• November 30, 2020
  • By Ian Jacobs, vice president and research director, Forrester Research

2021: The Year Customer Service Embraces Empathy

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“I don’t practice Santeria/ I ain’t got no crystal ball”
—Sublime (“Santeria”)

Every year, as the days start to get depressingly short, Forrester Research publishes a series of predictions for the forthcoming year. Let me tell you: There’s nothing more fun than being asked to prophesy the future. I mean if I was good at perceiving future events, would I have ever gotten a traffic ticket and been forced to attend traffic school? Wouldn’t I already be rich from correctly—and profitably—riding the peaks and valleys of the stock market? Would I have rocked that mullet topped with feathered layers back in 1986?

But, deficiencies in fortune telling aside, my team dutifully puts our pointy heads together and comes up with some predictions. Some are “big swings,” the type of prognostications that could make a career if proven correct…or turn one into a laughingstock (if anyone actually ever remembered our guesses). Some are more pedestrian—easier to hit a slow moving target, of course. This year, however, I want to focus on one of our predictions because it says a lot about the ways the pandemic has really shifted the ground beneath customer service’s feet.

Customer service has always had something of an identity crisis. Because enterprise leaders typically saw contact centers as money pits (the dreaded “cost center”), customer service leaders often felt like a troll under a bridge, something to be hidden away, out of sight. This led many customer service leaders to attempt to transform the contact center from a cost center to a profit center, taking on responsibility for cross-selling and upselling. More recently, the message has been to morph from a cost center to an “experience center.” No matter what the transformation, the underlying theme is that companies didn’t properly value the contact center.

The pandemic might have just started a sea change in that perception. The purpose of customer service is no longer just to alleviate run-of-the-mill inconveniences; it is to provide fundamental and necessary services for consumers devastated by the COVID-19 pandemic. These consumers, already emotional and anxious over pandemic uncertainties, are dealing with unexpected hardships (financial or otherwise) and need a new type of empathy-heavy support. In 2021, customer service must reduce the frustrations of, and advocate for, these devastated consumers.

In our predictions for 2021, this need for a more empathetic service experience really dominated our thinking. The report led off with this prediction: “Customer service will become a lifeline for 33 million devastated consumers.” Based on a combination of government data and Forrester’s own research, we found that the U.S. unemployment rate peaked at 14.4 percent in April, with 10 percent of the U.S. population truly devastated by the pandemic. Millions of individuals found themselves struggling to pay for food, bills, and other necessities. Meanwhile, millions of other essential workers, 70 percent of whom do not have a college degree, balance their livelihood with the risk of infection. These consumers require financial assistance and guidance to navigate changing government regulations and services. To serve these consumers, customer service organizations must elevate service to a critical role, map new customer journeys for those in financial distress, and then implement new self-service tools, processes, and strategies to increase the effectiveness of their agents.

The point here is that we can no longer afford to think of customer service as that annoying line item on the balance sheet that goes toward helping customers change their address with us or find out whether a company has taupe smoke shifters in stock. When times get hard, contact centers become a critical function and an empathy delivery mechanism. In 2021, let’s plan for that to become the dominant role.  

Ian Jacobs is a principal analyst at Forrester Research.

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