Great customer service is not just about cutting costs or making operations more efficient. Instead, it’s a systematic reinvention of established technology, data, and operations — leveraging automation, data, and agents together to exploit each of their unique strengths.

This year, I see 3 broad customer service trends that organizations must consider as they fundamentally transform their operation:

  1. Customers demand fast service anywhere, anytime. Today, customers have more choice: more products to buy, more information to influence purchasing decisions, and more devices and channels over which to seek customer service. What they don’t have is more time. It’s no wonder that self-service interactions have overtaken all other channels for the third year running. We predict that companies will explore chatbots and voice user interfaces to enhance the self-service experience, as well as investigate visual engagement technologies to cut through the conversational clutter and preserve a customer’s time.
  2. Automation and AI quells headcount increases. To manage ballooning volumes of interactions across an increasing number of channels, customer service teams today increase their staff despite the cost: 46% of global contact center decision makers project their contact centers to grow by 5%-10% in the next year.  This approach is not economically sustainable. Enterprises must re-imagine their operations, with automation and AI at the center of their strategy: for example automated answers, automated conversations, automated agent guidance and RPA, optimized routing, scheduling, case classification. They must also invest in intelligence to ensure AI fueled technologies evolve and learn from prior interactions over time.
  3. Customer service operations must look to become more human. With customers increasingly using self-service, there are fewer opportunities for engagement with agents who can lend a human touch. All easy interactions will be handled via automation and AI. Agent interactions will be reserved for escalations for more complex issues that require diagnosis and empathy. This means that customer service organizations will no longer need Tier 1 agents, and must become high-touch centers that handle critical customer interactions. These organizations will focus on the quality of interactions as measured by customer retention and lifetime value. Agents will need to be more highly skilled and better compensated. Old management principles that focused on efficiency must be relaxed. Ultimately, technologies such as quality monitoring should be replaced by customer feedback.

We are at a tipping point for customer service operations. Business cannot go on as usual — it is economically unsustainable. However, automation and AI must be deployed with care, as they will impact the nature of every job.