2019 customer service trends: How are companies serving consumers in the age of rage?by
What are the main trends that have defined the last year in the world of customer service?
We live in the age of rage.
Research has revealed that people today are more incensed than ever before, with the Gallup Global Emotions Report indicating that anger has increased once more in its rankings to reach a new record high.
Unfortunately, those working in the customer service world often experience this rage first hand - and in many cases can be the target of it.
Recently, Shaun Belding noted some stories that have emerged of late, demonstrating how service staff are being regularly embroiled in the “nastiness epidemic”, including a New Jersey Lowe's employee and customer getting into a fight over a bag of grout and an Arizona man pointing a shotgun at an employee because he forgot to include hot sauce in an order.
Granted, these are extreme examples. But the levels of toxicity in day-to-day service interactions continues to rise. Research released this year revealed how call centre agents are being subjected to an increasing number of foul-mouthed tirades from frustrated customers – with damaging consequences.
A review of more than 82 million calls undertaken by speech analytics software provider CallMiner found unprecedented levels of bad language is being aimed at agents, negatively impacting customer engagement as well as the working environment for staff. And with foul-mouthed calls lasting an average of 497 seconds (8.3 minutes) longer than those not peppered with bad language, it’s also damaging centre efficiency.
There are myriad reasons why society is getting angrier – some political, some social, some economic, some personal – and sadly a perceived sleight during a routine service interaction or transaction so often becomes the proverbial final straw.
There are myriad reasons why society is getting angrier – some political, some social, some economic, some personal
Rising customers expectations
The potential for customer service to become a flashpoint is only exacerbated by rising consumer expectations.
Research by the Institute of Customer Service for its UK Customer Satisfaction Index indicates that customer satisfaction has declined for the past four years, while the number of customers experiencing a problem with an organisation has increased during the last two years by 1.5% to 14.3% - its highest ever level.
Elsewhere, the number of customers who cited an “organisation not keeping its promise or commitment” as a key cause of their complaint is also at its highest ever rate, being mentioned in 17.2% of all problems or complaints.
The speed of service is also increasingly a bone of contention for customers, with 2019 research from Selligent indicating that 90% of consumers now expect their service queries to be resolved within 24 hours of the issue being raised. This may sound demanding, but, as Olivier Njamfra highlighted earlier this year, consumers are trying to do more and more – and have less and less time.
He noted: “The result? They aren’t willing to wait and demand everything faster, from deliveries to responses to their questions. This acceleration also brings stress to consumers as they try and juggle multiple activities at once. Brands need to understand this and do all they can to remove stress from the relationship, by valuing consumers’ time, making processes easy and giving them the fast service and responses they require.”
Orchestrated customer journeys
More than ever, customers want to engage with brands on their own terms. Yes this means that organisations need to support the channels that their customers expect, but crucially it also means that these cross-channel customer journeys are orchestrated.
Historically, this has been difficult to realise. But in 2019 it started to become a reality.
“One of the biggest trends we have seen is a return to omnichannel and the emergence of new cloud-based technology solutions to enable brands to deliver a more joined-up experience for customers,” says Joe Heapy, co-founder and director of Engine Service Design.
“There is a demand for better orchestrated, omnichannel experiences. Customers have come to expect their interactions to be seamlessly joined-up across all of the touchpoints, whether online or in-store, in person or assisted by a bot.”
More than ever, customers want to engage with brands on their own terms
The inability to deliver this can be costly. As Heapy continues:
“Engine’s annual CX Report highlighted the cost of poorly designed services and revealed that over the last year, survey respondents estimated that they had on average decided not to buy £135 worth of products and/or services because it was simply too difficult to do so. Multiply that by the UK population of buyers and it equates to businesses losing up to £7.2bn worth of revenue because their customer experiences discourage or actually prevent customers transacting in the first place.”
The flip side of this, however, is that in order to manage these omnichannel experiences, organisations are having to focus on their customers’ most important channels, rather than trying to orchestrate interactions across every possible touchpoint and device.
Stewart Kitson, head of customer service at SmartDebit, notes: “Omnichannel customer support is still important but only if it can be delivered efficiently. Customers continue to want to switch between channels as they are increasingly on the move. What is important though is that any channels a business decides to operate work effectively.
“There is little point in offering every channel conceivable if the customer receives poor service when moving between them. Organisations are starting to shut down channels which are ineffective, hampering their performance or they can’t control effectively, as seen in case of Lush this year shutting down their social media channels.”
Understanding customer emotions
With the world becoming a more emotional place over the past 12 months, it’s little wonder that organisations have been advised this year to put greater focus on emotions as part of their customer service strategies. Forrester's 2019 CX Index emphasised what a strong role emotion plays in customer loyalty, even more than ease of use or effectiveness, and it argued that emotion holds the key to achieving customer service differentiation.
“Brands that want to break away from the pack should focus on emotion,” advised Forrester’s Rick Parrish. “How an experience makes customers feel has a bigger influence on their loyalty to a brand than effectiveness or ease in every industry. Brand performance in the US CX Index, 2019 reflects this - elite brands provided an average of 22 emotionally positive experiences for each negative experience, while the lowest-performing 5% of brands provided only three emotionally positive experiences for each negative experience.”
Yet when MyCustomer spoke with Forrester’s Ian Jacobs earlier this year, he argued that ‘emotion’ is an unspoken word in the world of customer service.
“We don’t talk about emotion in thinking about how we measure success, or how we train our agents or how we measure the quality of an individual interaction that a customer has with the brand’s customer service team,” he noted.
And unfortunately this often translates into the nature of the service delivered to customers.
