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‘If firms aren’t agile, they’ll be left behind’: five ways customer service has changed forever

Hazel Davis
·4-min read
<span>Photograph: Maskot/Getty Images</span>
Photograph: Maskot/Getty Images

In a year of rapid change for businesses, the ability to adapt to new ways has quickly become the key to success – and customer service has proved to be one of the biggest areas for change. While good customer service has always been vital, in times of uncertainty, flux and complexity, it is critical.

“Customer expectations are so high that if you deliver bad customer service you get punished,” says Peter Lorant, chief operating officer EMEA of the customer service software company Zendesk. Its latest Customer Experience Trends report looks at companies that excel at customer service, so Lorant has a lot of information at his fingertips. “We’ve seen that half of customers will switch to a competitor after just one bad experience. Customers are ready to vote with their feet. And the kind of habits that customers have developed in the pandemic, they’re sticking with.”

Here are five ways customer service has been reshaped, and how businesses can make it work for them.

Values have impact
Since the onset of the pandemic, conscious consumerism has been fast-tracked and customers are shopping with retailers that align to their values, whether that’s supporting local businesses, ethically sourced or sustainable products, or companies that make socially responsible moves. Zendesk’s research found that more than half of consumers (54%) want to buy from companies that prioritise diversity, equity and inclusion.

“It has been a real opportunity for local business owners to engage with more people and build relationships, as many have been working from home,” says Wizz Selvey, of the brand and retail consultancy Wizz & Co. “We are all starting to understand the impact of the pandemic on small businesses and are consciously deciding where to spend our money.”

As a result, customers will remember and reward those giving them a great experience. “Exceptional customer experience creates brand advocates, who rave about their experience to their friends,” says Selvey.

Digital has tilted the scales
Because of the pandemic, 64% of customers have tried a new way to get in touch with customer service – and this could lead to a permanent shift in expectation.

Rajesh Bhargave, associate professor of marketing at Imperial College Business School, says: “There is a shift towards digital and non-contact. For example, for a relocation, many customers now prefer to view an initial set of properties through video and then shortlist a smaller number to view in-person with their estate agent.

“The value of merely showing your face, being there with your customer, and having attractive facilities has decreased somewhat, which means that the criteria for good service has shifted towards other things. There may be greater focus on reliability, speed, and adaptability.”

A more conversational world
The Zendesk research found that messaging has seen a surge in first-time users. Most customers say they prefer to message a company through its own website or app, but social messaging apps are increasingly popular. Support requests over messaging apps such as WhatsApp and Facebook Messenger spiked significantly during the pandemic.

However, “businesses still need to adapt their tools and processes to make sure they’re also providing unified, conversational experiences across all channels”, says Lorant.

Related: ‘People really want that human connection’: how messaging apps are giving businesses the personal touch

Strengthening the support network
The pandemic – described as the largest work-from-home experiment ever conducted – has changed everything about how we work, from the tools we use to how we collaborate. People have had to take on heavier workloads or learn entirely new tools or processes just to complete tasks.

While Zendesk research found that 49% of customers wanted customer service agents to be more empathetic, it also discovered that 68% of agents reported feeling overwhelmed. Many said they did not feel they had the right tools to succeed, whether that involved keeping track of performance indicators, staying connected or feeling supported.

“And if an agent is overwhelmed that’s going to impact the service they provide. Working smarter will be more important than working harder,” says Lorant.

Agility means survival
“This is not a time for companies to be timid,” says Lorant. “To put it into perspective, half of Fortune 500 companies [an annual list of the largest US corporations] have disappeared since the year 2000 due to digital disruption. These are companies that didn’t move at the time, that didn’t innovate or look after their customers. If you’re not agile and able to reorient your business, then you’re going to be left behind.”

One Zendesk customer saw a surge in demand from one country that the local team couldn’t keep up with. So it used an automated translation service to enable teams in other regions to respond. “It’s not the richest or the biggest companies that are going to make it through, but the agile ones who put customer service first,” says Lorant.

The world has changed – and your customers’ experience needs to change with it. To navigate this challenging landscape and champion good customer service, visit Zendesk.