The pandemic has shaken up the way businesses engage with their customers, accelerating the adoption of digital services and online tools for customer engagement.

This trend has been particularly prominent in retail, where ecommerce has skyrocketed during the crisis. According to internet industry body IMRG, online sales in the UK were up 58 per cent in the first half of November compared with the same period last year. As the pandemic is changing consumer habits, delivering excellent customer service has never been more important.

In this market context businesses are being forced to rethink their customer engagement strategies and digitise their services to adapt to these changing consumer habits. To help businesses understand how they need to evolve, we recently conducted research into the impact of COVID-19 on consumer attitudes to customer service and the key factors driving positive engagement. Based on the results, here are the key trends that will shape customer experience (CX) in 2021 and beyond.

Digital adoption will continue to accelerate, driving deeper personalisation 

Our recent research into the impact of COVID on consumer behaviour revealed that nearly half (45%) of UK consumers have increased their use of online customer service during the pandemic and, of that number, more than 73% will rely more on digital options going forward. The data also suggests that consumers’ adoption of digital CX tools will continue to increase next year, with nearly half of UK consumers expecting to use more chatbots (42%), virtual agents (43%) and self-service CX technologies (44%).

The pandemic has provided businesses with proof that conversational AI is essential for improving both business operations and customer experiences, so the trend toward using more chatbot interactions is likely to continue as businesses rely on innovative ways to get work done and provide fast, efficient customer service. This will drive faster adoption of artificial intelligence (AI) and predictive analytics, with many organisations looking to bundle AI-powered chatbots and agent-assist technologies with contact centre platforms to create more personalised retail experiences. Moreover, as AI becomes more widely used, chatbots and other virtual assistant apps will become easier to train and deploy, enabling smaller businesses to compete more successfully with larger brands when it comes to customer experience. This will result in a stronger focus on personalisation in the customer engagement strategies of organisations of all sizes.

The human touch in customer service will continue to play a key role

Despite the growth in digital adoption, consumers still value human interaction, with 65% of Britons stating that friendly, helpful and knowledgeable agents are most important for a positive customer experience. This was followed by fast and efficient service (49%) and regular communication (42%). Moreover, phone calls topped the list of most widely used customer service channels, with 58% of consumers demonstrating preference for this channel. This data indicates that call centre leaders need to find the right mix of technology and human interaction to deliver an outstanding customer experience.

Omnichannel contact centre solutions are a great solution to this challenge as they provide agents with the tools they need to switch seamlessly between channels. This technology also plays a key role in enabling personalisation. Without effective digital tools that enable business leaders to ‘connect the dots’ between customer interactions across multiple channels, personalisation wouldn’t be possible.

However, achieving this requires integrating existing CRM into an omnichannel contact centre solution where data from all customer touch points is accessible in a single interface, enabling businesses to tap into a huge pool of valuable customer insight. While this sounds complicated, it is actually relatively straightforward to do with the right technology partner. With all the relevant customer information at their fingertips, agents will be able to deliver a unique personal experience to each and every consumer, no matter what channel they use to connect.

Customer experience will become a strategic priority for organisations

The pandemic has highlighted the importance of customer experience as a strategic competitive advantage. Our research indicates that positive customer experience translates into increased customer satisfaction (36%) and repeat engagement with brands (28%). Moreover, over a quarter of consumers would recommend a brand to friends and family if they’ve had a positive experience.

On the flip side, bad customer experience undermines customer retention, and leads to negative behaviours – and sentiments – that can quickly undo the brand loyalty carefully built up over many years. Moreover, the sentiment around bad CX is considerably stronger than good CX. Our data reveals that almost half of UK consumers would stop using a brand due to bad customer experience and another 44% would tell friends and family about their negative experience, indicating that the business cost of poor customer service is very high. What this means for organisations is that getting customer experience right is not just a nice to have benefit for the business, but a vital strategic imperative for maintaining competitive advantage.

As CX becomes a key business driver for staying competitive, contact centre and business decision-makers must become more strategic in their technology investments. Adopting a customer-first approach to product and service development needs to be accompanied by an effective omnichannel customer service strategy that has the customer at the centre. Technology can play a key role in enabling this. Only by aligning technology investments to the needs and expectations of the customer can businesses enable truly meaningful customer experiences and ensure positive customer engagement.

Shameem Smillie is one of the nominees of CX Stars 2021 Professionals list.

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