Of the many challenges that brands had to confront last year, the shifting behaviors and heightened expectations of consumers still remain the top issues in 2021. As such, one truth still sits above the rest for brands: the customer always comes first.
Indeed, organizations were required to adapt to the status quo or risk losing valuable customers in an already challenging landscape. And with consumers’ demands for human-focused customer service rising while their desire to communicate through contactless, digital channels soared simultaneously, brands have had to revitalize their customer experience (CX) strategies to account for both humanization and digitization.
In fact, while past studies have predicted that as much as 95 percent of customer interactions with brands would be powered by artificial intelligence (i.e., chatbots) by 2025, more recent research into the impact of the pandemic on consumer behavior shows an overwhelming preference for a human touch. A new Stella Connect study, for instance, found that 80 percent of consumers prefer to interact with a person when they have a customer service need vs. self-service options. This falls in line with previous research from PwC that found that 75 percent of consumers prefer to interact with a real person even as the technology for automated solutions continues to improve.
Customer service will continue to be a key differentiator in 2021 and beyond, and it’s therefore vital that brands meet the rising expectations of their customers. Here are three customer service trends brands should prepare for in 2021.
With Rising Expectations Comes Less Margin for Error
Customer service teams have been dealing with meteoric surges in customer queries as lockdown measures cause companies to regularly update their opening hours and policies. One study found that 40 percent of consumers say they’ve contacted customer service more since the pandemic began, a spike in volume that’s placed significant strain on teams as they navigate more inquiries, slimmer warehouse workforces in the case of retailers, and new remote configurations.
But what’s even more worrisome is the rate at which consumers have switched brands during this pandemic because they were unhappy with the customer service they received. A 2020 study from CX expert Shep Hyken, for instance, found that 96 percent of customers will leave brands because of bad customer service. The same study also found that overall, companies in the U.S. fell short of customer expectations by 38 percent. It’s clear that customer service will be a key differentiator for brands in 2021.
Customer service has gone beyond simply problem solving, and is now a major factor for consumers when determining whether to purchase from a brand. In fact, according to a recent report from software company Zendesk, 84 percent of consumers consider customer service expectation to be a key factor when deciding whether to purchase.
However, this can also be seen as an opportunity for struggling brands looking to rebound from the impact of COVID-19. Brands that may have struggled with a poor reputation or less-than-stellar reviews in the past can certainly benefit from putting their eggs in the customer service basket. With 95 percent of consumers claiming that customer service is important for brand loyalty, according to a report from Microsoft, it’s becoming increasingly clear that this isn't an area where brands can afford to falter.
This means firming up CS and CX teams and making sure that they’re equipped to not only deal with customers, but manage against constantly fluctuating customer expectations as well. And with such little margin for error nowadays, it’s vital that businesses meet these expectations or risk losing valuable customers in an already hypercompetitive landscape.
Prioritizing Service Recovery
However, no matter the environment, mistakes are inevitable in service. In today’s environment, it’s fair to say that when they’re made, they have the potential to commit more damage. This makes a brand’s service recovery response a critical component of its business strategy in the COVID-19 era and, if managed well, can result in greater bottom-line benefits and more loyal customers.
How? Research consistently shows that an effective service recovery strategy can actually create better brand-customer relationships. For example, in one survey 80 percent of customers said that when customer service solves a problem for them they feel more emotionally connected to the brand, while 26 percent admitted that they’re more likely to leave an online review about a poor experience turned into a positive one.
It goes back to the Service Recovery Paradox that has been written about extensively, a feature of customer service that is perhaps the best example of consumers’ lust for humanization. Of course, they’re willing to make brands pay for bad service. However, if they encounter an issue that’s resolved quickly, their appreciation actually grows, and in many cases they become more loyal customers.
In fact, according to a recent report from HubSpot, 33 percent of consumers claim the most important aspect of good customer service is when their problem is solved at the first engagement — a telling sign that service recovery is imperative for brands meeting heightened customer demands in 2021.
Balancing High-Touch and High-Tech
Even amidst the rapid digitization that has been fueled by COVID-19, consumers still prefer traditional channels much more than newer digital options. In fact, 69 percent of respondents say they would contact customer service via phone if they had an urgent customer service issue.
However, the desire for a humanized and authentic digital experience exists for consumers that prefer to engage with modern communication channels, too. According to one study, almost two-thirds of brands claimed that their personalization initiatives support the delivery of successful and memorable digital customer experiences. That same study also found that 71 percent of brands cited authenticity as the top driving factor for digital CX excellence, with personalization rated the second highest factor.
Experts know that when brands engage with consumers in multiple channels, they make purchases more often. Still, as CX teams continue to double-down on newer channels, they must not overlook the importance of optimizing the traditional channels that their customers demand.
However, that doesn’t mean technology doesn’t have its place. The key is to equally maintain personalization and humanization across all channels and make sure brands are not just prioritizing the most modern ones. For example, when used correctly, AI can have a significant impact on allowing service teams to scale operations and handle more customer inquiries.
When tools like automated messaging deal with more basic customer requests, it frees up humans to work with customers on their more sensitive needs. In fact, 80 percent say that they expect this empathetic approach from the brands they support.
Implementing the right technology at the right time can empower agents to be better equipped to deal with customer issues. Having a way to help agents navigate these interactions and provide valuable in-the-moment coaching on past interactions will not only firm up CX teams and service agents, but also show customers that they truly do come first.
The Value of Keeping Your Customer Experience Human
In 2021, it’s imperative that brands are investing in their agents as much as any other part of their business. They need to ensure they’re giving service teams the tools, resources and guidance needed to deliver great, on-brand experiences for their loyal customers.
It’s also important to note that service agents are people too, and they’re also personally impacted by COVID-19. Brands owe it to their dedicated customer service teams to keep them equipped with the best resources to handle sensitive customer interactions. Mass digitization might seem like the most modern approach, but the risks involved in relying solely on technology are far too high. Instead, use technology to empower the employees that are driving customer satisfaction and adding the humanization consumers desire.
For most consumers, the only person they will ever interact with at a company — whether it be by phone or chat or in person — is a customer service team member. As a result, each agent essentially becomes the face of the brand as far as customers are concerned. As such, they hold the power to inspire loyalty in customers and make sure they stick with a brand over competitors for years to come.
Related story: Keeping the Customer Satisfied