Self-Service and Emotional Intelligence – Expectations for the Post-COVID Customer Experience

 

The pandemic permanently altered customer expectations. Has your contact center’s customer experience kept pace?

COVID was a broadside on customer experience norms, and not just in contact centers. At the manufacturing level, supply chain issues slowed or stopped production, so the products consumers wanted weren’t on shelves at retail. Staff shortages eviscerated the service industry. In the corporate space, an accelerated, unplanned shift to remote work disrupted cultures, processes and management practices organization-wide.

Contact centers weren’t immune. At every turn, the customer experience suffered. We tolerated this new reality for a while, mainly because there wasn’t a choice, but what about now? Having adapted to service scarcities and a general degradation of their experience during COVID do customers continue to expect less? If so, does that mean they’re happy with less, or do customers now expect more and better?

Customer Experience: A Competitive Differentiator

Separate research studies provide some insights into those questions. A Hubspot study shows that 93% of customer service professionals say customers have higher expectations than ever. In a TalkDesk study, 58% of consumers admit to higher service expectations than a year ago. 75% in an NBC poll say customer service deteriorated over the course of the COVID pandemic.

Those stats place the onus on contact center managers to up their organization’s game; now more than ever, the customer experience is a potent competitive differentiator. Meeting or exceeding today’s customer expectations isn’t easy, but the stakes have never been higher and the challenge has never been more complex – technologically and at the point of agent/customer, human-to-human interaction.

Artificial intelligence and automation

Technology already had a prominent place in contact centers before COVID, but there’s no doubt that the pandemic accelerated customers’ and contact centers’ dependence on it. Self-service-enabling technologies like automation and AI have never been more integral to delivering a positive customer experience, and that has as much to do with operational realities within contact centers as it does with customer preferences.

For their part, customers consider self-service a win. A hangover from the pandemic is a general desire for a digital experience over human contact (a Forrester study indicates that 55% of customer service teams report an increased customer preference for interacting over digital channels.)

From the contact center's operational perspective, agents are now handling significantly more calls-per-day than before COVID-19, while managers are under pressure to do more with less. AI powered self-service options or bots that walk customers through simple, straightforward issues or transactions empower the customer and streamline customer service. The technology eases demand on limited contact center resources and frees agents to handle more complex customer requests.

AI and automation's reach into the customer experience is direct and indirect. Chatbots directly interact with customers, asking questions, processing the answers, learning and guiding customers through their issues. Indirectly, AI is playing a larger role in ensuring call centers remain staffed with enough qualified agents to meet customer demand across all channels.

AI-powered Auto Scheduling automatically simulates and tests thousands of schedule permutations, using forecasts, agent breaks, training, meetings and other constraints to develop the optimal schedule. Such an optimized schedule not only improves the agent experience it contributes to higher customer satisfaction by positively impacting foundational customer experience metrics like Average Hold Time, First Call Resolution, Call Abandonment Rate and more.

In Quality Management, automation enables contact centers to review 100% of calls – something virtually impossible for managers to do physically – and evaluate those calls for a wide range of customer experience attributes, including customer emotion, agent attitude, agent aptitude and agent training needs.

Customer experience is a human experience

According to an Accenture study, 50% of consumers say the pandemic caused them to rethink their relationships with brands. More than ever, they’re looking for a sense of connectedness with the companies they do business with; they’re looking to be respected as humans and treated as individuals.

Setting aside the psychology behind that shift in expectations, it undoubtedly changes the way organizations and their contact centers have to approach customer interactions. Sheer efficiency – delivering the customer’s desired outcome quickly – is still central, but the bar has been raised. It now appears that many consumers are looking for a customer experience characterized by the agent’s emotional intelligence (EQ) in addition to their proficiency. Agents need the capacity to empathize with the customer and they must possess enough self-awareness to recognize and control their own emotions.

So, how can contact center leaders build EQ into their agent workforce? They can hire for it with the understanding that that means implementing more rigorous (and more expensive) screening practices during the recruitment and interview phases and paying more to keep high-EQ agents satisfied.

EQ can also be taught – within limits. Coaches who typically tutor agents on navigating the contact center’s processes or on product knowledge can’t take the same approach to teaching active listening skills, for instance. Nor can an agent be taught to understand their impact on the customer during an interaction in the same way they learn the mechanics of navigating a knowledge base. Contact center coaches need to educate themselves and expand their instruction methods to include the teaching of ‘soft’ skills.

Technology - specifically Speech Analytics – can help in coaching EQ. A component of Automated Quality Management, the sophisticated speech analytics tool evaluates speech patterns, voice tones, crosstalk, phrases and even silence on a call to generate insights into, among other things, customer and agent attitudes and emotions, as well as agent aptitude.
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Contact center decision-makers have always monitored customer expectations and how they evolve. Until early 2020 those expectations generally advanced incrementally, in predictable ways that could be planned for and managed. The pandemic, though, wasn’t just another half-step in the steady march of customer evolution. It was an earthquake that shifted the ground under contact centers.  Contact center leaders were immediately forced to take a crash course in adaptation.

A few years later the acute pain is over. Everything’s beginning to settle again, back to normal – but it’s a new normal. Customer expectations will never be the same. What about the customer experience your contact center delivers? Is it the same? It can’t be, because the status quo that existed before COVID is gone forever.

 

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