Laggards rushed to modernize or scale customer service technology during the trials of last year. The quick response phase has passed for most organizations, but some critical lessons remain.
Solving for a growing number of customer inquiries became a priority for organizations during the pandemic, said Don Scheibenreif, distinguished VP analyst at Gartner.
"The role that [CIOs] played in their team was obviously involved in a lot of technology decisions," said Scheibenreif. "When we advise CIOs, we remind them that they have a very vital role to play in technology that not only impacts customer service but also other aspects of customer experience."
Companies quickly turned to automation products such as virtual assistants or chatbots to help field an influx of customer service requests. The changes have lasting power, and now business leaders are figuring out how to expand on the gains of automation. At the center of those technology decisions is the CIO, an advisor with insight into the business and technology components of the organization.
CIO decisions can influence experience internal and external to the company — how employees engage with tools to better serve end users. Pandemic lessons include the business upside of nimble technology systems, and a better sense of where automation can fit to improve employee experience.
Lessons in customer service tech
During the pandemic, companies saw increases in the time it took to resolve customer service requests, with some businesses going from a resolution time of 18 seconds to 20 minutes, according to an ISG report.
"When COVID[-19] hit we all saw what happened to the volumes of service requests, in nearly every sector: they went through the roof," said Jeff Nicholson, global leader, CRM Strategy at Pegasystems. While businesses had long discussed digitization in their approach to customer service, the pandemic gave them no choice but to modernize.
But as conditions improve in the U.S., companies are no longer in emergency mode and can look to the CIO for longer-term improvements to the tech supporting their customer service strategies.
"Customer service is very ripe for automation," said Scheibenreif. "We're seeing a lot more providing of scripts and prompts in customer service platforms, even seeing things like emotion detection prior to people getting on the call."
Insurance provider Aflac saw the gains of plugging automation into their customer service strategy during the pandemic, said Nicholson. The insurer, a Pegasystems client, spun up an intelligent virtual assistant capable of resolving nearly 80% of its highest-volume service inquiries, according to Nicholson.
Natural language processing and sentiment analysis tools can prepare agents to respond more rapidly and accurately to requests, supplanting static non-responsive tools of the past.
But where organizations should be mindful in their deployment of tech tools is in not crossing the line "between human empathy and automation," said Scheibenreif. The line will vary by situation and types of customers, but it's an important factor given that "human empathy was a big factor in helping people get through the last 15 months," he said.
Automation decisions made in the pandemic are unlikely to roll-back. If anything, 57% of business leaders say their organization will increase investments in self-service and automated customer service technology over the next two years, according to research published by Pegasystems in May.
"I think they've found that a lot of the automation is for the better," said Mary Dalrymple, services innovation director at Eagle Hill Consulting. "It sort of came out of necessity, but it's certainly not going to go away."
While the push toward automation in customer service was intuitive, in order to handle the spikes in volume, the change also reflected customer preference.
Eight in 10 customers are willing to try self-service options to handle their demands, even though nearly half don't expect that option to work, according to the Pegasystems survey. When compared to before the pandemic, 45% of customers said they were more likely to rely on self-service customer service options.
EX impact leads to CX gains
It's easy to think of CIOs as executives in charge of physical assets: servers, computers, phones. But their work to streamline digital connections can have an impact on human interactions, which for businesses means improving customer experience.
"CIOs can play a really big role in making sure technology is fostering interpersonal connection between colleagues and with customers," said Dalrymple. Enterprise chat systems help spur person-to-person relationships in customer service interactions.
It was the CIO who supported tech in onboarding staffers and expanding the scale of customer service centers when distributed work was still a new concept. Now, the way technology tools support the employee experience can trickle down and give customer experience a boost.
"CIOs are starting to see more of the value and importance of focusing on employee experience," said Dalrymple. "It really is such a key driver of CX outcomes."
Budgets are shifting accordingly. Six in 10 IT organizations say they are aiming investments toward improving employee experience in order to support remote work productivity and performance, according to a Forrester survey released in April.
"What we've found is that without employee engagement, then the customer experience tends to fall apart a bit," said Scheibenreif. "That's why you saw a lot of focus from organizations on the health and well being of the customer center and customer service agents."
Automation lets companies augment the capabilities of frontline staff "and almost make them bionic in nature," with AI playing the role of a "copilot sitting right next to them to help them in their interactions," said Nicholson.