID-19,” said Glenn Weinstein, chief customer officer at Twilio, responding to the findings.

“This has affected everything from the ways in which businesses talk to their customers, to how their workplaces function. We’re seeing how digital technologies are being used to completely reimagine the business landscape. Communications technology is at the heart of this transition to a flexible remote working model for employees, and a seamless, digital customer experience for businesses at large.” 

But not all attempts at accelerating digital transformation have been successful. “In the dash to digital, some businesses were more successful than others,” says Dorrington. “However, many offered a sub-standard customer experiences that resulted in increased traffic for customer services, covering everything from complaints, product returns queries about delivery schedules and a raft of others.”

In the dash to digital, some businesses were more successful than others... many offered a sub-standard customer experiences that resulted in increased traffic for customer services.

Even those who had successfully driven forward their digital agendas had no shortage of obstacles to overcome. Twilio’s study revealed numerous barriers had to be broken down, with the top barrier - ‘getting executive approval’ - reported by 37% of respondents. This was followed by a ‘lack of clear strategy’ at 37% and a ‘reluctance to replace legacy software, at 35%. Insufficient budget had also been a key factor for 34%, prior to the coronavirus crisis.

However, for those unable to break down the barriers, or severely delayed by them, the costs could be significant.

Amy Scott, director of Sedulous Consulting, says: “According to Contact Babel, The 2020-21 Customer Experience Decision-Makers’ Guide, 65% of UK businesses have had operational issues which have impacted on customers during Covid-19. Customers at the beginning of the pandemic were forgiving of a company’s short falls with regard to the service they received, as we were all swimming together in uncharted waters. However, as time has gone by many customers are beginning to feel a bit fed up with organisations using COVID-19 as an excuse for poor service.”

This is potentially further widening the divide between leaders and laggards in the customer service world. As Peter Dorrington notes: “We are now at an inflection point for customer service – many of those that were already well placed, or able to successfully pivot to weather the storm of COVID-19 are ‘doubling down’ on their transition to digital in an effort to capture market share in the post-lockdown era; those that were late to the party, or whose transition was only partially successful are now trying to catch up by re-engineering their business.”

2020 will have enabled organisations to pinpoint what barriers to digital transformation exist, and if they still remain as we move into 2021, there will now be a sense of urgency to remove these blockers - because the alternative is to be left behind by the competition and abandoned by customers. 

Remote working has helped brands to transition towards the ideal remote operation

One of the areas of digital transformation where there was the most concerted effort, and very much a trend in its own right, was the migration to remote working, and particularly for contact centres. 

Peter Dorrington notes: “At the same time that demand for customer service went up, many of the agents were having to come to grips with a new working environment – predominantly working from home. For several months, many customer service teams had access to only a fraction of their normal operational systems and support - and some are still struggling with this issue.”

Still, while many efforts  to set up remote customer support teams in response to the COVID-19 lockdown were hastily implemented migrations that ultimately turned out to be less than ideal, they have provided employers with a good opportunity to rethink how they operate.

Writing in his blog, Ian Jacobs, a principal analyst at Forrester Research,  put a positive spin on the crisis for customer service. Noting that brands were “forced to hastily create jury-rigged remote work organisations processes, and technological approaches” he suggested that at present almost no one considers the results of their present customer support operations ideal – "after all, the goal was speed, not elegance,” Jacobs noted.

For several months, many customer service teams had access to only a fraction of their normal operational systems and support - and some are still struggling with this issue.

However, he added: “But by showing that even these ungainly organisations can provide at least a modicum of meaningful customer service, brands have opened the door to significantly increased remote-work-based contact centres.”

But rather than simply replicate the structure, processes and operations of their former bricks-and-mortar facilities, he advised organisations to “start with a blank slate” and “analyse what has worked over the past month(s)” in order to take the best of the past and present and create something better for the future.

Questions they might like to ask themselves in this context include:

  • Were certain types of agents more successful than others?

  • Were certain types of communication channels more conducive to home working, such as chat conversations in which the customers cannot hear the dog barking?

