The end of every year usually plays out as follows: either people look back at past 12 months, brooding about what could have been better, or people get excited about the future. At Unbabel, we belong to the second category.

But when we started thinking about 2020 and the novelties it would bring to customer experience, we hit a wall. We haven’t really seen anything new recently. Social media is old news, we are still waiting for the chatbot revolution to happen, and automation is as groundbreaking as florals for spring.

We tried predicting trends, but in the process we realized it wasn’t really about the trends in and of themselves. Rather, it’s much more important to look at how each of these trends is being implemented in a way that actually makes a difference for both customers and agents.

What the experts care about

To be able to do so, we didn’t just rely on our own experience or observations of the industry. We reached out to several experts to ask their opinion on the state of customer service, how they are bringing innovation to their teams, and what to expect from the years to come.

So without further ado, here are the trends we believe will have the biggest impact on customer experience in 2020:

Automation: more than chatbots

We’ve said it before and we’ll say it again: automation is great, but only if it brings you closer to your customers. Anything that disrupts that relationship or makes their experience worse is a bad move.

Before you start thinking about automating your support operations, identify your pain points and the key factors that need improving. Are you struggling with high volumes during peak seasons? Are your agents overworked and unable to handle all inbound calls and messages in a timely fashion? What kind of support are your customers looking for? Do they all ask different questions at different points during their customer journey, or are there recurrent queries that keep popping up?

Looking at your customers’ most common queries is a good way to start off your path towards automation. With AI in place, you’ll be able to scan all customer interactions for their most frequent questions, like “How do I update my password?” or “What are your refund conditions?” After you map out all relevant information, you can decide how best to use it.

A while back we spoke with Ryan Steinberg, Associate Manager of Global Support Operations at Intercom, who shared a bit of what the company is doing in terms of automating customer support, particularly through chatbots. Intercom works primarily with article suggestions — an algorithm runs through the text the customer types in, then looks through all Help Center articles and suggests the ones that might be relevant — and Answer Bot, another automated solution that looks at similar questions and past conversations to come up with answers. Both automated solutions are already responsible for solving 4% of all customer interactions. While this might seem like a small number, it actually translates into $400,000 saved every year. Yet, for Intercom, it’s not just about the money.

Chatbots are not just about cutting costs; they’re about giving customers an answer to their question instantly as opposed to having to wait for a human to respond, which could take hours, or even days in worst case scenarios. Every time we’re able to give customers a quick, automated reply that solves their issues, it’s a win.

Here at Unbabel we are also working on our own internal automated solutions. For instance, our Innovation Team has been working on a FAQ Generator Bot that helps us build the FAQ articles that are later published on our website in several languages. But you can just as well implement a chatbot that shares the answers to these questions when customers write in or that redirects them to a Help Center.

Automated solutions are great for customers, in some cases significantly shortening the waiting time for a reply, but they’re just as helpful for agents. They take a lot of mundane tasks off agents’ plates, allowing them to concentrate on the more complex issues that only a human can solve. They are also a useful tool for agents to find all information they might need — market data, cheat sheets, case studies, and other kinds of content — faster. And the less time they take to reply, the happier customers will be.

But customers’ demand for shorter waiting times doesn’t stop here. The last few years have seen an increase in turning to social media and other conversational channels for an immediate response. And this will remain a trend during the years to come.

Social media and conversational support

There’s not arguing that the world is turning conversational. In 2018, there were 2.25 billion registered users of mobile messaging apps such as WhatsApp or Facebook Messenger. The number was expected to grow to 2.52 billion this year and to keep increasing until 2022, when estimates predict 3 billion global users.

When it comes to customer service in this digitalized world, immediacy and convenience play a big part. When asked by eMarketer about the most important aspect of a good digital customer experience, 38% of users said it was getting their issue solved in a single interaction, while 26% said it was receiving a speedy and timely response. This plays very well for social media, where interactions happen much more in real time than when compared with other channels.

Patricia Campos, our Director of Customer Success, agrees that social media is becoming increasingly important for customer support operations.

More and more customers are turning to social media not only to ask questions, but also to share their satisfaction or dissatisfaction with a product or service. It makes their opinion very visible to other, which is why brands, if they’re not doing so already, should manage these channels carefully and pay them as much attention as they do to phone or email.

The thing about social media is that it can easily backfire. It’s not uncommon to see negative comments on Facebook pages that are followed by huge threads of people sharing their own bad experiences and getting nothing in return but a standardized macro and the promise of someone being in touch with them soon.

