Of all the business sectors, customer service potentially has the most to gain from technology.
Especially when it comes to outsourcing it.
With so many options available for companies to communicate with each other, and for connecting commerce systems with social media, the future of client care in general looks pretty good.
And the future of outsourcing customer care looks even better, with seemingly unlimited potential for agile innovation.
(And that’s before considering the possibilities of artificial intelligence.)
In an increasingly competitive marketplace, outsourcing customer service allows businesses to offer high-quality, around-the-clock client care for a fraction of the cost of hiring local staff. And improvements in digital connections will only make these arrangements easier and more productive.
But it can also cause problems if it isn’t properly managed. Client expectations can surpass what the outsourcing company is capable of providing. And their disappointment (and often their scathing review) can spread across cyberspace at lightning speed.
Another risk is rushing to adopt the latest whizbang tool before nailing the specs. It can end up costing the company far more than it can possibly recoup in conversions or repeat business.
Of course, artificial Intelligence is a looming presence in customer service forecasts. Global research and advisory firm Garner has predicted that up to 85% of customer service queries will be handled without human interaction as early as next year.
But the messages are decidedly mixed. Surveys of actual customers suggest they want more human contact, not less .
Comprehensive online presence? Yes. Quick and easy responses? Yes. Effortless multichannel communications? Yes. Round-the-clock service support? Of course!
But having to explain a specific (and often messy) human problems to a bot called ‘Evelyn’ you suspect is hooked up to nothing more than the inadequate FAQs you’ve already pored over? Not so cutting edge.
And potentially damaging to customer loyalty and brand perception.
Business highbrows from Deloitte to the Harvard Review agree that a high-performing team of customer service humans will be even more important in the future than they are now.
So what are the most important trends in customer service outsourcing in 2020?
1. Multi-channel customer communications
In the past, customer service professionals tended to specialize in one form of contact—usually phone calls channelled through call centers. Companies often outsourced their call centers employing staff to cover online or social media interaction on a fairly piecemeal basis. (The job descriptions of IT or web design professionals were sometimes stretched to deal with ‘digital’ customer service.)
But people increasingly expect to have access to support from trained specialists on whatever platform they happen to be on at the time — email, websites, social media, or whatever else they’re using.
And so it’s now more efficient to have experienced multi-channel staff working across all access points to ensure smooth, efficient responses.
‘Universal inboxes’ and customer relationship management (CRM) software allows operators to:
- track contacts from multiple sources
- log data on individual customers’ purchases and queries,
- access information from previous interactions on user friendly ‘dashboards’.
Cloud technology makes these processes both cheaper and accessible from pretty much anywhere in the world. And outsourced teams of highly educated professionals are well placed to offer optimal and cost-effective multi-channel customer care.
‘Omnichannel’ support is another term that features strongly in customer service predictions. This concept takes multichannel customer service to the next level by removing the barriers between different channels to create a seamless customer experience. But maintaining a strong public brand perception requires consistent visuals and tone across all platforms, as well as a way to easily transition between them.
2. Social media
While social media is no longer new, it’s still growing rapidly, making it a significant demographic. Millennials practically live there, and other generations are quickly taking up residence.
Unless you have trained staff monitoring the landscape around the clock, a complaint or elaborate meme that ridicules your business can go viral before you even have a chance to respond. An outsourced customer service team that’s social media savvy and personally engaging is an excellent safeguard against this.
They can also convert a disgruntled customer complaining on Instagram or Twitter into a happy one who will happily share their pleasant surprise with their followers. Even little things like personalised comments thanking clients for positive feedback can create valuable ‘warmth’ and an emotional connection with your brand that can quickly lead to more sales.
3. Video chat
A rising trend for web-based support is video chat combining the immediacy of pop-up chat boxes with the vital qualities of intimacy and efficiency. Video calls or web connections increase resolution time and help with explanations in a number of ways. They can save time and prevent frustration by cutting out the awkwardness of trying to explain a problem without having the relevant vocabulary. And visuals can provide the customer service representative with key details to help them solve the issue.
For problems with forms or online procedures, the customer service representative can use mirroring tools to access the customer’s screen, again saving time and reducing the chance of miscommunication.
And putting a face to the warm, friendly voice at the end of the customer service process can also add value to the interaction (providing you’ve hired the right people).
4. Cloud computing and SaaS
Cloud computing has revolutionized the business model for software. It allows companies to set up a comprehensive IT infrastructure without having to purchase software outright.
This flexibility provides (along with the ability to store and monetise vast amounts of customer information) benefits both the companies that outsource customer service and their partners.
One element of cloud computing is the software as a service (SaaS) distribution model. This allows third-party providers to make applications available over the Internet on demand. It greatly reduces the outlay needed to set up a high-performing outsourced customer service team that can easily adapt to changing requirements.
However, cloud computing is not without its risks. Tested, iron-clad data protection measures are vital to:
- protect customer privacy
- comply with cross-border data protection laws
But the benefits of creating top-of-the-line operating environments for customer care (as well as storing and processing the invaluable data they collect) far outweigh the risks.
