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The Top Customer Service Trends for 2022: New Service Channels and Challenges

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When the COVID-19 pandemic began, companies were forced nearly overnight to move their contact center agents to home working setups. Now that the world is starting to open back up again, at least for contact centers there’s no immediate rush to a return to the office. Companies have seen the benefits of having their agents work remotely, and they see continuing this trend as a way to cut costs in the face of a shrinking pool of talent and current economic uncertainty.

And while productivity and service levels were originally expected to falter, much of the current data suggests that neither dropped precipitously during the pandemic. In fact, in some cases, worker efficiency and job satisfaction actually increased, which had a positive impact on customer service.

Getting there was not an easy task, though, and keeping current levels or ramping them up even further will require contact centers to adopt technologies at levels never seen before. Investments in digital, virtual, social, collaboration, and automation technologies will need to continue, of course, just to keep up with rising consumer expectations, but that alone will not be enough. Businesses will have to innovate now more than ever before.

Customers will expect companies to provide self-service options, omnichannel customer engagement, personal connections with support teams, and new digital channel choices.

INCREASED USE OF SOCIAL MEDIA

For many companies, one of those channels is social media. While past efforts to use social channels for customer service did not adequately meet expectations, companies are willing to revisit the medium in the new digital-first world.

Thirty-nine percent of business professionals plan to boost spending on social messaging and customer service for digital-first initiatives, according to a Verint survey.

This shift to digital-first customer engagement has businesses integrating popular social messaging channels into their customer experience efforts to meet customers on their channel of choice, says Jason Valdina, Verint’s senior director of digital-first engagement channels.

Look for businesses to create social media profiles on more platforms to attract and service more consumers.

And it is a two-way street. Customers also seem more willing now than they initially did to turn to social media to inquire about products and even to purchase them.

As social media use grows, though, companies will need to act fast. Post-COVID, customers expect instant responses when they ping companies’ customer service channels on social media or send an email. In a recent HubSpot survey, 90 percent of customers rated immediate response as important or very important when they have a customer service query.

THE PRIVATE MESSAGING SURGE

The notion of immediacy is also driving customers to other channels, as Verint’s “State of Digital Customer Experience” report shows. The research shows consumers’ growing preference for social and private messaging channels to interact with companies. Consumers under 45 are more than twice as likely as older consumers to have engaged with companies through public social media channels, with 50 percent of consumers in that demographic having used private messaging apps such as SMS, Facebook Messenger, or WhatsApp to engage with companies.

Valdina sees traditional SMS as the grandmother of all messaging channels, though, noting that texting has matured to include other private messaging channels from the likes of Facebook, WhatsApp, Twitter, and countless others.

Google has advanced its messaging capabilities, with variations of its Google’s Business Messages that work across both its own Android platform and Apple’s iOS. Apple has its own platform, called Apple Messages for Business. Tencent’s WeChat is the dominant messaging platform in China. And in the United States, Instagram is one of the most recent additions with its Messages platform, which lets customers connect with companies in much the same way they message with friends and family.

Combining messaging with automation can produce tremendous results, as Volaris Airlines, a low-cost carrier, discovered. The company was looking for a way to deliver a great customer experience to its passengers while keeping operational costs down. In just 18 months of using Verint’s Digital First Engagement Platform, messaging channels outperformed every other customer-facing avenue in its contact center, with lower cost-to-serve and higher Net Promoter Scores than both live chat and voice. Seventy-eight percent of monthly inbound messaging conversations were resolved by a bot without the need for human agent assistance.

Other businesses see the benefits of messaging in aiding customer service, which is why 39 percent of all companies plan to boost their spending on social messaging for customer service and other digital-first initiatives, according to Verint’s research.

THE BOT UPRISING

As customers crave and actively seek out digital-first experiences with companies, robotic process automation (RPA) has finally come to the rescue. Not surprisingly, automation is at the core of just about every customer experience project these days, enabling companies of every type to streamline their entire customer service processes. From basic chatbots to more sophisticated intelligent virtual assistants, these tools enable higher levels of service than ever before, while also enabling unprecedented levels of personalization.

Automation is also helping companies improve their bottom lines by reducing the amount of time that human workers spend on non-vital processes, like taking notes and filling in call wrap-up reports, giving them greater freedom to focus on providing better customer experiences.

Bots also have another benefit: They help customers solve their problems on their own, but enabling them to do so will require companies to pair automation with a well-designed, robust, easy-to-use, comprehensive, and up-to-date knowledge base.

And then there is what is being called “attended artificial intelligence.” Jeff Fettes, CEO of Laivly and cofounder and chief operating officer of business process outsourcing firm 24-7 Intouch, sees both AI and automation resolving the long-standing problem of unsatisfying handoffs between systems.

Previously, self-service bots would attempt to answer questions. If they failed, they would attempt to hand off the interaction to human agents, but that transfer often required customers to repeat account and other information.

