We asked experts to share their insights on the market context of 2020, key opportunities on the road ahead, and the WFH impact in 2021
Customer experience (CX) saw a radical transformation last year, with digital and touchless channels taking centre stage. As per a recent report, a staggering 80% of organisations feel it is “very” or “extremely” important to deliver high-quality digital CX to their customers in 2020; just 1% said it was not important at all.
Powerful unified communication solutions give you the backend support needed to achieve CX excellence amid market complexities and evolving expectations, something that’s become part of BAU in the post-pandemic era. On the one hand, you have customer service agents transitioning to and staying with WFH for the foreseeable future, requiring organisations to revisit their digital infrastructure (i.e., move from on-premise). On the other hand, customers now expect your presence on digital channels as par for course, and this is unlikely to change even when in-person interactions return to a pre-pandemic normal.
In this environment, how do you navigate market complexities to come out on the winning side? Can digital technologies act as an enabler, giving you a competitive advantage as the economy rebounds? To find answers to these questions and explore what lies ahead, we spoke to experts from six digital CX pioneers.
In this edition of the CX Today Round Table, we are delighted to be joined by:
We asked our experts to share their insights on the market context of 2020, key opportunities on the road ahead, and the WFH impact in 2021. Here is what they had to say.
If we consider where CX is headed this year, 2020 will inevitably serve as the take-off point. If the last three quarters were all about reacting to the pandemic, the upcoming ones must determine the industry’s long-term response. Our experts agreed that customer-centricity in a low-touch/touchless world was the dominant theme from 2020, giving rise to disruptive digital adoption in some cases. Others pointed out that there was a downswing in the quality of experiences, meaning that 2021 will be all about course correction.
Here are the insights in full detail.
Paul Holden, Head of Sales at Akixi
Holden from Akixi told us, categorically, that COVID-19 was responsible for all CX strategies, forcing several organisations to pivot in their tracks. “There was a huge compelling event in 2020 almost forcing remote CX and Working from Home (WFH) – that was, and still is, Coronavirus,” Holden said. “Those behind the curve had to implement WFH capability very quickly, literally overnight in many cases,” he added, highlighting that not everyone was equipped for this change.
In several cases, existing practices and plans had to be tabled, with pandemic-readiness taking priority over everything.
Holden told us that he saw an article on LinkedIn asking the question, “Which C-level led your digital transformation in 2020, was it the CEO? CIO? Or CTO?” According to him, the answer is straightforward – “None of them, it was ‘C’ovid.”
Brendan Dykes, Senior Director at Genesys
Brendan Dykes from Genesys agreed with Holden, noting that the pandemic was among the most influential drivers in 2020. But he also added that previous trends like CX personalisation continued to be relevant.
Here are the top two trends from 2020 according to Dykes:
“COVID-19 had a big impact on businesses across the board. There was a sudden need to ensure employees were transferred to remote working, which, for many organisations, meant accelerating their cloud contact centre adoption.”
“While COVID-19 and the cloud were a driving force for many businesses, the other area that is shaping the industry is the need for businesses to provide truly personalised experiences to customers,” Dykes said, mentioning that there are implications for the entire organisation and not just the support function.
“This doesn’t only apply to the contact centre, but the wider business across marketing and sales departments. People are increasingly turning to brands that provide them with the most personalisation to their interactions.”
Paul Jarman, CEO of NICE inContact
With several brands becoming unavailable to attend to their customers in-person, digital communication channels saw a dramatic rise in popularity, says Nice InContact’s Paul Jarman. “The biggest trend was the accelerated shift towards digital and self-service channels, which took on a newfound importance in 2020.”
He shared insights surfaced by Nice InContact’s research reaffirming this trend.
Interestingly, he also spoke about opportunities for personalisation enabled by the growing reliance on digital. Instead of a fragmented multichannel system, companies were motivated to adopt omnichannel for greater personalisation.
“Driven by necessity, contact centres had to offer truly digital-first, omnichannel services – including both self-service and agent-assisted channels – that supported customers anytime, anywhere and provided the personalised service they expected,” he said.
At the back-end of this new paradigm was the WFH contact centre agent.
