Customer service has always had something of an identity crisis. Because enterprise leaders typically saw contact centers as money pits (the dreaded “cost center”), customer service leaders often felt like a troll under a bridge, something to be hidden away, out of sight. This led many customer service leaders to attempt to transform the contact center from a cost center to a profit center, taking on responsibility for cross-selling and upselling. More recently, the message has been to morph from a cost center to an “experience center.” No matter what the transformation, the underlying theme is that brands didn’t properly value the contact center.

The pandemic may have just started a sea change in that perception. The purpose of customer service is no longer just to alleviate run-of-the-mill inconveniences; it is to provide fundamental and necessary services for consumers devastated by the COVID-19 pandemic. These consumers, already emotional and anxious over pandemic uncertainties, are dealing with unexpected hardships (financial or otherwise) and need a new type of empathy-heavy support. In 2021, customer service must reduce the frustrations of, and advocate for, these devastated consumers.

In our predictions for 2021, this need for a more empathetic service experience dominated our thinking. Some highlights from this year’s predictions report include:

  • Customer service will become a lifeline for 33 million devastated consumers. With US unemployment peaking in April, millions of individuals found themselves struggling to pay for food, bills, and other necessities. Organizations must react to provide high-quality, emotionally sensitive customer support in the flexible ways that consumers need.
  • Digital customer service interactions will increase by 40%. The pandemic created a trend — an increased reliance on online shopping, digital financial services, and telehealth (virtual care) options — and that genie ain’t going back in the bottle. The lack of in-person services forced many consumers to use digital channels to interact with brands, and consumers will continue using these channels.
  • Retailers and banks will create hybrid store/contact center roles. With the closure of brick-and-mortar locations, many employees were unable to use their skills and knowledge to provide in-person support for customers. Retail associates and bank tellers, however, are well equipped to provide online support. Brands such as Apple and Northwest Community Credit Union recognized this and shifted some of their employee base to providing virtual assistance. Other brands will follow suit.

Read this research for additional and further details on our 2021 customer service predictions. To understand the major dynamics that will impact firms across industries next year, download Forrester’s Predictions 2021 guide.

Several Forrester analysts contributed to this year’s predictions, including: Ian Jacobs, Julie Ask, Kate Leggett, Vasupradha Srinivasan, Art Schoeller, and Daniel Hong.

Hailey Colin contributed to this blog.