Special Feature
Part of a ZDNet Special Feature: Coronavirus: Business and technology in a pandemic

The pandemic is a watershed moment for digital transformation in customer service

Service and support channels have been flooded by anxious customers seeking new levels of empathetic, personalized engagement. Organizations are increasingly turning to technologies like AI to ease pressure on agents, but face challenges as demands on IT skyrocket.

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Salesforce has published the fourth edition of its State of Service report, based on a survey of over 7,000 customer service agents, decision-makers, dispatchers, and mobile workers across 33 countries. The report covers a wide range of topics including the shift to digital channels, remote work, and field operations. 

What interested me the most, however, are findings on how the pandemic has accelerated the transformation of customer service from a necessary cost center to a strategic asset -- and the implications that have for digital transformation. As agents are called on to act as strategic advisors to customers with complex issues, automation of the more routine processes that once defined the role is on the rise. That, combined with a clearer understanding of the role artificial intelligence (AI) will play in the years to come, hints at exciting things to come.

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High performing customer service organizations have accelerated adoption of AI technologies, like chatbots, during the pandemic.

Customer Service Volume - and Complexity - Is Up

The public health emergency and resulting economic crisis that shocked the world left no industry or role untouched. Marketing spend plummeted as corporate bankruptcies reached their highest level since The Great Recession, leaving many workers on edge about their job security. But those working in customer support may feel relatively secure given how these very events upped the demand for their services. 

Whether to navigate change policies for trips they could no longer take, manage orders of products that made life at home more enjoyable, or process new unemployment claims, the public flooded service channels during 2020. In fact, the majority (54%) of respondents to the Salesforce survey reported an increase in service case volume over the course of the pandemic. Far fewer saw the increase in budgets, headcounts, or other resources to handle this deluge, however.

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Service changes since the pandemic 

Agents haven't just contended with more cases, but more challenging ones. Dealing with the most stressful conditions that many of them have ever experienced, customers are more anxious and demanding than in normal times, according to survey respondents. Adding complex circumstances for which normal policies and protocols weren't designed, agents are finding themselves spending more time and energy to make customers happy.

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Description of customer's tone and sentiment during the pandemic 

The Nature of Agent Work Took a Big Strategic Step 

In some ways, customer service agents were primed to take on the challenges that 2020 (and customers) threw at them. The redefined role of agents is among the most prominent customer service transformations in recent years as their core mission shifted from closing tickets to fostering more valuable customer relationships. Today, skills like empathy for customers' unique needs and challenges rival even product knowledge in importance, according to the service professionals Salesforce surveyed, and a separate study of consumers found significant upside for companies that provide tailored, compassionate support during these stressful times.

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Importance of skills for services and support staff 

Managers have by and large provided the autonomy and training needed for agents to step up to these extraordinary circumstances, with 83% of teams having changed policies to provide customers with flexibility during the pandemic and 70% of agents having received training on empathy. This has led to a boost in how agents perceive their impact: 79% say they now see a direct link between their work and business performance and 77% feel that their role is more strategic than it was just two years ago.

Although a boon to their careers, this environment is squeezing agents: three-quarters say managing case volume is more challenging now than it was before the pandemic.

Demand for Empathy Will Accelerate Automation

88% of service professionals surveyed by Salesforce agree that the pandemic has exposed technology gaps in their organizations, and 89% say the same for operational weaknesses.

More than three-quarters (77%) of agents believe that automating routine tasks allows them to focus on more complex work -- up from the 69% who agreed in an earlier survey in 2018. Already, several of such tasks -- such as gathering basic information from customers like their identity and the nature of their issue or routing cases to the appropriate employee -- are described as mostly automated by the majority of service professionals. In practice, these automations act as virtual assistants to agents that allow them to engage customers in a more valuable manner, or deflect cases altogether.

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Service activities that are automated versus manual 

Customer service organizations are ramping up their adoption of the technology that often underpins automation: AI. Thirty-two percent more service organizations use AI today than did in 2018, and 67% more use chatbots that often act as the customer interface for automation.

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Service use of AI and Chatbots 

Regular readers of my column will note that these rates of increase, while significant, fall below previous projects. But as the events of 2020 have shown time and time again, crisis is a catalyst for change, and customer service management is signaling intentions to ramp up their AI adoption as part of broader digital transformation initiatives. 78% of service decision-makers report investing in new technology as a result of the pandemic, and 58% say they have a completely defined AI strategy -- up from 39% in 2018.

"The stakes have never been higher for customer retention as service teams face customers who are more anxious, more demanding, and have more complex cases. Service is more than a matter of closing a ticket and moving on to the next — it's ensuring that the brand is associated with empathy and personalization as customers encounter circumstances that are completely out of their control. Think about all of the ways service teams have already adapted their policies, reskilled team members, and scaled support across channels to help, all while experiencing increased case volumes."  -- Bill Patterson, executive vice president and general manager of CRM Applications at Salesforce

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Bill PattersonExecutive Vice President and General Manager of CRM Applications at Salesforce

The Blueprint for Digital Transformation in 2021

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Customer service is not the only department with a rising appetite for automation as customer engagement standards transform dramatically. The widening mismatch between business demands for digital transformation and the ability for IT to keep pace means that strong justification for automation initiatives and building consensus for their prioritization are critical. Service decision-makers long ago shed their siloed approach to IT relationships: 88% of them now call IT a strategic partner, and 68% partner closely with IT on technology decisions. To set their projects up for success in today's environment, however, a more holistic approach is necessary.

Tenants for digital transformation initiatives as we approach 2021 include:

  1. Leading with vision. Nearly everything discussed in this article would have read like science fiction to customer service leaders just a decade ago, and the trends we see emerging today are mere previews of changes to come. Regardless of its perceived significance, service leaders must consider the downstream implications of a project before committing. 

  2. Focusing on the employee experience. Digital transformation initiatives have focused in recent years on the customer experience, and for good reason. Yet new research confirms what so many leading businesses have known for a long time: that investment in employee experiences leads to customer experience dividends. Having established the new mandate of customer service as a basis for digital transformation, service leaders must ask their employees what it will take for them to fulfill it to inform the strategy.

  3. Cross-functional partnerships. Customers expect companies to act as unified organizations rather than separate departments, and teams are restructuring their workflows in response. As lines between what constitutes a sales, service, marketing, or commerce interaction blur, service leaders must ask themselves if their project is truly limited to their immediate realm, or if it can be improved by bringing in those who manage other parts of the customer journey.

For more insights on the State of Service in 2021 and beyond, read analysis by Salesforce EVP Bill Patterson and explore key findings relevant to your region or industry in Tableau.