5. Artificial Intelligence
Artificial Intelligence (AI) is a buzzword for progress across many industries. And the proliferation of chatbots shows how easy it is to get started.
But the technology is still relatively new. While AI is already playing an important role in customer service outsourcing, we’re nowhere near the point where empath robots can replace people.
As PriceWaterhouseCoopers said in a 2019 report, “The ‘how’ is the sticking point with emerging technology”. AI algorithms aren’t sophisticated enough to handle unpredictable queries or complex problems, let alone calm a not-necessarily rational client driven hysterical with frustration. They’re not witty, pithy or intuitive enough to manage social media accounts. And the empathy that’s fundamental to excellent customer service can’t be coded. Or at least not yet.
The safest and most cost-effective use of AI currently is to handle automated, low-level requests using algorithms to:
- generate price estimates
- process invoices
- direct queries to the appropriate next level of support.
It can also cover minor tasks such as tracking the status of orders, handling address changes generating customer comparisons to improve service.
These little advances can have a big impact, freeing customer service agents from menial tasks so they can offer more in-depth, one-on-one support. A Gartner study of more than 8,000 customer experiences showed that only 9% could fully resolve their issues via self-service channels alone — even when they were happy to use all those options first.
Of course, having exhausted the many other resources available, customers require a high level of service when they get to speak to real people. That means the customer service staff must be polished, well-trained professionals. And in most Western countries, finding and retaining people with such skills can be expensive.
6. Changing preferences
While the shift in people’s preferences for customer service contact is partly due to the ageing of the millennial generation, expectations are rising across the board. Cascading phone menus with recorded options are just as off-putting to over 50s as they are to under 30s.
And younger people are generally more comfortable with messaging and texting, which also happens to be a cheaper way of handling customer interactions. For example, a study by IBM in 2017 showed that 70% of customers preferred messaging over phone calls to access customer support.
But regardless of their demographic, everyone prefers to have a choice. In fact, they now practically demand it. To keep up with market expectations, companies must provide a range of options to suit the needs of different clients whenever they need help. With everyone navigating a diverse online landscape with varying degrees of difficulty, that moment will vary from interaction to interaction.
For example, someone having trouble completing a reservation on a booking website will probably want a live chat option so they can get the problem solved without having to start over and potentially lose the booking. The more complicated it is for them to get help mid-transaction, the more likely they’ll to a competitor that provides better support. And the chat facility had better have either:
- an intelligent library or responses
- A real person with the appropriate knowledge at the other end .
On the other hand, someone who needs detailed information on their personal finance options might prefer video chat, live chat, or even a phone call (with minimum menus and wait times), backed up by emailed resources.
7. Smart data
Optimal customer service doesn’t just solve problems and improve loyalty. It also generates valuable data to help develop products and services. Using information from previous interactions can create knowledge bases on individuals and customer categories that can help companies target their marketing or even anticipate client needs.
Automated feedback surveys and carefully tracked comments on social media round out the company’s data set. And in turn it can become an invaluable tool to the customer acquisition teams working to turn ‘likes’ and ‘shares’ into concrete profits.
An outsourced customer service team can serve as a repository of customer service data that can be analysed across key metrics and fed back to business analysts at head office.
Personalisation and emotional connection are logical flow-ons from data-driven customer service. They’re also happen to be two of the strongest takeaways from studies of what people are looking for.
Using information generated from their own transactions (along with purchased data), companies can subtly personalise their communications with clients. This personalisation can include varying and targeting emails, using their names, and providing appropriate product recommendations.
Systems that provide customer service staff with complete data sets on a client during live conversations allow skilled employees to create a positive customer experience. Social media, AI, surveys and feedback forms all play an important role in creating a personalised connection with clients. And using a dedicated outsourced customer service base can greatly enhance your strategy.
What’s in store
The client care benchmark for customer service outsourcing is set to become a judicious balance of well-designed systems and skilled, empathetic staff who can operate across all communications channels. Above all, the process must be customer centric and customer driven.
Algorithms, software innovations, media strategies and demographic research must be brought together to support one goal: optimised customer experience (CX). Customer experience is a unified concept so ephemeral yet so fundamental to success that it’s spawning degrees and departments across the world.
The quality of your customer service staff is key. As KPMG highlighted in its comprehensive report Tomorrow’s experience, today – Harnessing a customer first approach in a changing world, “The intellectual requirement on employees to deal with the more complex issues means companies can no longer just throw low cost resources at customer service”.
It’s important for customers to feel they’re communicating with empowered agents who have the knowledge and authority to solve problems without having to pass them on to a higher level — or back through tortuous pathways — to find a resolution. The client doesn’t care how they get the information, or what programs they’re using. They just want their problems fixed quickly and cheerfully.
Finding intelligent, experienced employees who are also warm and quick thinking is neither easy nor cheap in most countries. So creating a customer service team of vetted professionals can do wonders for your peace of mind.