How the events of 2020 have shaped the Customer Experience technology trends of 2021 (Part 2)

The global COVID-19 pandemic changed the lives of millions, and the way we do business. It changed our day-to-day habits, as families, as workers, and as customers. It changed our needs, our priorities, our buying habits, and our expectations. So it’s a given that – like so many other business areas – contact centres must be affected.

This two-part blog series deals with (i) the impact of working from home on the contact centre staff, and the technology used to help staff cope with this, and (ii) the impact of COVID-19 on the overall customer experience, the trends that have arisen as a result – and the technology that is now addressing these new needs.

Part II: The Contact Centre Customer Technology Leap

In our previous blog we talked about the contact centre’s move to working from home (WFH) and the accompanying technology adaptations that this brought.

For our second part, we’ll look at the Customer Experience during this period, and how the new demands led to new expectations of what technology should deliver to improve CX.

From the beginning, many people had more time on their hands because they had zero commute time and were unable to go out to visit friends and family, play sport, go shopping and so on. To start with, they were more forgiving even while they were often more needy – they were prepared to wait longer but they also wanted more of your time. Lonely or bored customers were happy to pass time with empathetic contact centre folk.

Having more time on their hands also meant more people calling in. Consequently, as volumes grew and talk times grew longer, so did wait times and contact centres got busier.

Enghouse Interactive and CCNNZ spoke with CX leaders at two organisations about the challenges and impact of the move to Work from Home (WFH), watch the webinar on demand here 

However, after the initial honeymoon period of everyone facing the threat of the pandemic together and feeling as if they were all on the same team, day-to-day realities and stresses began to set in. The virus spread, restrictions started to hurt more – personally, socially, and economically – fear of hardship loomed, and tolerance seemed to fade.

Changes to Customer Expectations

With time on their hands, and a reluctance or inability to leave the house, customers started to shop around. The slickest providers (and/or those with the most to lose) were ahead of the game with easy-to-navigate IVRs, websites and bots to speed up processing. This raised the stakes in the game for everyone. Business director Cheryl Hayman wrote that “Many companies [chose] to adopt innovation and transformation quickly, readily, and smartly out of necessity to compete or survive.”

So, what exactly was driving this on the customer side?

In a short time, as contact centres grew busier and wait times grew longer, customers were less willing to wait in line for answers to simple enquiries and were expecting higher standards of customer service.

  • A long-time frustration for customers: a service operator’s inability to incorporate historical engagement (via any channel) into a conversation – or even be aware of it – became a tipping point for many.
  • With the reduced contact brought by WFH, gaps in consistent, shared knowledge across staff became apparent
  • As a result of a growing exposure to technology over this time along with greater wait times, customers became increasingly willing to self-serve – and correspondingly intolerant when that option was not offered.
  • Another growing demand was for more channel options. Phone calls were becoming more and more the province of complex enquiries (that people were more willing to wait in line for), so customers started looking for options that would be processed faster. With more people on their home computers, or mobile apps or browsers, web chat and mobile text (SMS) interactions grew. Social media was another channel that customers were increasingly keen to use.
  • Lastly, with the growth of video for social and personal engagement, and especially for telehealth, as well as the introduction of video collaboration into many new businesses (for example Microsoft Teams users grew from 20 million in 2019 to 115 million in 2020), contact centre customers almost overnight became more willing to use video to engage.

Using Technology to Improve the Customer Experience

With customers more ready to go elsewhere if service expectations were not met – and with the economic uncertainties of the pandemic, providers started to look seriously at upping their game, both digitally and

  • Two extremely effective ways to arm contact centre staff with context and historical awareness of the customer journey – i.e., the entire history of a customer’s engagement with the business – are, firstly, integration with the customer database or relationship management (CRM) application and, secondly, omni-channel interaction processing.
    • CRM integration enables benefits such as automatically screen-popping the appropriate customer record from CRM for recognised customers, based on caller phone number or email address – both shaving time off the call and at the same time presenting information about historical engagement, or facilitating easy look-up.
    • At the same time, true omni-channel handling enables agents and managers to trace customer engagement across every channel processed by the contact centre, both in real-time and historically, even identifying and presenting other active or recent interactions from the same customer currently in the system (“I’m following up on the email I sent yesterday”).