“Linked to this was the need to embrace a WFH model, as remote working requirements forced the industry to adapt to a distributed workforce. This required businesses to optimise their analytics, workforce engagement, and contact centre infrastructure to empower their agents to excel regardless of where they were,” Jarman added.
Jonathan Allan, CMO of Puzzel
Puzzel’s Jonathan Allan spoke about two trends that shaped customer experiences in 2020 – 1) contact centres becoming the core of business continuity and 2) the diversification of customer communication channels.
As digital CX emerged as a top priority, there was a greater demand for effective contact centre operations. “Customers turned to contact centres for reassurance during uncertain times, and the contact centre will continue to be the pre-eminent primary brand touchpoint and face of a business in 2021, particularly as restrictions continue to affect customers’ ability to receive in-person customer service,” Allan opines.
Alongside this newfound centrality of contact centre operations, businesses had to keep up with emerging channel expectations. “Over the last six months, we’ve also seen a change in customers’ preferred communication channels with SMS, web-chat, and survey increasing on average by 37%, as well as seeing a decrease in voice calls.”
What does this mean for 2021? “Looking ahead, brands must prepare for such changes in customer expectations, being prepared to adapt to fast-moving environments, to ensure they don’t lose out against rivals,” Allan believes.
Julien Rio, Senior Marketing Director at RingCentral
Rio from RingCentral looked back at 2020 with mixed emotions.
“2020 was a disappointing year for customer service. Almost every website belonging to a major retailer, insurance provider or telecoms operator published an alert blaming the pandemic for over-extended waiting times and/or reduced operating capacity,” he said, pointing to a possible dip in performance for many and ensuing customer disappointment.
But companies were swift to respond, embracing the cloud and strategic reforms to adapt to the need at hand.
“It was companies with contact centres relying on the cloud that could ensure issues were dealt with quickly. Those with legacy, on-premises solutions encountered serious obstacles – from having unsuitable technology to unable to quickly respond to unexpected staffing issues. The shift from on-premise to cloud, therefore, was a defining trend of 2020.”
In addition to remote-friendly technology on the cloud, companies came up with re-envisioned strategies that would help maximise the cloud potential and stay flexible.
“The year also kickstarted flexibility reform, not only when considering remote customers, but also, the working-from-home revolution for contact centre employees. We began to see a shift in customer service strategy, with big businesses starting to consider how to implement cloud-based solutions that will allow them to remain agile.”
Natalie Keightley, Senior Director of Solutions Marketing at Avaya
Keightley from Avaya mentioned that customers frequently faced challenges when interacting with brands in 2020. If a company couldn’t build a digital workplace on time and with the expected efficacy, the customer, as well as the CX agent, had to pay the price.
“The digital workplace trend, which grew steadily in the enterprise space over the past few years, hit the contact centre world with force this year as buildings closed and agents moved to remote working. Those who couldn’t quickly adapt struggled, and although customers had some degree of tolerance at first, by the end of the year, sympathy was running out when it came to long waiting times and poor CX,” she said.
The customer support function doesn’t easily align with WFH – as Keightley said, “It can’t have been fun trying to navigate multiple screens for vital information over a consumer broadband connection with an irate customer on the line.”
The key to CX success, therefore, was a WFH-ready agent toolkit. “If it was bad for customers, then it was also grim for remote agents. Good CX starts with good EX (employee experience), and these employees need the right technology to do their job. If they are properly equipped, as this year has proven, they can do their job brilliantly from home,” she added.
From here, we moved into opportunities for CX buyers and users in 2021.
As the global economy regains its footing in 2021, companies have an opportunity to leverage cutting-edge technologies that deliver memorable customer experiences. It is estimated that the CX technology market will grow from $ 8.5 billion in 2020 to $14.9 billion by 2025, making this the start of an important period of ongoing investments.
Our experts opined on the various technology investments available to CX buyers in 2021, and which ones could create maximum value in a continued WFH environment. Expectedly, cloud-based communication and contact centres head the list, but there are also a few surprising entrants like artificial intelligence (AI) and voice.
Here are the insights in full detail.
