Managing editor MyCustomer.com
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The customer service trends that characterised 2021

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We take a look at some of the ways that customer service has evolved in the past 12 months - and what challenges still remain as we move into 2022. 

6th Dec 2021
Managing editor MyCustomer.com
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2020 was an exceptional year for those working in customer service - and 2021 didn't pull its punches either. But a year into the pandemic, there have been clear demonstrations of just how resilient and adaptive customer service teams are. 

Let's take a look at some of the ways that customer service has evolved in the past 12 months - and what challenges still remain as we move into 2022. 

Empathy in service is a priority - but is enough being done?

In light of the disruption of the past 18 months, empathy in service is viewed as more important than ever. When MyCustomer and Genesys commissioned Savanta to conduct a study of over 200 senior CX and customer service professionals in July this year, we found that the vast majority of organisations believe that empathy is an important component of their customer service engagements. 

When we asked respondents how important they believe it is that their organisations display empathy/compassion in their service interactions with customers, the overwhelming majority (89%) told us that it was “very important”. And unsurprisingly, given the disruption and distress caused by the pandemic, our respondents almost unanimously told us that they believe that empathy is more important to their customers than it was 18 months ago. Only 3% said that they didn’t believe it had become more important to their customers and none said less important. 

However, despite this acknowledgement, and the amount of marketing campaigns that have focused on the importance of empathy and compassion, there are signs that brands are better at talking about empathy than they are at actually delivering it in customer service engagements. 

And while the vast majority (85%) of those we polled told us confidently that their organisation has got better at delivering empathy in service interactions in the past 18 months, there was little evidence to back it up. We compared the techniques, tools and technologies they were using pre-2020 with those that they are using currently, to identify what investments and improvements they have made. And when we made that comparison, it was clear that there was very little difference in the technologies and techniques used now and those used prior to 2020. 

Furthermore, research from Genesys suggests that customers remain unimpressed with the empathy in their service interactions. In a survey of 11,000 UK adults, 31% said that service quality had worsened since Britain’s first lockdown, with major issues including the fact that customer service representatives weren’t personable enough, and that interactions with service representatives via digital platforms often felt ‘fake’. 

“This is a paradigm we have seen before; businesses consistently overestimate their performance compared to how customers would rate it,” notes Peter Dorrington, founder of XMplify Consulting. 

And this could be particularly damaging for those organisations that have heavily focused on compassion and empathy in their recent marketing campaigns. 

Helen Briggs, senior vice president and general manager for EMEA at Genesys warns: “Companies that do not deliver on their promise of empathy can expect that they will experience a decline in customer loyalty. Without the loyalty in place, businesses are at risk of losing their customer base and in the ever-competitive landscape today, it is something they cannot afford.”

AI powering better service interactions

It was only two years ago that a Forrester report, somewhat disparagingly, declared that the majority of chatbots were poorly-implemented, systematically “ruining customer experiences” and – in the case of the worst incarnations – nothing more than “virtual idiots”.

Other research led to similar declarations. Almost half of 5,000 consumers in Europe, the U.S. and Australia surveyed in 2018 said automated chatbots were 'annoying'. In 2019, 54% of online US consumers stated that interactions with customer service chatbots had “a negative impact on the quality of their lives”.

It’s been a rocky road for the humble chatbot, as a service channel. However, whilst the coronavirus pandemic has undoubtedly been a disruptive and negative force on so many aspects of our lives, it may well have been the catalyst for the chatbot’s revival.

Their fate was aided first by the World Health Organisation (WHO) and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), both of which successfully installed and deployed chatbots on their websites at the very start of last year’s pandemic, to provide up-to-date information on the coronavirus – and both were lauded for their successful deployment.

Then there was the dash to digital. As consumers all over the globe were forced indoors due to national lockdowns and curfews, their digital footprint increased exponentially overnight. This led to huge upticks in the use of digital service channels, including messenger platforms, self-service, email and, of course, bots.

NICE inContact research found 67% of consumers using AI-powered conversational technology for customer service in 2020, up from 46% in 2019. As a result, according to Linchpin, 47% of organisations are expected to implement chatbots for customer support services, having been buoyed by the more forgiving consumer response to using them during 2020. Research and Markets predicts the chatbot market to grow from US$3.3bn in 2020 to $8.7bn by the end of 2025.

So what has changed? On the one hand, the rationale for their use is better understood by both consumers and the businesses implementing them, than it was a year or two ago. And on the other hand, conversational technology and chatbots have also matured significantly in that time as well. 

“In 2020, we saw AI-powered self-service explode as consumers looked for new more convenient ways to connect. Organisations who were not prepared for unanticipated spikes in digital traffic were caught off guard and left challenged,” explains technologist and author, Prof. Steven van Belleghem.  

“But those business leaders who had a strategy and implemented self-service, even a modest addition like voice-enabled IVR or chatbot – saw that AI helped them cope with surging contact volumes and even drive business outcomes.”

