In April, McKinsey & Company issued a call to action to recognize the growing importance of every interaction someone has with your enterprise. As both consumers and companies navigate the shock-waves that have upended our lives and systems, they argued, there is a new urgency to masterfully address customers’ needs for trusted information, guidance, and support.

As we start 2021 with nearly 10 months since the start of the pandemic behind us, we decided to check in with the customer service professionals who have been at the forefront of such a rapidly accelerating future. We conducted a survey of 600 customer service leaders across a range of industries hailing from the U.S., U.K., and Germany to find out what challenges are top of mind when managing a global customer service operation today.

Strikingly, despite so much economic uncertainty, our survey found that not only will most companies continue to invest heavily in customer service in 2021, but many will be increasing their budgets. In the U.S., 50 percent of respondents reported that their budgets will grow next year—while 30 percent of U.K. respondents and 40 percent of German leaders also said they’d be receiving more funding

Here’s what else we learned from our survey respondents: 

Over 42% say their top challenge is providing a consistent experience for their customers across the globe

Across our surveyed countries, leaders agreed that consistency poses the biggest challenge — with language serving as the primary barrier in international markets. We were not surprised to find this consensus, since statistics show that a full 40 percent of global customers simply won’t buy in another language and 74 percent are more likely to buy from a brand a second time if they are offered post-sales support in their native language. Providing consistent multilingual customer service keeps support leaders up at night, since it affects both revenue and customer trust.

One-third want a solution to build meaningful customer relationships, and improve customer loyalty worldwide

When asked what elements of customer service they care about most, a third of customer support leaders responded that “building meaningful relationships with customers” trumps concerns such as “empowering agents to quickly resolve issues” and “providing great customer experiences across time zones.” This reflects a widespread understanding that companies who consistently provide moments of service delight create the most loyal customers, who in turn drive significant growth. (In fact, StellaConnect, a company that measures and rates the customer service performance of online companies, says that when customer service solves a problem for customers, 80 percent of them feel more emotionally connected to the brand.)

Over 40% solve the language barrier by hiring in-house native language support agents

Almost half of all customer service leaders surveyed said they strive to hire native speakers to address existing and potential customers’ needs. The challenge here, as we’ve discussed in previous posts, is that relying exclusively on full-time native speakers can be prohibitively expensive, as well as a barrier to the agility required of a global enterprise. Because customer service demands in different languages can constantly shift, it often proves incredibly difficult to have the right number of reps who speak the right languages ready to go at any given moment.

Over 79% find AI-powered solutions to be very to extremely valuable

The strong overlap between respondents in all three countries who reported using both native language speakers and AI-powered solutions suggests that most businesses are cobbling together a mix of native speakers, outsourcing, and AI-powered translation tools. The devil, of course, is in the details: finding the right balance of humans vs. software. Deploying machine learning has become essential to scale up any multilingual customer service organization, yet only ”human-in-the-loop” AI platforms provide the nuance and context necessary to creating those all-important meaningful customer relationships.

So what will a post-COVID world look like for customer service leaders charged with navigating a new normal? Early data from China shows an increase of 3 to 6 percentage points in overall e-commerce penetration in the aftermath of the pandemic. Furthermore, the share of Chinese consumers over the age of 45 increased by 27 percent from January to February. All signs point to a permanent shift towards online shopping and increasing consumer comfort with digital interactions — requiring ever-increasing agility and innovation from our survey respondents and their fellow customer service leaders across the globe. 

Curious how leading companies are solving multilingual translation barriers? Read the Daniel Wellington case study Read our Case Studies