Omni-channel context-aware processing

  • Knowledge gaps need to be addressed with a central solution that allows businesses to provide the same information to customers on any channel. Knowledge updates should NOT depend on agents getting (and reading!) email updates, or even being briefed at regular meetings. The ideal solution allows organisations to store a single set of information, allowing them to both provide the same information to all agents, and to make this same information available to customers directly. Serving this with a bot is both accurate, efficient, and reliable, ensuring human error can’t creep in to cause issues or confusion.
  • As technology usage ramped up in people’s business lives throughout the course of 2020, it also grew in their personal lives as social and recreational engagements that were once physical were converted to mobile chat and video calls. This growing exposure allowed them to develop a higher tolerance to using technology themselves and as a result of this, and of increased wait times, customers grew more open to self-serving.
  • A growing expectation for the modern contact centre is multiple channel capability. As part of their increased tolerance of technology and demands for a better customer experience, more and more customers were looking for more options to engage with providers, such as email (if not already available), web chat, mobile text (SMS) and social media. With the better contact centre solutions now offering more sophisticated omni-channel capabilities such as calibrated reporting and full contextual and historical visibility, more providers invested in at least web chat, in addition to their existing voice, and perhaps email, capability. Robin Garreiss of Metrigy Research wrote in November 2020:

“For years, voice and email were the primary – and sometimes the only – interaction channels available to deliver customer service. Now, the customer journey can include any number of additional channels, including text messaging, web chat, video, social media and in-app messaging for those using mobile devices. On average, companies offer 6.6 channels, up from 5 in 2019. Among the newer digital channels, organizations use social media and text messaging the most.”

In addition to these, some businesses recognised the need for more proactive contact, creating outdial campaigns to contact customers without waiting for them to call.

  • For some businesses face-to-face contact was a nice-to-have, for others it was an absolute necessity. Healthcare, almost overnight, became telehealth, and financial services also sought to convert engagement to video, rather than lose it altogether. The phenomenal and unprecedented uptake of collaboration software – for instance Microsoft Teams adoption grew by over 800 percent – was assisted by the non-workplace adoption of this channel, which paved the way for a significant leap in tolerance to what was for many a brand new technology experience. But when losing the opportunity to meet face-to-face meant losing business, video was the only alternative. Thankfully for these businesses many consumers were losing their inhibitions about being on-camera, becoming used to telehealth and financial consultations not to mention social and personal familiarity.
  • The final technological transformation – arguably the most important, and definitely the one that is still continuing to grow – is Artificial Intelligence. From the more simple FAQ-handling chat bots, or CRM integration and automation, to journey design and processing, and Voice of the Customer, artificial intelligence is completely changing the landscape of the Customer Experience. With tolerance down and competitiveness high, businesses looked to AI to streamline engagement and keep the customer fully committed. Any buyer hesitation was a huge risk, and retail industries in particular had to develop amazingly sophisticated responses to contend with greater reluctance to spend.

As organisations continue to work remotely (Gartner reports that 70% of customer service and support employees want to continue working from home after the pandemic ends, those who don’t adopt digital improvement need to consider that they could be putting themselves further and further behind. As Which-50 editor Andrew Birmingham once commented, if organisations in 2020 experienced 7-10 years of digital transformation due to COVID disruption (McKinsey & Company), you could say that anyone who has NOT started transforming their business is now at least 7 years behind…

On the other hand, as Enghouse’s Anna Stokes puts it in her recent interview with TechDay: “In my experience, if organisations continue to put the customer at the centre of the whole interaction experience (voice, digital and automation) and make sure they look at how the customer wants to interact with them, they will always be successful.”

This was the second of our two-part blog series dealing with the impact of COVID-19 on the contact centre – and the technology that has been widely adopted and is in use in 2021 to address these new needs.
Our first part discusses the impact of  2020’s working from home on the contact centre staff, and the technology used to help staff and managers cope with this. 

Contact Centre Trends 2020-21: Watch the interview, Anna Stokes, Director – Global Product Management

Download our WFH eBook: Checklist for Remote Working for the Contact Centre

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