Paul Holden from Akixi is of the opinion that investments in the cloud shroud be your top priority if it isn’t so already – “Cloud UC and CC technologies [will create the biggest opportunities] without a doubt.” he puts this down to four reasons:
As a result, contact centre agents are empowered to drive value.
“These technologies actually make delivering effective customer experience easier and more accessible”
Brendon Dykes from Genesys mentioned three technologies that should be on your agenda this year: automation, self-service, and workforce engagement.
Despite having been around for several years, the pandemic propelled CX automation and customer self-service into prominence, reducing human dependency at a time of labour shortage and giving customers more flexibility. “Due to the extraordinary year that we have had, we have seen that organisations are looking more and more into self-service and automation to help them cope with the surge in demand many businesses saw during the first wave of the pandemic.”
And contact centre agents will gain as well – “These solutions can help customers solve queries on their own and ensure that agents are helping customers with complex issues.”
The third technology on the agenda is also geared to help agents, focusing on their wellbeing, in addition to maintaining productivity.
“The other technology is workforce engagement management (WEM). While agents are working remotely, it is important that businesses ensure they stay motivated and keep learning new tasks that help with their career progression”
NICE inContact’s Paul Jarman agreed with Akixi’s Holden on the importance of the cloud, adding on the need for adopting AI. In 2021, the cloud will unlock steady returns in a WFH environment, while AI-assist augments agent capabilities.
Jarman noted that, “Cloud-based platforms provide the agility and flexibility that are now vital. With a cloud infrastructure, businesses can quickly respond to evolving customer needs and address customer issues in new ways.”
“The cloud allows agents to onboard quickly and seamlessly work from home, while also making it significantly easier to add and integrate new digital channels to drive growth and customer satisfaction,” he said.
“AI-powered bots can be deployed in various channels to answer common questions or facilitate simple transactions. They are also effective at gathering customer information that can be handed off to an agent for quicker agent-assisted interactions,” he said.
“AI can support humans as they work remotely by acting as “co-pilots” – advising agents about the next best action and performing some of their administrative tasks. This all translates into improved CX”
According to him, these two technologies “are leading the way” when it comes to enhancing CX.
Jonathan Allan from Puzzel also stressed the role automation and self-service would play in creating value in 2021. Digital transformation was already transforming customer expectations, and this reached its natural conclusion last year (if at an unprecedented pace)
“Things have evolved at an unprecedented pace over the course of the past year. In today’s ‘always on’ environment, customers expect instant service beyond the traditional 9-5. To meet expectations many businesses are exploring ways to offer customers self-service options and this is where technology can be effective in assisting customers in an automated way”
Automation and self-service can together offer faster response and resolution times, keeping up with customer expectations.
Speaking on this theme, Allan mentioned three technologies that could prove the most game-changing this year:
According to him, “Finding the right balance and bridging between the world of chatbots and human beings, whilst ensuring the customer experience is not compromised, is key.”
Rio from RingCentral spoke about call deflection as an important capability to gain the contact centre’s growing omnichannel footprint in 2021.
Call deflection has always been a contact centre staple but it opens up brand new opportunities in the digital era. Rio explained the precise steps by which this happens.
“Call deflection is a strategic process which both automatically and/or manually redirects calls to digital channels when this is relevant for the customer and the company. It can be offered before the call, during the queue or during the call allowing the customer to communicate by both phone and digital streams. This change of channel can, for example, be offered to complete a payment or obtain basic information (order tracking, price information, etc.) more quickly via digital channels and without waiting (and wasting) time.”
Rio said that call deflection is “key to success in the new remote world,” as agents are likely to be distributed across locations, channels, or even be unavailable at certain times.
A call deflection strategy would ensure that your omnichannel infrastructure kicks in so as to maintain a high quality of CX.
“Agents are less constrained by resolution time goals and can provide better service. In 2021, the call deflection approach will be more widely adopted to support the transition of telephone interactions to digital”
According to Keightley from Avaya, AI and machine learning are the top technologies to watch out for, easing agent workloads during a difficult time.