  • Were certain types of recognition programs more effective at motivating newly home-based agents?

Jacobs adds that once the analysis is done, it is then time to “design the ideal remote contact centre operation and start planning for it”.

And plan for it they certainly should, with evidence indicating that the shift to homeworking/hybrid working could be permanent. A survey of 100 businesses based in North America and Europe from a range of industries by Expert Market, found that 74% of business owners and CEOs said all employees at their company are working remotely - and that 72% anticipated employees will want to remain working from home, even once the organisation returns to the office.

Reinforcing the permanence of this arrangement have been the numerous benefits of homeworking reported during recent months. Indeed, while 71% said they have witnessed some negative impacts, such as difficulty assessing accountability and difficulty maintaining work-life balance, an overwhelming majority (90%) have reported positive benefits including increased employee engagement and happiness. Companies such as Nationwide and Barclays are already indicating that they may require much less office real estate in the future, in what would also potentially be a big cost-saver. 

The need for empathy in service has encouraged new thinking in human-centric design

While there has been a growing interest in customer emotion in recent years, 2020 put the topic front and centre. COVID-19 created a pressure cooker environment for many households amidst concerns about health, family, finances and jobs. 

Delineate’s June research report, Unlocking change: How consumer behaviours in lockdown are evolving, found that anxiety was the overriding emotion when consumers were asked how they felt. And from time to time this anxiety inevitably boiled over during service interactions, with research by Shepper suggesting that of 500 supermarkets polled across the UK, over a quarter (26%) reported incidences of staff abuse from customers during the pandemic.

Aside from the abuse, many consumers have relied on brands for reassurance during their service interactions, and require understanding and empathy. 

Kym Hamer, founding board member and chief customer and strategy officer at CXSA Middle East, says: “Whether personally or professionally, the impact of feeling isolated - even cast adrift - has forced people into situations that they have never experienced and has created a myriad of responses from anxiety and concern through to self-discovery and freedom, and everything in between.

The best communication without a doubt has been of the ‘we’re all in this together, here’s how we are aiming to help you’ ilk - organisations who’ve not done this well have suffered.

“Customer service itself has come under the spotlight, with anxiety and stress rising and the need for empathy and communication paramount both on the front-line in call centres and service outlets as well as ‘from the top’. The best communication without a doubt has been of the ‘we’re all in this together, here’s how we are aiming to help you’ ilk - organisations who’ve not done this well have suffered. Suddenly the foundations of Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs - safety and security - have driven behaviours most of us thought we’d gotten ‘handled’ for our customers and employees a long time ago!”

Peter Dorrington, founder of XMplify Consulting, believes that while there has been growing interest in customer emotion in recent years, businesses will have learned a lot this year about how much work is still required to be truly ‘human-centric’. 

“Empathy is an area of growing business interest - searching for ‘empathy in customer service’ in a popular search engine yields over 46 million hits,” he notes. “This reflects an existential debate in the field of customer experience. After a decade where all the CX ‘low-hanging fruit’ has been picked, many businesses have started to focus on the qualitative nature of experience – the way it ‘feels’ to a customer, which is distinct to the quantitative ‘how it performs’.

“Many businesses have already started giving the customer-facing staff training in Emotional Intelligence (EQ), but this is still far from comprehensive, with many reliant on ‘hiring for attitude’. Meanwhile, too many customer service teams are still measured on metrics that are operationally-focussed – these are predicated on a belief that developed in the era of time-and-motion studies that there is one perfect way to undertake a task and that performance should be measured against this benchmark. Whilst that worked well in the industrial era of mass manufacturing, it works poorly in an era of personalised customer service. We need to develop new measures of performance for the service economy.”

And Dorrington also notes that while 2020 has heralded a shift towards digital interactions, that needn’t come at the expense of empathy. 

“The accelerated investment in digital channels is presenting new channels for truly ‘omnichannel’ operations. Specifically, in the use of intelligent automation (i.e. bots linked to Artificial Intelligence). But research into empathy conducted by MyCustomer this year shows that, when done well, an automated customer experience can be both effective and empathetic for the customer. However, this will need new thinking in human-centric design (for example, adding empathetic user stories to the existing functional user stories).”

