After the challenges that 2020 has introduced, we’re all feeling a touch of whiplash. The pandemic has disrupted our work and personal lives, making it difficult to plan more than a week ahead at a time. However, focusing on your recovery plan can actually ease the disorientation that the year has ushered in.

While certain factors – such as the viability and availability of a COVID-19 vaccine – are outstanding, there are definite changes in the way we work across the globe that will remain consistent.

Assuming that we won’t be out of the eye of the storm until at least summer 2021, most global organizations will be supporting remote workforces for quite a bit longer. With international travel still halted, the location of both customers and employees matters less to our interactions. Even when travel restrictions do lift, the pandemic’s impact on behavior will linger.

While the pandemic has introduced countless challenges, on the positive side, it has broken down the barrier of geographical location. Global organizations need to adjust their plans to use this dynamic to their advantage.

With that, let’s look at the year ahead through the lens of my four predictions for 2021.

1. Digital transformation will accelerate even further

The trend of remote and hybrid workforces wasn’t exactly new to global business leaders ahead of the pandemic. Yet, many organizations were ill-prepared to make the quick shift to a digital-first workforce and business model. Getting employees out of the office broke a lot of established habits and rituals experienced in corporate cultures. This disruption forced leaders who were previously uncomfortable with a distributed workforce to dive headfirst into the adjustment, making decisions and optimizations as they go.

Even though businesses have come a long way in 2020 (out of necessity), I’d argue that there’s still room to grow.

In the year ahead, leaders will need to remain comfortable with this accelerated rate of change and be willing to use this unique time to push ahead their organization’s digital transformation. The pandemic is exposing those unprepared for technological advancement.

One technology that’s helped many organizations do more with less in 2020 is AI. For this reason and more, the adoption of AI is expected to grow. For example, Gartner predicted that 70% of customer interactions will involve AI-powered intelligent technologies by 2022. One of the biggest value propositions for this use case is augmenting the human workforce (but I’ll touch more on that later).

2. Conversational interfaces reign supreme in global customer service 

Siri and Alexa have become commonplace to the consumer, but the application and utility of virtual assistants is still limited when compared to their potential for disruption. Increased developer access and knowledge of voice interfaces are enhancing the availability of chat agents, and some organizations use voice recognition to augment their text analysis.

The advancements in virtual assistants are causing us to disregard the chat vs. voice binary. Instead, more organizations will focus on the adoption of conversational interfaces as a whole. Chat agents that used to rely on a decision tree model are being augmented with blended AI technologies, making them both more accessible and more appealing to a broader range of businesses.

In the customer care center, past years have shown us that chat and voice service offer similar customer satisfaction (CSAT) scores, among other similar performance indicators. However, chat has tended to be more affordable, scalable and the was found to be the preferred format by 63% of millennials. Regardless of the format, customer expectations for fast and personalized service will only increase. 

Adoption of AI-powered conversational interfaces will rapidly increase in the future global marketplace.

3. Globalization will shift to intensely local experiences

The pandemic has certainly changed globalization, perhaps permanently. While we’ve seen trade and travel slow down, some bright spots such as global cross-border shopping have actually increased throughout the pandemic.

In some ways, a digital breakdown in geographical barriers will create more opportunities for global players, both in multilingual customer service and beyond. However, entering a new market requires that businesses are able to deal with global customers in a local way. That means having a deep understanding of language, customs, and local culture – even if you are not physically established in that market. Many organizations start by providing an intensely local, AI-augmented customer service experience digitally.This approach pays off: 70% of people report that they’d feel more loyal to a company that serviced them in their native language. 

At a time like this, customer loyalty is more important than ever. 

Luckily, AI is democratizing language, and is equipping more organizations to serve customers in their native language at scale – without the need for local agents. This trend will continue into 2021.

4. Human-augmented AI practices open more doors to adoption

Human-augmented, or human-in-the-loop, practices have made AI technologies more proficient and scalable for modern organizations. The introduction of the GPT-3 neural network language model earlier this year was truly revolutionary. While the technology around AI and language is advancing quickly, early adopters and beta testers have made it abundantly clear that human judgments are still central to success.

I hope to see human-augmented approaches to AI dissuade the fear of this technology as a replacement for human intelligence. Early indicators from 2020 proved AI adoption was is still strong.. Even before the pandemic, Gartner predicted that by 2025 customer service organizations that have adopted AI would elevate operational efficiency by 25%. Imagine how COVID and the resulting remote workforce has impacted this statistic alone.

5. AI research will advance toward a common machine translation model

Last month, Facebook announced a machine translation model called M2M-100 that translates directly between pairs of 100 languages without relying on English as a middle step. This news is significant because relying on English translations as an intermediary between two languages can cause a drop in accuracy. For the AI community, it indicates even more progress toward a common, baseline multilingual machine translation model.

Having such a pre-trained, baseline machine translation model could be the basis of many further-adapted, improved machine translation models for different use-cases. This is exciting for the field of multilingual machine translation because English should not be seen as the only universal language. Research efforts in the coming years will be focused on improving the quality of bi-directional translations, so these models can be effective in production for a variety of business scenarios, including customer service.

Unbabel’s role in the “new normal”

Regardless of what 2021 brings, the need for highly personal, local customer interactions won’t change. We’re excited to help global businesses communicate with their customers and other stakeholders more effectively by scaling their multilingual capabilities. Our goal is to make a huge difference in customer satisfaction and loyalty when companies need it most.

Just last month, we introduced the new Unbabel Portal to help our customers to optimize and grow their global customer experience even further. A big part of this launch is helping our customers visualize and evaluate how the organization uses language across digital channels. 

Using language to connect organizations and customers at this time has proven more important than ever, and we look forward to bringing this capability to new partners.

Ready to get started?