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By Jo Causon, CEO, The Institute of Customer Service

As we swiftly approach the end of a year that many will be keen to forget, I’ve been giving pause to reflect on what has been one of the most challenging periods in our living history. Over the past nine months, we have seen nearly every aspect of our daily lives turned upside down. Almost overnight, we were forced to find new ways to go about even the most basic aspects of our established routines. And businesses across the country have had to find ways not only to deliver basic services to a remote customer base, but maintain and build genuine relationships.

As we have collectively grappled with challenges we would never have considered a year ago, we have seen some heroic achievements emerge from the new environment. I’m not talking about our remarkable NHS and frontline workers (though of course, they remain true heroes of this story), but rather the multitude of technological innovations that have allowed us to continue with many aspects of our lives from within the four walls of our homes.

Of course, demand for digital services was on the rise even before the crisis hit. But in the face of urgent necessity, we have seen an enormous acceleration of the use of tech in customer service across sectors. From automation to social messaging, AI-powered technology to bespoke digital offerings, tech has infiltrated all aspects of the customer experience – some seen and some unseen by customers.

At the very start of the crisis, we saw companies embrace the use of AI technology such as chatbots and voicebots to help stretched customer service teams manage the huge surge in enquiries. This can free up highly skilled operators to provide the much-needed human touch to the most urgent cases. And, of course, video conferencing technology has been vital to allow work to continue with people across the country suddenly working from home en masse.

As it became clear restrictions were here to stay for longer than we had hoped, businesses across all sectors embraced technology to go beyond the basics; and to allow them to continue providing an enticing customer experience in the absence of physical contact. Virtual experiences have rapidly become the norm – from live cook-a-longs to collective online film viewings and virtual museum tours.

Whilst many brands will be eager to welcome customers back to physical outlets as soon as possible, I’d wager many of the innovations we have recently seen emerge are here to stay. Customers have become accustomed to the convenience of ordering food and drink directly to their table, expanded click-and-collect services, at home servicing for car repairs, and even virtual doctor’s appointments. And many will be reluctant to return to the old status quo. I would argue that the current crisis has forced us to really think about serving virtually from a customer point of view, rather than simply a cost-saving exercise.

As businesses too, we have experienced first-hand the advantages of utilising such technologies to streamline operations and reduce overheads. But in addition, it can help deliver improved service experiences that are being developed through the eyes of the customer. Maybe something new has emerged from this crisis a new era of tech that will be genuinely customer-centric and truly designed to improve the service experience?.

It should be stressed that the human touch remains a vital part of delivering a truly excellent customer experience – and the value of trained operatives with skills of problem solving, decision making and empathy cannot be replaced when it comes to dealing with sensitive issues or vulnerable customers. Yet it is clear that the tech will play a large part in our ‘new normal’. To maintain and improve customer satisfaction as we emerge from the crisis, businesses must embrace a blended solution; allowing technology and people to work side by side to over an enhanced experience with the customer at the heart.

Jo joined The Institute as its CEO in 2009. She has driven membership growth by 150 percent and established the UK Customer Satisfaction Index as the country’s premier indicator of consumer satisfaction, providing organisations with an indicator of the return on their service strategy investment.

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