Social media on itself isn’t the ideal customer service channel, and critical issues are almost never solved in a public thread. But it does give customers an extra possibility of contacting a business, after which they will usually be contacted through a direct message containing a more tailored and individualized answer.

Personalize, personalize, personalize

A personalized customer experience is another trend that isn’t necessarily new, but is here to stay. The Retail Trends Playbook 2020, by business intelligence platform PSFK in partnership with Microsoft, reports a staggering 70% of consumers saying that a company’s understanding of their individual needs influences their loyalty, while 69% say the same of personalized customer care.

This means that sending customers a macro or an email starting with “Hi [name]” — without replacing the brackets with the actual name of the person — no longer cuts it, as customers expect to be treated like real people as opposed to mere consumers and are extremely likely to switch brands if they feel like they’re being treated like a number.

Customizing client interactions is key to making a difference, and it can even turn the worst experience into a good one. And it shouldn’t be exclusive to customer service, but rather transversal across all customer-facing teams. Rahul JR, Senior Product Manager at Zoho Corp, explains:

There will be an increase in demand for personalization across a customer’s lifecycle. From marketing and onboarding to downgrading, customers will expect to be treated in a special way. Be it a Memoji or a Mobile app, they will look for a tailored experience. So, be future-ready with a cohesive and unified ecosystem that can offer a hyper-customizable environment.

When talking about personalization, a little can go a long way. Showing customers that you care by asking them how they’re doing, solving their problems quickly, sharing a laugh or mentioning a personal detail are a few ways you can do it. Of course, it’s always important to read the room and keep in mind who you’re talking to and what their issue is.

The only way to achieve this is by putting yourself in your customers’ shoes, listening to them and understanding where they’re coming from when they reach out to you. In short, being empathetic.

Empathy, as we’ve mentioned before, is a soft skill that is difficult to teach. So instead of searching for the most technically skilled agents out there, you should focus on hiring people who are empathetic by nature and have high emotional intelligence. You can teach them any technical skills they’re lacking, and the rest will follow. Suri Ratnatunga, Senior Director of Community Support at Vimeo, agrees:

Ideally you’re hiring customer support agents because they have a ton of empathy and they’re really good at talking to your users. You’re not hiring them because they know how to search through 13 databases very quickly.

In order for agents to be truly empathetic, they need to be able to react authentically, instead of sticking to the script every time. Managers should empower their agents to decide on the spot what the best solution to a specific problem is and feel like they are actually making a difference.

Betting on employee experience

Working in customer service isn’t always a walk in the park. Agents have to deal with very stressful situations, angry customers and high volumes of tickets. They might need to cover nightshifts or work through holiday. Put all this together and you can end up with an unmotivated staff that might eventually quit on you.

All businesses have to deal with employee churn at some point, but specifically in contact centers, the median annual attrition is 23% and has been on the rise since 2013.

The key to keeping your agents around is by providing the best work environment possible where everyone feels valued. Employees care less about perks than you think; they’d much rather feel like they’re contributing with good work that is acknowledged as such.

Some simple ways to keep people around are working on career paths, giving regular feedback and allowing them to offer their own feedback as well, keeping the communication going and offering people a safe space to come to when they have a problem, giving praise when praise is due and recognizing that role as customer service representatives is important.

Even more so because “we live in an always-on world where customers want responses in real time, at their convenience”, as Paula Kennedy, VP Strategic Projects and Corporate Strategy at Concentrix, explains.

This era of instant gratification can only be catered for with innovation to rethink the customer experience and work environments to be fit-for-purpose for the consumer and employee of today.

More demanding customers make for increased volumes, which in turn can lead to longer working hours. This is not an uncommon scenario, especially in start-up environments where employees are often found working after their shift has ended or checking up on emails and other notifications during the weekend. And while it is perfectly OK to go above and beyond when there is a need for it, is it also important to strive for a healthy work-life balance.

At Concentrix, for example, the Solv™ platform that Paula Kennedy oversees is the perfect example of how customer service can be adapted to the current workforce. It allows agents to provide support on their terms, when and where it suits them.

2020 vision

As we said in the beginning, these trends are not new. They’re not even likely to change or be replaced any time soon.

But there are ways to take what’s already at your disposal — automation in its various forms, social media, personalized service — adjust it to your business or operational needs and aim for an improved experience for customers and agents alike.

Hopefully, somewhere along this article, you’ve found a useful piece of advice that will help you reshape customer service throughout the roaring 20s ahead.