How machine learning and AI are transforming customer support
Tonya Hall sits down with Amit Sood, chief technology officer and head of product at Simplr, to talk about how the company is building custom data sets for customer support.
Between bites of my lunch the other day, I glanced down at my buzzing phone to see a push notification telling me that delivery of an order I had placed would be delayed. “Oh well,” I thought “at least I know in advance.” I thought nothing of it for a minute, then pondered how remarkable that experience actually was. Just a few years ago, I would have been oblivious to any delay until after I noticed a package hadn’t arrived. Quite possibly, I would have set my lunch break to wait on hold and be transferred between three different departments to figure out where my package was, only to be left disappointed (and hungry).
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The Fourth Industrial Revolution has radically transformed my — and everyone else’s — expectations of companies, and customer service is transforming in kind to meet those expectations. They have to; a recent study found that 76 percent of customers feel that it’s never been easier to take their business elsewhere, and Forrester has found that the quality of a company’s customer experience correlates with it’s profitability .
The new State of Service report from Salesforce Research, based on a global survey of over 3,500 customer service agents and decision makers, shows exactly how service is changing in a customer-driven world, and what other changes we can anticipate over the coming years.
The research notes that the C-suite has taken notice of how service can drive elevated customer experience, differentiate brands, and drive new revenue streams. Here are some of the major takeaways of the service research:
- The Fourth Industrial Revolution Accelerates Service Transformation: Now viewed by the C-suite as a strategic asset, service leadership is not only revamping priorities, but also getting the budget needed to transform operations. Eighty-two percent of decision makers say their company’s customer service must transform in order to stay competitive.
- Agents Take a Step Up: Particularly at top teams, the service agent role is hardly a dead-end job. Today’s agents are increasingly tasked with building relationships and driving revenue, and are shedding their mundane tasks in favor of challenging, high-value work. Seventy-one percent of agents say their roles are more strategic than two years ago.
- AI’s Impact Takes Shape: Artificial intelligence (AI) is viewed by decision makers and agents alike as a boon to customer and employee experience. AI adoption is nascent, but its prevalence is set to soar as more teams turn to chatbots, text and voice analytics, and other use cases. Use of AI by customer service teams is projected to increase by 143 percent over the next 18 months.
- Customer Engagement Goes Digital and Cross-Functional: Service teams are aligning with their colleagues in marketing, sales, and commerce to drive cohesive experiences. Service is moving beyond the call center to cover an array of established and emerging digital channels. Sixty-six percent of service organizations are seeing increased digital case volume.
- Field Workers Become The Face of Brands: Field workers are becoming strategic assets that drive new revenue streams and brand differentiation. Arming this mobile workforce with the same capabilities as their office-based colleagues is viewed as key to this evolution. Eighty-four percent of decision makers are prioritizing improved or expanded field service.
The State of Services report is extremely comprehensive and covers multiple important transformational topics. In addition to the high-level take-ways above, I wanted to share the elements of the report that is important for service executive trailblazers. Here are the findings that caught my eye, and my take on what they mean for leaders.
Customer Service is Transforming, But Not All Companies are Buying In
If customer service was once viewed by management as a necessary evil — a resource draining afterthought that did nothing to boost revenue — those days are gone. Today, 80 percent of customers say the experience a company provides is as important as its products and services, a sentiment that carries across consumer and B2B markets.
Top Customer Service Priorities and Challenges — 2019 Salesforce Research
Thus, customer service a linchpin in any company’s strategy for winning and keeping customers. Top service priorities reflect this changing mandate, and over four-fifths (82 percent) of service leaders agree that they must transform their departments in order to stay competitive. Yet there is a waning gap between top teams — those with the highest customer satisfaction — and their under-performing teams when it comes to getting the budget allocations they need to make this transformation possible Top teams are twice as likely to have received a budget increase last year, for example.
