There's been a marked increase in the use of digital tools among customer service teams over the past two years, after the pandemic brought home the importance of digital connection and automation to keep serving customers. According to the latest State of Service report, published by Salesforce in the run-up to this week's Dreamforce conference, the use of channels such as mobile apps, community forums and video support have each seen substantial upticks, while around a fifth of companies have dropped phone and email support.
But digital channels aren't sufficient unless accompanied by automation and personalization, argues Clara Shih, CEO of Salesforce Service Cloud. She says:
Customer service, and employee experience as a part of that, they've really risen to become a CEO imperative, just because of everything that's happening in the global macroeconomic environment ... It's created this perfect storm, and really a forcing function for companies to rethink how they serve their customers in this critical moment of need.
She points to the pressures that are increasing the demand for customer service, such as supply chain issues, climate issues, production, manufacturing and labour shortages, while it's getting harder to recruit and retain customer service agents. In response, there's a new emphasis on the use of automation, including AI-powered tools such as chatbots and guided knowledge, to speed response times and drive up productivity. The survey finds that 58% of decision makers say their service organizations are using automation, while the proportion using AI has risen sharply, from 24% in 2020 to 45% now. Shih says:
A lot more organizations this year are using digital channels to offload what would traditionally clog up a phone line for requests, like updating a change of address ...
It's probably better, more accurate, not to mention instant and free for the company, for the customer to be able to self-service through the company's website, to interact with a chatbot, or to do that through a mobile experience.
Personalization in customer service
But she points out that automation on its own can come across as impersonal if it's delivered without sensitivity to the customer's context. It needs to be coupled with personalization to provide the best customer experience As she explains:
Service has become a CEO imperative. Specifically, the opportunity to delight customers through a combination of automation and personalization.
The automation, we're being forced to do it just because, again, support calls are higher than ever, and yet, it's harder than ever to hire agents. So it forces the adoption of technology.
But automation without personalization and intelligence is a commodity. We feel it as customers. It feels one-size-fits-all. It feels like deflection rather than service. That's really the power of the Customer 360 that we have, is that we're able with all that data to personalize those automated and self-service interactions, so that it still feels high-touch and premium.
If it's unexpected to hear personalization mentioned in the context of customer service, that's something that Shih plans to change. She elaborates:
I think personalization as a term has been misused for the last five to ten years. It's been co-opted solely to mean marketing, digital marketing, or e-commerce. But really personalization, as we know, depends on the full picture. It requires a 360-degree view of the customer. If the customer is having a support issue, or there's a major incident, now might not be a good time to send a marketing campaign. It needs to be connected and it hasn't been. But if you stay tuned, it will be.
Making service more proactive
In Shih's view, connecting customer interactions across marketing, sales, e-commerce and post-sales customer service is the key to being more proactive and providing a better experience throughout the customer lifecycle. She explains:
That's been the biggest shift in support over the last 10 years. Support is transitioning from being merely a reactive and tactical function to one that's proactive, and highly strategic.
By bringing all of those interactions together, we can really deliver and exceed customer expectations ... We're able to see across the customer lifetime, what are the right moments to engage proactively?
The pandemic has accelerated this trend, as businesses recognize the need to co-ordinate response across different functions and channels. She continues:
I see this in the leaders that we talk to. It used to be the case that field service leaders would operate in a silo, and then your contact centre would operate in a silo. And then you'd have a digital team operating in a silo ...
Now it's all one and the same. Because from that customer's perspective, they have a need. They're not thinking about the different departments in your company. They're thinking about solving their need to buy something.
Video and AR
This is an important factor in spurring the take-up of video in customer service, as well as related technologies such as Augmented Reality (AR), when information is overlaid over an image or live video feed of the item that needs attention. Customers want to fix the problem as quickly as possible, without having to wait for an engineer call-out. Not having to initiate a truck roll is good news for the service team, too. Shih cites the example of a problem with an air conditioner:
What we're seeing is, a lot of customers, they're self-serving. They're going on the web experience and mobile experience, and they're figuring out for common issues for this broken air conditioner. How can I restart it myself? How can I refill the coolant myself so that I can solve this urgent need?
AR and video support customers in these self-service endeavors. She continues:
From the contact centre, the agent can use augmented reality, to circle exactly which button to press, exactly which way to turn the box. All of a sudden, the customer is able to resolve their issue much more quickly. And the company saves the truck roll, from having to send a field tech to that person's home.
It's very much a blurring of the lines. That only works because we're able to look across digital self-service chatbots, the contact centre and field service, versus treating each of these as a silo.
Swarming on Slack
Another example is when service teams use a capability called Incident Management, when people from different teams collaborate on a Slack channel to resolve a major incident that's affecting large numbers of customers, such as a security breach or a site outage. A rapid response to those customers who first raise the issue can fix it for many others before they even become aware of it, as she explains:
If you've got 20, 30, 40 people calling or chatting and emailing in about the site being down, it's probably a bigger issue that might affect thousands, or even tens of thousands or more other customers ...
Oftentimes, these major incidents are bigger than an individual customer support rep can handle on her own. And so she needs to partner with the security team, if it's a security breach, or she needs to partner with a DevOps team, if it's a site outage, to really solve the issue. While that's happening, the clock is ticking.
It's an opportunity for the customer success team, the sales team, the entire account team to be able to proactively notify the customer. How great is that as a customer when you get proactively notified about an issue versus having to find out the hard way?
Meanwhile, adding AI is helping organizations be more proactive in solving customer issues. For example, machine analysis of customer service calls can give a breakdown of why customers are calling. Shih explains:
Once they have these use cases, from listening across every call, which we're able to do at scale, thanks to Service Cloud Voice and the AI that's part of it, they can actually say, 'You know what, it doesn't make sense for someone to call about a password reset, or about a change of address, I'm going to create or use a template from Einstein Bots to really address that need, so that customers can self-service.'
Service managers can then use Einstein Bots Value dashboard to track metrics such as case deflection and reduction in handle time to show the ROI of introducing these new capabilities, she adds.
Joined-up data and processes across the organization are changing the way businesses operate, and the impact is being felt especially strongly in customer service teams. Once seen as a cost center whose main role was akin to damage limitation, they are now coming of age as key contributors to customer success and thus in protecting and generating revenue throughout the customer lifecycle. As Shih hints, there's more that needs to be done to truly join up all of these former silos of operation, but the trend is clear.
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