Over the next decade, the development and integration of technologies powered by automation and artificial intelligence (AI) are going to have a game-changing impact on the ecommerce customer service role.
By 2028, repetitive, high volume enquiries will be handled by sophisticated, intelligent chatbots, leaving customer service agents to work alongside AI systems to resolve the demanding, judgement based queries in a more personalised way. This leap forward will lead the customer services role to become more complicated, requiring retail agents to be confident using the latest technology and have the problem solving and interpersonal skills needed to deal with queries automated systems can’t resolve. Ecommerce brands that start to prepare for this change now will benefit from a more efficient customer service function, capable of delivering memorable experiences that drive loyalty.
Anticipating this shift is an essential consideration for retailers operating in an increasingly competitive environment. The popularity of ecommerce has seen customer service caught up with price and proposition as a key differentiator for brands, while simultaneously making its delivery more challenging. Retailers now need to provide fast, personalised responses to customers across an ever-growing range of contact channels. However, doing this effectively is difficult when most ecommerce customer service representatives are weighed down by a high volume of simple requests, like order delivery enquiries, for example. In addition, the responses agents can give are also often restricted because the valuable data brands hold on their customers is spread across disjointed systems and departments, usually outside their reach.
Many retailers are already turning to automation to help meet this challenge, integrating chatbots – text-based computer programmes capable of conversing with a human – with their own web chat systems to provide fast responses to simple queries. This frees up agents to dedicate more time to complicated enquiries, but, at least for now, the support offered by this sort of technology is still inherently limited. In their current form, chatbots are rule-based and require a significant amount of agent supervision and linguistic expertise.
This will change with advancements in AI, or cognitive technology, which will accelerate the application of automation. Chatbots, for example, will be able to undertake complex speech comprehension and recognise user intentions down to the tone of their language and sentiment in their voice. The technology will be able to learn more about the customers it serves, or the employees it supports, during a conversation and provide a completely new level of quality and efficiency in dialogue.
Eventually, ecommerce customer service representatives will have access to virtual assistants with advanced external and internal facing applications. These autonomous support platform will take care of increasingly complex inbound enquiries without supervision, match customer queries that require a human touch to the representative most qualified to respond and collate and present useful data to agents in real time, in a digestible, hyper-intuitive format. This will ultimately give agents everything they need to be more productive, focus on interactions that require discussion and negotiation, thrive in an increasingly digital workplace and deliver exceptional, tailored experiences to customers. But before we get to this stage, ecommerce brands need to start taking steps now to prepare.
Underpinning the ecommerce customer service representative of 2028 will be an advanced customer relationship management (CRM) system, which uses intelligent analytics to seamlessly collate and distribute customer data across the organisation. This information, covering everything from contact channel preferences through to order history and customer sizing, will arm agents and chatbots with recommended responses and next best actions in real time, to enable them to personalise customer service. To start building this framework now, retailers must create a knowledge base, composed of both qualitative and quantifiable data that today’s autonomous support systems can draw from to inform responses to enquiries. This includes a bespoke dictionary of common terms and expressions used by customers, to ensure the bots can converse using recognisable, accurate language.
In practice, this means ecommerce brands must prioritise text-based contact channels that can be integrated with automation and AI technology, such as web chat and social media, so the content of previous interactions can be effectively captured, processed and catalogued. In addition, retailers must also digitise essential brand information. This could vary from current stock levels, to details of special offers and return policies. By creating this foundation of data, brands can create a live resource that acts as a support system during customer interactions and, more generally, as an intelligent portal staff can use to access the resources they need to succeed in a more demanding, digitally driven role.
Saying this, building a workforce that is capable of harnessing this technology will not happen overnight. Ecommerce brands will increasingly need to attract and cultivate from within, the skills needed for employees to work in tandem with new technology. On top of strong communication and interpersonal skills, the customer service representative of 2028 will need to be IT-literate and able to quickly adapt to new ways of working. That means focusing recruitment strategies on digital skills, but also analysing and planning for how existing roles are likely to be changed by innovation.
Securing employee buy-in from an early stage and delivering training alongside new investments will be key here. But, moreover, retailers should also start implementing pilot programmes that test the impact of new technology on specific agent processes, such as FAQs, which only require simple, pre-determined responses to be effectively automated. Both steps can help ecommerce brands prepare to take advantage of a more productive, skilled workforce with the tools at their disposal to deliver next-generation customer experience.