“AI and machine learning are quickly becoming indispensable to remote agents,” she said. “Humans are more valuable when focusing on customers, being ambassadors for the brand, and supporting each other emotionally – let machines do the other stuff”
She highlighted three ways in which AI/ML-led CX could create opportunities and generate value in 2021:
“An AI engine can act as a digital co-worker (every agent should have one) to take care of the manual stuff like finding background information or inserting transcriptions into CRM systems.”
“AI can do clever stuff like analysing interactions to suggest next best actions, real-time corrections and future improvements. It can also do useful stuff, like behavioural pairing (matching customers with the right employees), and proactive stuff like detecting background noise, poor broadband or flagging attention spans before suggesting a more appropriate task.”
“AI can guide supervisors about when to offer agents support and it can replace them on scoring agent performance, freeing supervisors up so they can focus on the bigger picture.” Indeed, there is a clear demand for AI in the contact centre stack, confirmed by a Deloitte survey.
Following this, we asked our experts about the potential impacts of WFH (past and ongoing) on CX delivery.
WFH, initially suggested as a stop-gap measure to control the outbreak, has now become a lasting reality for contact centres around the world. Before the pandemic, only 13% of agents were working on a full-time remote basis – a trend that is not true for the majority. In India, for example, which is a major contact centre destination for global companies, 1 in 3 centres plan on switching to remote work permanently.
As one might expect, WFH will continue to shape CX modalities for several quarters to come. It could reduce investments in brick-and-mortar or on-premise infrastructure according to some experts; others spoke about the need to focus on agent wellbeing and experience enablers.
Read on for the full insights.
Holden from Akixi said that companies will permanently deprioritise brick-and-mortar real estate in favour of digital channels, which, in turn, necessitates stronger cloud capabilities. This will be driven by the efficiency gains companies witness this year, from switching to WFH.
“WFH has led to increases in productivity and improvements in customer experience. When we are back to normal (post-vaccine), leaders should embrace the changes we have seen across the business landscape, thinking to where our employees are most effective and productive, and having trust in cloud technologies to empower and enable WFH,” he said.
He also shared his recommendations for 2021.
“Companies should think long and hard about the need for investment in bricks and mortar moving forwards. Hopefully, businesses will create less real estate and more opportunity for employees to choose and achieve a balance in their working environment.”
Brendan Dykes from Genesys predicts the increasing importance of empathy, which will enable more first-contact resolution.
For a long time, brands have focused on making CX memorable and differentiated from their competitors – but the priorities are set to be slightly different in 2021.
“I think in 2021, customer experience delivery will revolve far more around empathy. Technology alone does not make customer interactions great or memorable, but perhaps a lot of the time they don’t need to be,” he said.
“However, in those moments when customers are at their greatest need, at their most vulnerable or most confused then it can enable agents to be the best version of themselves and deliver the best outcomes.”
But what exactly does empathy mean in the CX context for 2021? According to Dykes, “Empathy doesn’t mean just showing emotion.” There are four outcome areas to remember:
To achieve this empathy-centric CX delivery model, organisations must approach technology as “the great enabler” for years to come, concluded Dykes.
NICE inContact’s Paul Jarman, elaborated on the implications of WFH on businesses and agents. “The high demand for an at-home workforce is likely to continue for some time,” he said. “As such, businesses will have to provide at-home agents with access to all the applications they use with full availability, reliability and speed.”
In the beginning, businesses are likely to face technical challenges and teething issues – but over time, it will unlock several operational benefits.
Jarman shared four examples of how contact centres could turn WFH and digital infrastructure into a tool for operational efficiency in 2021:
“The increased scheduling flexibility will make it easier for contact centres to quickly respond to increased call volumes because agents can handle customer inquiries from anywhere.”
“CX teams will be much more flexible, enabling them to resolve customer queries faster and more efficiently assign certain channels to the right agents.”
“This flexibility will help to improve agents’ work-life balance and their mental health. Agents that are happy in their work will be more likely to deliver an exceptional customer experience.”