“Think about the last time you had a web chat with a customer service agent,” Jacobs continued. “Did the representative you were dealing with express empathy, and treat you like a human being, or did they treat you like a case? Did the brand give you a case and ticket number - or did they call you by your name? Did they value your time – meaning they didn’t make you repeat things that you had already told the brand in one way or another when they should have been solving your problem? All of these things are emotional components of service and they are all controllable by the brand. But they are also things that brands don’t really think about.”
An emphasis on emotion in training
Part of this could be that brands don’t believe they have any influence over customer emotion. If the customer is already angry when they start the call, the die is cast.
United Airlines CEO Oscar Munoz is very firmly in this camp. When he spoke to ABC News earlier this year about the consensus that flying is a fairly miserable experience, Munoz bemoaned the fact that most people are unhappy before they even board a plane.
“It's become so stressful from when you leave, wherever you live, to get into traffic, to find a parking spot, to get through security. Frankly, by the time you sit on one of our aircraft ... you're just pissed at the world,” he said.
Munoz doesn’t want unhappy customers and he doesn’t want his airline’s experiences to be a source of misery. But, he lamented, how happy his customers are won’t depend on "what coffee or cookie I give you." So what can you do? Not a lot, right?
Fortunately, this isn’t an attitude held by all. And when Delta Airlines CEO Ed Bastian was asked by radio program Marketplace if he agreed with Munoz’ assessment, he replied: “I disagree. Those certainly aren’t Delta customers he’s speaking too. We find our Net Promoter Score - which is how we track customer satisfaction - is at an all-time high at Delta… You know, this industry is about more just airplanes and technology, it is about people. And we have wonderful people that provide great service.”
Organisations that want to break away from the pack are following Forrester’s advice and putting greater emphasis on emotion in their service training and recruitment. In a survey of call centre managers by the CCA, key traits required for modern-day contact centre agents included having high empathy and emotional intelligence. So it makes sense for contact centre recruiters to prioritise applicants that rank highly on these qualities, and also focus on this in training.
Steve Rescorla, managing consultant for customer engagement at Capgemini, adds: “‘Soft skills’ particularly, and in particular “emotional intelligence” will become a core competency for all customer-facing roles. Organisations who are not already anticipating this will have to quickly adapt their recruitment, training and performance management processes to this new reality.”
Efforts to better serve difficult and demanding customers in 2019 not only resulted in a greater focus on emotional intelligence but also artificial intelligence.
“The adoption of AI made a leap forward in 2019, moving from an often confusing and emorphous concept to real-world application in customer service,” says Teon Rosandic, VP EMEA, at Talkdesk. “Since most companies are still hesitant to trust automated “bots” engaging directly with their customers, the initial strategy along the AI maturity curve has been to point AI-based assistants toward the agent to help them resolve inquiries faster. In this case, if the bot isn’t able to help, at least the agent can continue with the resolution process - no harm, no foul. Agent-facing AI assistants are impacting service strategies simply by improving traditional KPIs like AHT, FCR and CSAT.”
Aditya Arora, managing director, international business units, at Teleperformance in India, adds: “Forecasts suggest AI will add a massive $15.7 trillion to the global economy by 2030. The increasingly demanding customer, who expects personalised experiences and interactions at every touchpoint, has triggered this massive reaction from companies that have seen them shift their focus on improving customer experience by infusing intelligence to better understand their customer.
“87% of companies believe that becoming intelligent driven enterprises is a big part of the digital transformation journey, epitomised by the resulting revenue growth, optimised operational efficiencies, and reduced operational costs while increasing end-customer satisfaction.”
Even agents, once fearful of the impact that AI could have on their livelihoods, have started to become more receptive to the tech as awareness of the support that it can provide has grown. In a Pega poll of 7,000 service staff, 60% felt that it would complement their activities and help them work more effectively, while two-thirds reported that chatbots would help speed up existing business processes by dealing with routine matters, thereby enabling them to focus on the more complex issues that require human intervention. A further 62% also said AI would make their job simpler. Meanwhile, the proportion of respondents that reported they were concerned that the technology could replace them was a mere 15%.
Nonetheless, while service staff may be warming to AI assistance, some consumers are still wary. As Sean Rusinko, global director of retail, travel and hospitality at Sitecore, notes: “Customers are often reluctant to trust a chatbot to resolve their services issues, and remain sceptical that the tool can provide the same level of service a human agent. In fact, research from Forrester found that over half (54%) of US online customers expect interactions with a customer service chatbot to negatively affect their quality of life.”
However, he does add: “As the technology continues to develop and become more powerful and accurate, the negative sentiment around chatbots is likely to become more positive, particularly among younger consumers who have tended to respond more positively to AI-driven chat.”
But for the time being organisations need to be considerate of customer concerns, and wary of exacerbating consumer frustration and anger.
CX expert Shep Hyken has suggested that that in light of consumer reticence, smart companies should perhaps use AI where it can contribute the most, and where it has the lowest risk of causing antagonism. In a recent blog post for Bloomfire, he noted that with AI in IVR and chatbots sometimes frustrating customers, smart companies are instead using AI in customer support to help live agents serve customers – “giving that agent relevant information about the customer’s question or problem, as well as important information about the customer’s history with the company; their past purchases, requests for help, buying patterns, and more.”
After all, any opportunity to reduce consumer rage and perhaps pleasantly surprise customers by solving their issues would be a benefit to us all – customers, companies and even society at large.
Neil Davey is the managing editor of MyCustomer. An experienced business journalist and editor, Neil has worked on a variety of newspapers, magazines and websites over the past 20 years, including Internet Works, CXO magazine and Business Management. He joined MyCustomer in 2007.