Customer Service in 2020 and Beyond: Global Study Details Reveals the Pandemic’s Lasting Impact

Dec 09, 2020 • NewsResearchSalesforceCovid-19

As the serial crises of 2020 redefine customer engagement, customer service leaders are transforming their operations, accelerating digital transformation, and overhauling their workforce management strategies. That’s according to Salesforce’s fourth State of Service research report, released today, which provides a snapshot of the priorities, challenges, and trajectories of customer service teams around the world. This edition is based on Salesforce’s largest and most global survey of customer service agents, decision makers, mobile workers, and dispatchers: over 7,000 respondents across 33 countries.

“We knew based on our previous research that businesses no longer view their service and support operations as cost centers, but as strategic assets that benefit revenue and retention as customer expectations soar,” said Bill Patterson, EVP and GM of B2B CRM at Salesforce. This research helps us and our customers understand how the playbook is changing, and what the best teams do differently from their competitors as they move back into growth mode.” [CTT]

From the channels they use to serve customers to the spaces employees work from to the skill sets agents require, there’s not much that hasn’t changed for customer service organizations. Here are some key takeaways.


The pandemic has exposed customer service shortcomings, but leaders are taking decisive action

The impacts of COVID-19 were a wake up call for customer service organizations used to the status quo. As workers stayed at home and customers asked questions for which there were no answers, customer service leaders were faced with conundrums with far reaching consequences for their teams.

Eighty-eight percent of service professionals say the pandemic exposed technology gaps, and 86% say the same for service channel gaps as customers flocked away from physical locations and towards digital methods of engagement. Teams also found shortcomings that went beyond the obvious. For example, 87% realized that their existing policies and protocols — such as cancellation fees for events that were prohibited by public health measures — were not suited for current circumstances.

Faced with these challenges, service teams and their leaders are making transformations that will endure beyond the current crisis. Eighty-three percent of service organizations have changed policies to provide customers with more flexibility, for instance, and 78% have invested in new technology as a result of the pandemic.

“Leaders are taking this time to rethink the value of experiences and reimagine engagement with customers and employees alike,” said Brian Solis, Global Innovation Evangelist at Salesforce.”It’s not just about technology. Sometimes technology is at its best when invisible. We’re going to see significantly more agile, innovative, and relevant organizations emerge from this crisis that provide modern and sought-after experiences that change the game for everyone.”


Digital transformation is accelerating for customers and employees alike

A related research report shows the extent to which customers have shifted to digital, as well as how that shift is expected to persist. Consumers and business buyers estimate that six out of ten of their interactions with companies will occur online in 2021, up from 42% in 2019.

This uptick has coincided with a surge in adoption of various digital channels by service organizations. Video support saw the highest rate of increase in adoption since 2018 (+42%), followed by live chat (+35%) and messenger apps such as WhatsApp and Facebook Messenger (+29%). Conversely, the share of organizations offering in-person service and support fell by 16%.

The digital transformation of customer service goes beyond the increased use of digital channels. Service teams also ramped up their adoption of artificial intelligence by 32% since 2018, and their adoption of chatbots shot up by 67%.

"It's never been more important to remove friction from every user experience." says Jim Roth, Executive Vice President of Customer Support at Salesforce. "In our personal lives, we so often solve issues on our own with a simple Google search. We reach out to our friends and family on our preferred communication channels, during a time that's good for us. When we interact with companies, we expect the same level of easy, seamless interactions. If a company makes it too hard for customers to engage, they may become former customers."


Service teams are being challenged by a new era of workforce engagement

Customer service workforces, rooted in contact centers, were spun into upheaval as stay at home orders spread across the world and social distancing became part of daily life. Over half (54%) of global customer service professionals worked from home during 2020, and only 43% expect to return to their normal workplace in 2021.

The shift to remote work has not impacted productivity as much as some may assume, with a majority (72%) of service agents agreeing they have all the tools and technology they need to work remotely. But as 54% of organizations experienced increased case volume, many of them have brought on contractors (42%) or employees from other departments (62%) to help. Just 25% of service professionals say their organizations excel at training such employees from afar, and even fewer (19%) say the same for their ability to onboard these employees in the first place.


Training is a focus as requisite skill sets evolve

Particularly during a crisis, the role of a customer service agent can no longer be limited to closing tickets. Agents are now expected to be knowledgeable, consultative, and above all, empathetic to customers’ unique needs and circumstances. A mix of hard and soft skills — communication, listening, and product knowledge — are in the highest demand. What’s more, service organizations accelerated their tracking of revenue more than any other metric since 2018 (up 57%), putting new expectations for sales savviness on agents’ plates.

Despite tightened budgets, service organizations by-and-large continue to invest in training programs and infrastructure, with a particularly significant bump in the share of teams with access to on-demand training (61%). Far from an entry level position, customer service agents see their roles as providing increasing opportunity even amidst an economic downturn. Sixty-seven percent of agents say they have a clear career path, up from 59% in 2018.

“You’re going to see more blurred lines between different roles moving forward,” predicted Salesforce Global Growth Evangelist Tiffani Bova. “This isn’t new, but it’s accelerating. It’s why so many companies have realized that ‘customer success’ is a more appropriate term than ‘customer service,’ especially when they’ve committed to being more customer-centric. Service has to be part of growth strategies. That’s when customer success truly has a significant impact on the bottom line.”


Field service is thriving, even amid a pandemic

Over the summer of 2020, Salesforce found that 70% of consumers, including 67% of Americans) still preferred in-person appointments where on-site support was a must, such as appliance repairs or internet installs, with the remainder opting for digital alternatives. Accordingly, three-quarters of decision makers with field service continue to see significant revenue from their operations and nearly seven in ten (69%) continue to make significant investments in their mobile workers through tactics such as additional hiring, training, technology investment.

Field Service News Analysis:

Having had access to a selection of the key data relating to the service sector in the UK, some additional key findings Field Service News has identified that will be of interest to Field Service Directors include: 

In response to the pandemic:

  • 82% of service teams say they’ve shifted workflows/processes
  • 85% of service teams say they’ve changed policies to provide more flexibility to customers
  • 60% of service decision makers say they’ve invested in new service technology

Agents’ ability to find information needed to do their job:

  • 83% of agents can remotely access all the data and information they need
  • 57% of service teams have brought in employees from other departments to work in service and support roles
  • 49% of agents see a clear path for career growth at their job
  • 61% of service decision makers say they’re making significant investments in agent training

Field Service spotlight:

  • 76% of service decision markets say field service is a key part of their overall strategy
  • 68% of service decision makers say field service drives significant revenue for their company

Further Reading: