Technological innovations have had a dramatic impact on business processes since the turn of the century, not least across retail. And they continue to accelerate. Over the past year, however, we have seen huge shifts in customer behaviours in ways we never would have anticipated. Transformations that would have taken years, instead took just days. The way in which retailers support, sell and communicate with customers has changed almost entirely, and with it, heightened expectations from consumers who are now looking to receive nothing but exceptional service.
The companies that have left the best impressions on their customers are those that have been agile and innovative during the crisis, adapting their processes and trying new ways of doing things. According to business review site Trustpilot, hardware stores and garden centres have received tremendous praise from customers for their efficiency during lockdown, despite being limited by social distancing rules. Package delivery companies and pharmacies have also been thanked for expanding their online capabilities and coming up with new, safer ways to deliver goods.
Evolution of customer expectations
What customers need, how they need it and when they need it has evolved at unprecedented speed. We now exist in a borderless retail environment where competition doesn’t solely exist on the local high street, but globally, meaning customers are demanding more and more from retailers to deliver.
The surge in ecommerce brought with it many logistical challenges when it came to customer service, as demographics young and old adapted to the forced shift in shopping behaviour. Enhanced website self-service tools and user guides provided easily accessible product information in the short-term, but what customers are looking for now is an immersive blend of the in-store and online retail experience. One that connects the offline experience of a knowledgeable, warm and empathetic shop assistant, to the online experience that delivers hyper personalisation, simplicity, speed, and unified cross channel support. Omnichannel customer service is no longer a luxury, but a necessity. And it’s no longer good enough to select one channel at a time, the customer expects a fully augmented and integrated journey across multiple channels.
Omnichannel customer service is all about providing a customer with the most convenient channel ‘in the moment’ to solve a query, with the flexibility to switch seamlessly other channel during a single conversation. For forward thinking brands, video is also set to become the new voice and will become the most powerful of all tools – used at the right time.
It’s crucial that brands and retailers know and understand every detail of a customer’s journey in order to be able to offer the most relevant recommended paths to solve their enquiry. If that involves more than one channel, then it should be designed seamlessly to feel like there is no interruption, deviation or repetition.
By providing customers with recommended starting channels – be it chat, video, social or self-service support - retailers can influence choices that will lead to fast and effective outcomes, which is ultimately the top universal customer expectation.
Bridging the gap between self-service and assisted service
Automation using AI plays well into the ever-rising expectations and demands of customers. Always-on access has become a core experience of the mobile consumer who instinctively wants to self-manage on their own terms.
When non-essential retail was ordered to close last March, customers had to turn to alternative channels for care and support. Voice-assisted service grew significantly, and demand for phone, e-mail and social media service skyrocketed. That, in turn, drove up waiting times and putting extra pressure on contact centres to provide the customer support required of them.
As demand grew, customers became more and more frustrated, and customer service agents did their best to balance service quality with speed.
What did become clear during that time, however, was the exponential increase in customers’ willingness to self-serve. As a result, many quick-thinking companies set up new self-service channels, such as AI-powered chatbots, virtual assistants and messaging apps, to ease pressure and help customers with basic requests and give customer support agents more time to focus on complex enquiries. Supermarket giant Lidl, for example, launched a chatbot on WhatsApp to help its customers find the quietest time to shop, while the UK Government launched an automated bot to answer common questions about the coronavirus, its symptoms and its spread. Many online retailers also used bots to help process returns and check delivery statuses.
Rather than bots and artificial intelligence replacing humans altogether, a more realistic scenario is a blended approach where technology replaces the mundane and transactional interactions.
Technology is a fantastic enabler and by merging the best aspects of human agents with automated services like chatbots, customer service contact centres can free up talented and professional agents to do their job even better. With the ability to access accurate information quickly, agents can focus on delivering a more personalised and sales-focused service. A happy customer is a loyal customer and a happy motivated workforce is less likely to seek employment elsewhere.
Emotional value of CX
Good customer service is not just about dealing with enquiries in a timely manner; it is about resolving the issue to the customer’s satisfaction. Emotional intelligence is a vital element to understanding customer needs, and contact centres that blend technology with the human touch will reap rewards in the digital age. To achieve that, it is important to understand the customer’s emotional state when responding to them. Customer service representatives that can understand how the customer is feeling and use that information to find the right words to influence a positive result are priceless.
The emotion, empathy and human experiences now demanded by customers means customer service teams must find ways to facilitate those experiences or risk losing out to their competitors. It is crucial for contact centres to remain relevant and integrate new, innovative technologies to enable more efficient business processes, particularly as the online world becomes even more central to people’s day-to-day lives. Creating human experiences does not mean cutting back on automation and AI, in fact, technology can help you deliver and elevate those human experiences, and choosing the right mix of channels to serve and support customers will pay dividends for brands.
Jonathan Allan, CMO at Puzzel