Particularly as subscription models take off across sectors, companies aren’t going to be able to rely on product quality alone to win the hearts and wallets of customers. The overall experience is king, and treating customer service like the afterthought it once was is a recipe for a disaster. Service has to be more than fast and specialized — it has to be on-demand and personalized. The C-suite and customer service leaders need to be in lock-step when it comes to how they’ll get up to par.
Customers are Going Digital Faster Than Service Is
Customer engagement now extends far beyond the four walls of a call center. Today’s customers use an average of ten different channels to communicate with companies, and move across them as they please. Two-thirds (66 percent) of service organizations are seeing shifts to their digital channels.
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But what constitutes “digital” in their minds may fall short of what customers define it as. In some cases, consumers and business buyers are adopting emerging channels at a rate nearly three times that of customer service organizations. Fifty-four percent of customers use voice-activated personal assistants like Alexa and Siri, for instance, while only 20 percent of service organizations do. And while 82 percent of customers turn to mobile apps to engage with companies, only 51 percent of organizations offer service through that channel. The result is that fewer than half (48 percent) of agents say they can engage customers on any channel they choose.
Customer Service Channels are on the Cusp of a Digital Revolution — 2019 Salesforce Research
Digital customer service channels, as an idea, is not a new concept, and many service organizations have done a great job of having a presence on them. Certain social media channels like Twitter, for example, are now a mainstay of customer service, and adoption by customers and service organizations is neck-and-beck. What’s new is the sheer number of digital channels customers now have at their fingertips at any moment, and their assumption that everyone else — including customer service organizations — have them too. Texting — either over SMS or a variety of other messenger apps — and self-service should be be table stakes in this day and age when personal technology is influencing nearly every interface imaginable.
Field Service is Opening New Revenue Streams
Service isn’t just going digital, it’s also going mobile. Seventy-two percent of service organizations have some sort of field offering, and 84 percent cite expanded or improved field service as a priority. Why? Because field service can be a competitive differentiator for companies catering to an increasingly discerning customer base. About four-fifths of service decision makers say field service not only drives significant revenue, but introduces new revenue streams for their businesses.
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In a time when customers expect consistent experiences across every channel, service leadership needs to ensure their mobile workers can provide the same level of engagement as any other agent. Eighty-nine percent of service decision makers say the experience a customer has with a field worker is a reflection of their brand.
Service Organizations Are Investing in Their Field Operations — 2019 Salesforce Research
We are at a point where it’s time to redefine who counts as a service agent. Today, when customer experience makes or breaks a company, all employees are service agents. Making sure that everyone has the tools, knowledge, and resources necessary to provide the best service they can is critical, regardless of whether someone sits at a desk or behind the wheel.
Investment in Agents is Critical
The elevated role of customer service doesn’t call for business as usual, and so the traditional view of the service agent’s role must change. To meet customer expectations for truly personalized service — and drive business value — agents must focus on the entire customer relationship, not a particular case at hand. That requires not just new responsibilities, but new skill sets and tool-kits.
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Already, a solid majority (71 percent) of agents say their work is more strategic than it was just two years ago. Management is responding by making improved workforce skills their No. 1 priority, but a stark resource divide exists between agents at high- and under-performing organizations. The result is that agents at high-performing teams are 1.5X more likely to spend most of their time solving complex tasks, and twice as likely to feel that they have a clear path for career growth.
A Capabilities Gap Separates Field Workers at
Top Organizations from the Competition — 2019 Salesforce Research
Technology is a great enabler of elevated customer service, but it won’t do anything on its own. People always have been — and will continue to be — the backbone of great customer service. Businesses have the opportunity to lift up their customer service agents by giving them more challenging work and more opportunity in the Fourth Industrial Revolution. Yet it’s management’s responsibility to make sure agents are empowered and equipped through not just the right technology, but also the right training and culture.
Read the full State of Service report for a full set of insights on how customer service is transforming. Let me know what trends stood out to you, and watch this space for additional articles examining the study’s key findings.
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- Consumers no longer think voice assistants are mediocre CNET