“This has evolved into a blended human-supervised attended channel where customers and brands still get the benefits of AI, but the whole experience feels seamless to the customer. No longer will customers need to enter their information three times to get a question answered,” Fettes says.

INCREASED LEVERAGING OF VOC

It goes without saying that retaining good, knowledgeable customer service employees is important to maintaining good customer service, but that has not been easy for contact centers, especially amid the COVID lockdowns and the ensuing Great Resignation.

In this employee retention effort, contact center leaders are increasingly applying voice-of-the-customer (VoC) solutions to understand their employee needs, observes Rick Blair, Verint’s president of product strategy for experience management. “We are seeing more interest in understanding the employee experience due to staff shortages, cost of hire, etc. These are driving a massive spike in adoption. Our customers will tell us they want a way to take attrition from 26 percent to 24 percent all by itself. Many companies don’t know why employees are leaving and need help to figure it out.”

Many VoC/VoE solutions can listen and even visualize the experience, but companies continue to struggle to act on that data, according to Blair. Expect those capabilities to grow.

PROVIDING A 360-DEGREE CUSTOMER VIEW

Data is empowering contact center agents and their leaders in other ways. One of the big enablers today is a 360-degree view of customer engagements with their companies. “Customer service in a silo is dead. Today’s mantra is a ‘comprehensive customer experience,’” observes Scott McNabb, vice president of sales for the Americas at Optimove.

The comprehensive historical context of customer purchases and offers empowers agents to provide more holistic service experiences, according to McNabb.

“Customers expect highly personalized service they can easily navigate to resolve their concerns, questions, and needs,” McNabb continues. “Intricately tying customer service to marketing and sales enriches the customer experience. Customers gain direct control over the service experience.”

THE RISE OF REVOPS

The breakdown of silos is happening in other ways across the customer service realm. A new discipline, called revenue operations, brings together marketing, sales, and customer success teams to create a single organization that typically reports to the chief revenue officer or CEO.

The strategy helps companies transition from simply talking about customer service to implementing it and making it pervasive across the organization, explains Debbie Qaqish, principal and chief strategy officer of consulting firm the Pedowitz Group. “Every company wants to talk about it and wants to figure out how they can get closer to that as a goal.”

But talk and interest have yet to translate into action. Today, only a few leading companies are deploying RevOps, according to Qaqish, who expects that within the next year, everyone will be talking about it. But actual implementation will still lag at most companies, she says.

ENGAGING THE WHOLE ORGANIZATION

Companies need to move beyond traditional roles and departmental silos to help customers, agrees Christian Wettre, SugarCRM’s senior vice president and general manager of Sugar Platform. “Increasingly, we are seeing the manifestation of the ‘everyone serves’ concept within organizations,” he says. “We now see a departure from departmental service [i.e., transfers to other departments].”

Replacing this siloed, departmental approach with organizational alignment to engage the full resources of the organization is one of the most basic things companies can do to improve customer experiences, and technology can help. “Applied [artificial intelligence] and analytics brings a high-definition customer experience and awareness across the organization to understand where the customer relationship is faltering,” Wettre says.

HUMANIZING DIGITAL ENGAGEMENT

All that automation in the contact center is great, but companies cannot lose sight of one key fact: Since the advent of the COVID-19 pandemic, use of digital and self-service channels has increased, but customers aren’t necessarily “feeling the love” through these engagements, Wettre says, pointing out that many of these digital interactions have lacked the human touch that customers still want.

“Brands have a tremendous opportunity to earn customer trust and loyalty through more personalized digital engagement, an awareness of who customers are, the products and services they use, the language and channels they prefer, and even their status or importance to the company from a customer lifetime value perspective,” he says.

The biggest trend in customer service comes from companies understanding the value of the human touch for digital experiences, agrees Greg Armor, executive vice president of Gryphon.ai, a conversational intelligence platform provider.

Though some of the technologies being deployed today might even have been given a unique “personality” all their own, that can’t always replace the kind of personalization only a real human being can provide.

“Technologies are becoming more sophisticated in their ability to provide human workers with answers and insights automatically, and because of these advances, sales and customer success reps now can access best-in-class information, but in a way that enables them to personalize their responses,” Armor says.

By leveraging AI technologies to provide real-time insights and suggestions mid-conversation, employees can pivot their approach to customers and really personalize the experience for them, Armor adds. Providing them with the right tools that make them feel more confident and sure of themselves, in turn, will make the conversation more natural and less robotic, he explains.

AI can remove the manual tasks that reps typically need to perform, such as locating answers to questions, remembering follow-up activities that need to occur, or even flagging key moments in conversations, but ultimately it’s the reps themselves who provide significantly more personalized value to customers. 

Phillip Britt is a freelance writer based in the Chicago area. He can be reached at spenterprises1@comcast.net.

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