Perhaps unsurprising, then, that when Forrester conducted research recently, it found that eight out of ten survey respondents said that their organisations are looking to invest further in more sophisticated AI using virtual bots. 

New service jobs emerging

As customer service evolves, so there is a need for new specialist roles to be able to help the industry and its professionals adapt. And the proliferation of bots - as detailed above - has led to a number of new roles emerging. 

While chatbots may be seen by some as a highly automated, digitised service channel with little by way of human involvement on the business side of the interaction, the reality is somewhat different. So much so that they are also attracting a new band of professional where the skillset demands creativity, emotional intelligence and adaptability.   

As a customer service and operations stalwart of 30+ years, having worked at GE under the stewardship of iconic business leader Jack Welch in the 90s, Rosie Appleyard is the VP of customer experience, process and conversational design for LivePerson and heads up her own band of said customer service professionals.

It’s the ‘conversational design’ aspect that is perhaps the most innovative. With chatbots so often accused of feeling inauthentic, automated and unintuitive to interact with, a key part of Rosie and her team’s mandate is to make chatbots ‘talk’ to customers in a more human manner. This need has brought about an unlikely but critical requirement in the service field.  

“Creating a bot persona is the same as creating a character for a storyline,” says Appleyard. “You have to know who they are, where they’re from, what drives them to be great, what they like and don’t like, what excites them. All of that builds how a person thinks and ultimately how they speak.

“Creating a backstory is key to any persona, therefore it’s imperative conservational designers can write dialogue for an automation that accurately represents the defined persona and represents the brand too.”

This need has led to many of the world’s biggest virtual assistant and chatbot providers seeking the skills of “scriptwriters, comedians, authors, empathy experts, sound engineers, game designers, and [because many assistants and chatbots have a visual representation too] animators, illustrators and graphic designers”.

Conversational designers aren’t the only requirement in Rosie’s team. Other roles blossoming under her stewardship are bot tuners – those who monitor conversations between customers and chatbots, reporting on any failed conversations, outdated references and incorrect outcomes; transformation leaders – responsible for making assessments on where automated customer service such as a chatbot makes most sense in a brand’s customer journey; and then customer journey managers – the people charged with conceptualising a brand’s complete end-to-end service experience.

The journey is crucial, says Appleyard. As our use of digital interaction channels increases, so the “ability to analyse, understand and proactively design journeys based on individual customer needs/intents” is a decisive customer service provision all brands must consider.  

The great resignation

The term “The Great Resignation” has been well used over the past year, as record numbers of employees have either quit their jobs or are considering quitting. In conjunction with record-breaking numbers of job openings going unfilled, it is having an impact on customer service. 

Compounding the issues further are that those at the frontline of service have been some of those most affected by stress - and therefore, most likely to form part of the Great Resignation.

A survey commissioned by Enghouse Interactive revealed that 91% of contact centre professionals say that they are likely to leave their jobs. 48% of these staff report stress or emotional burnout, while 66% of contact centre staff say they have not received remote training/advice on health and wellbeing in the home workplace since working remotely.

60% say their organisation has not put any new training or policies in place to improve mental resilience for new recruits since March 2020.

91% of contact centre professionals say that they are likely to leave their jobs.

“Customer service teams are being slammed by the Great Resignation," says Anand Janefalkar, founder and CEO of ujet.cx "We’re seeing record shortages as people quit customer-facing jobs at unprecedented rates.

"The result is horrific customer experience and burnt out employees who’ve had enough. This becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy, with every exit and short-staffed shift leading to more turnover and departures.”

Businesses that don’t treat their staff better could be set to suffer greatly. Not only will they struggle to fill positions, with customer service standards potentially harmed as a result, but there is also a growing sense that society has become more sensitive to how companies treat their employees. 

As Forrester senior analyst Judy Weader has noted: “Customers are realising that brands are sacrificing employee welfare on the altar of unsustainable customer experiences. In response, more customers are voting with their wallets, switching their business to brands that treat their employees better.”

With employees expected to increasingly leave for opportunities with companies that treat them with more respect, brands will be forced to take action and adapt. 

Is hybrid the solution?

One potential way to keep staff happy could be to resist the shift back to 100% office-based work and continue the hybrid working model that has emerged over the past 18 months. 

Most hybrid models are still in an experimental phase, according to CCMA survey of contact centre leaders, with testing and learning taking place before deciding if it will become their permanent model.

However, the contact centre agents themselves favour the flexibility of the hybrid model, and would prefer to retain the option to work remotely from time to time - overall 79% of contact centre professionals polled by the CCMA reported that they would like to work in a hybrid model. 

Nonetheless, the office has important appeal for most employees and many are currently spending more time at home that they would ideally like. Six in ten (59%) would prefer to split their time equally between the office and remote locations, or be mainly office-based with some remote working. Currently 51% of advisors are spending more working hours remotely than in the office, but only 22% would actually choose to do so given the option, with the top reasons cited by advisors for wanting to be in an office ‘‘feeling part of my team’’ and ‘socialising with colleagues’’. 

 

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