The influence of employee experience on customer experience has put the spotlight on employee health

And it’s not just empathy and support for customers that has become a priority in 2020 - caring for employees has also never been of more importance. There is no doubt that coronavirus has had a negative impact on every single employee in some way. But those in the frontline of customer service have had to weather additional stresses and strains - and the psychological harm of this has led to serious concerns about their long-term mental health. 

As Gethin Nadin, director of employee wellbeing at Benefex, wrote earlier this year on MyCustomer: “While many workers were sent home and others furloughed, key workers were established in industries like retail. Supermarkets, chemists, bike shops, etc. all stayed open during the initial lockdown. What's more, for some retailers, they became busier than usual and employees were placed under an increasing amount of stress. Worrying evidence is now emerging that as consumers became stressed and frustrated too, employees working in customer -acing roles have started to become the focus on these frustrations.”

The UK’s largest grocery chain Co-Op reported 133 cases of abuse by customers directed at shop staff in just one day during lockdown. Elsewhere, research by USDAW found that one in six retail employees now suffer abuse on a daily basis because of the pandemic. Threats to cough and spit at staff became a regular feature of being a key worker according to the British Retail Consortium.

Employers should not underestimate the strain their customer-facing employees have been under this year and the help and support they will require.

The situation got so bad that some supermarkets (including Co-Op and Waitrose) had to invest in body cameras to protect shop workers, while others are trying to force the government to take more action. And it isn't just retail workers who have suffered. Employees working in almost every customer-facing role have suffered increased abuse because of the pandemic. 

The Financial Ombudsman Service received an influx of complaints from consumers in the wake of the pandemic - almost 4,000 related to coronavirus. Meanwhile, The National Federation of Independent Retailers has seen growing reports of violence among independent retailers and Nationwide Building Society recorded a marked a spike in abuse directed at staff in branches.

“The long-lasting mental health impact the pandemic will have on those customer service employees will be considerable,” continues Nadin. “Employers should not underestimate the strain their customer-facing employees have been under this year and the help and support they will require, not only as we enter one of the busiest times of year for retail, but as we put increased pressure on these people to help our businesses and the economy to recover.”

Prior to the pandemic, 38% of retail workers said that their job negatively impacted their mental health in the last year. Since the pandemic started, more than half now say that coronavirus has made this worse. More than 70% of employees say this has been the most stressful period of their careers.

Nadin warns: “Employers must act fast to support the emotional and financial wellbeing of their staff – particularly those working in retail who have suffered more than most at this time. Finding ways to better support customer-facing employees with ways to decompress, relieve stress and protect staff from abusive customers should be high on your employee wellbeing strategy.”

Kym Hamer highlights that those organisations focused on the customer experience should also have put equal emphasis on the employee experience. 

“The care of customer service front-liners - whether that’s in healthcare for patients, education for students, or traditional retail, banking, travel sectors - has been a critical component in creating the right delivery experience for customers,” she says. 

“The empathy delivered by service staff is informed by the empathy and support that they themselves have received from their teams, their line managers and their organisations. New considerations have come to the fore. How do we equip people with the right training, tools (technology or otherwise) and organisational touchpoints that empower them to offer service that is relevant and empathetic? How do we prepare and empower our people to work remotely/at home without the close supervision and physical presence of others? What steps have been needed to measure, monitor and motivate performance in light of other pressures, such as home-schooling?”

Organisations that have focused on employee health - both physical and mental - have reported a wide range of different initiatives, including regular check-ins via video, messaging services or email to ask employees about their wellbeing, aside from work-related tasks; competitions and online quiz games or challenges to show support for work/life balance; upskilling programmes; and virtual fitness classes. 

Nadin concludes: “Finding ways to better support your people as they face new challenges in the workplace isn’t just about doing the right thing, it’s about ensuring your business is also prepared for what the next year will bring and the important part your people will play in the success of that. The impact this pandemic will have on your people will affect the customer experience just as much as the employee experience.”



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