“Capabilities such as real-time screen monitoring can let supervisors support and coach agents remotely. Real-time screen monitoring acts as eyes on the ground and is critical to providing effective coaching and help to agents, especially in a work-from-home setting”
Puzzel’s Jonathan Allan highlighted some of the challenges companies could face due to the continuation of WFH, especially if there is still on-premise legacy infrastructure in place.
“The exponential increase in customer demand, coinciding with entire workforces being sent to work remotely, turned the management of contact centre capacity into a far tougher task than usual,” he rightly noted. As a result, more established (i.e., older) organisations have a complex journey ahead of them.
“Established firms operating legacy systems have had a much harder job than younger, digitally native businesses. Managing a remote workforce comes with its own set of challenges. It is important that both frontline customer service staff and remote workers have the information and technology they need to deliver an exceptional customer experience,” warned Allan, indicating that investments in digital WFH enablers would be mission-critical in 2021.
Rio from RingCentral spoke about two ways in which WFH has changed customer experience delivery – one is the rise of asynchronous communications to keep up with customer expectations around 24/7 availability. And the other is the increasing popularity of click and collect, combining online and offline delivery for maximum convenience.
Here are the trends in more detail.
“Fast asynchronous communication is gradually replacing synchronous channels such as live chat. In 2021, equipping yourself with the right tools to manage these requests and respond within the right timeframe will therefore be essential,” Rio said.
An important tool requiring attention is social media.
“On Facebook Messenger and Instagram, daily conversations between customers and businesses increased by 40%. With 56 million users on Facebook and 84% of the 24 to 35-year-old Britons using WhatsApp, consumer habits have encouraged this growth in messaging applications in customer relations.”
Click & collect, which is the practice of purchasing online and picking up from a physical store, will have more pros than cons in 2021.
“Pre-pandemic, the idea of implementing a click & collect policy may have seemed like a heavy lift when passing footfall already consumes so much time. But now, businesses should appreciate the resource control and customer satisfaction that click & collect can bring,” Rio opined.
“Many independent shops may have found it difficult to appreciate just how useful technology can be when implemented for specific parts of the customer journey – but the pandemic has shown just how useful they can be,” he added, commenting on the accelerating effect 2020 has had on most organisation’s CX digitalisation plans, particularly SMBs.
Also, WFH could influence the workforce management aspect of CX delivery. “More empowerment, the ability to recruit a more diverse workforce in different time zones, more productivity, and better retention of employees” are some of the benefits organisations could expect.
Keightley from Avaya predicts that there will be a move away from the culture of presenteeism and preference for geographical proximity that is applicable for most sectors, including contact centres.
“With the right tools, the WFH trend means the best agents will no longer necessarily be the ones who can commute into a brick-and-mortar building for a 9-to-5 working day. The agents delivering the best CX might be people who are unable to leave their homes for whatever reason or those who want to avoid working during the school run, but are able to do a great job before 8 am, during the middle of the day, and after 8 pm.”
This will open up contact centre jobs to a much wider cross-section of professionals, supported by the implementation of as-a-Service infrastructure at the backend. “When remote agents become empowered with CCaaS technology solutions, the contact centre industry will open up and become more inclusive and diverse,” reaffirmed Keightley.
She believes that this will have far-reaching impacts well beyond 2021, possibly extending up to 2030.
a “WFH will bring many benefits and will create more opportunities, some of which we might not be able to anticipate yet, but it will be a wonderful learning and taking part over the next decade or so.”
The baseline for measuring CX excellence shifted for good last year, and 2021 will be about thriving – and not just surviving – in the new normal. Cloud technologies, artificial intelligence, and omnichannel routing will help agents realise their potential more than ever. Companies will also stay keenly focused on agent wellbeing and experiences, at a time when contact centres often form the only line of communication between customers and brands. The customer (after initial bottlenecks and possibly a steep learning curve) will stand to gain in the long-term, benefitting from greater flexibility, empowerment, and choice.
For now, it is just a waiting game until last year’s investments reach maturity and CX strategies consolidate around the new normal.
Thank you for tuning in for another edition of the CX Today Expert round table. A big shoutout to our industry experts for taking time out of their workday to share these valuable and prescient insights. Please remember to follow us on YouTube for more such conversations!