Aligning consumer expectations of what constitutes good customer service with what is realistically deliverable has always been a delicate balancing act.

But new research, carried out by Arvato in the USA, suggests that the gulf between the two may be larger than any business should be comfortable with.

In a survey of 250 consumers and 250 customer service business leaders, 84 percent of firms believed that they consistently provided an excellent service. In stark contrast, few customers felt the same, with just nine percent saying they always received excellence. Given the consensus around how critical customer service is to the success of a brand, it’s surprising that so many businesses do not seem to be aligned with their customers’ needs and wants.

The research findings also highlight some of the main pain points for customers when contacting customer service. Over a third of those surveyed (34 percent) cited long waiting times as their biggest complaint, while 31 percent identified having to repeat information to customer service representatives as their principal bugbear.

The answer to addressing this disconnect lies in making improvements to how feedback is collated and analysed, and taking advantage of advances in automation and artificial intelligence (AI), to ensure customer service teams are better resourced.

It’s unsurprising that with long waiting times a persistent customer complaint, chatbots have emerged as a popular way to alleviate the burden created by high volumes of customer contact. According to global tech business Oracle, 80 percent of brands expect to use chatbots by 2020. By redirecting simpler enquires away from customer service representatives, contact centre teams will be able to handle more enquiries in a shorter space of time, and free up employees to focus on more complex enquiries.

However, brands need to bear in mind that chatbots are not popular with all customers. Our research found that 49 percent of the consumers we surveyed did not want to be served by a chatbot at all, while over half (52 percent) said the phone remained the most reliable channel for solving a customer service issue.

Clearly, as brands transition towards using more automation technology, they must keep people at the heart of customer service delivery. That requires maintaining a focus on the process of delivering customer service, rather than just the outcome – and for that, people matter just as much as technology.

While the large majority of chatbots currently used across the customer service spectrum are limited to processing simple tasks, the landscape is shifting. By integrating them with AI, virtual assistants will be able to understand complex speech patterns, recognising user intentions from the tone of their language and sentiment in their voice. This will enable the chatbot to learn more about a consumer during a conversation and provide a completely new level of quality and efficiency in customer dialogue.

In the automotive sector, these virtual assistants will become key to the in-car experience, with drivers using them for everything from booking travel accommodation and sending emails, to organising their calendar through voice-activation. Being able to have a natural conversation with the car interface and complete a wide range of tasks effortlessly will be a hugely valuable feature in the years ahead.

Automation will also help customer service representatives to tailor their conversations to customers’ individual circumstances more easily. For example, by providing agents with an AI-backed CRM system, they can be given access to a live dashboard of customer information and recommended actions in real time. Such systems, powered by cognitive technology, have the capability to collate and draw on big data from multiple, disjointed systems and build it into the everyday interactions customer service teams have with customers. This can give representatives a comprehensive view of customer’s preferences, habits, and previous contact history.

The software can then harness this information to develop tailored strategies for representatives to use while they’re speaking to a customer. This can minimise average handling times and reduce the likelihood that customers will need to repeat themselves, which as our research identified is guaranteed to turn them off.

New technology will be effective in tackling some of the longstanding complaints consumers have about the customer service sector. But businesses need to focus on how they are delivering a positive Customer Experience to make the process convenient, personalised, and seamless and to this end, the human touch will always be a critical factor.

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