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Extraordinary Customer Attitudes In An Extraordinary Year

I think it is fair to say that it’s been an extraordinary year

Photo by Manuel Peris Tirado on Unsplash

By Dr. Nicola Millard

Would we, in February 2020, have predicted that half the population of the globe would be conducting business meetings in fluffy slippers at home, ordering everything from biryanis to bananas online, and indulging in seemingly endless video chats with friends, families and colleagues? We published the last (and tenth anniversary) edition of our ‘autonomous customer’ research in that final month of freedom for many of us.

We usually do it as a biennial temperature check of customer attitudes towards contacting large organisations. But, since things have been somewhat bizarre in the interim months, we decided to do an extraordinary edition of the research to see what has changed with both customers in 10 countries, and (for the first time) contact centre agents in the UK, US, and India.

In some senses, everything has changed, yet in other ways, nothing has changed.

In the early days of the pandemic, customers were a little more forgiving of organisations because they understood that the world had turned upside down for all of us. But, as weeks turned into months, customers’ attitudes to customer service, ease of doing business and doing things digitally regained the same giddy heights of the last autonomous customer survey (e.g. 77% of customers say that they buy more from companies which have excellent customer service, compared with 76% in 2019).

4 key changes in customer behaviour

  • More people are finding dealing with service issues exhausting (73%, up 9% from a year ago). This is hardly surprising because most of us have a pandemic to cope with and many other things to juggle – and organisations adding to our stress is not something we need at the moment.
  • Although many of us have shifted to digital channels, a whopping 82% of customers are reporting that they’re struggling to do some of the digital basics, such as buying things online, making changes, choosing delivery slots, or even making payments.
  • Convenience is currently ranked as more important than price (58% of customers, up 7% from 12 months ago), as people confined to their houses shift to home delivery and hyper-local services.
  • The appetite for using video chat has risen rapidly – with 85% saying they’d like to engage with organisations over video. I suspect that this has been fuelled by the video culture that has dominated in the pandemic and is likely to continue to develop in niche areas such as remote heath care, financial advice, inspection/installation/diagnostics, and (thanks to our connected doorbells) where to put parcels if we’re ever lucky enough to leave the house. Whether video will become a dominant contact channel longer term is debatable (especially since contact centre agents report that customers are frequently doing something else when they contact them – including eating, cooking, driving, and watching TV).

Super agents need super charging

The contact centre has become a lifeline for customers and, generally, they seem to have risen to the occasion. But asking agents for their views on the past year has been quite eye opening. Their prognosis is very much more along the lines of “cloudy with a chance of AI”.

Although contact centre jobs are fairly well suited to home working, the industry has often been reluctant to embrace it. The pandemic has changed this slightly, with 1 in 5 of the agents we asked saying that they were working from home. This is likely to be heavily linked to the availability of technology, good connectivity, and an appropriate space to work (particularly since many agents are young, and often share spaces with friends, or family – especially in India). Despite this, 71% said that they’d like to work from home at least some of the time in the future as long as they could get the right IT, good connectivity, some privacy, and (most importantly) a comfy chair.

Agents also thought that the pandemic had increased the difficulty and complexity of issues coming in from customers. This translated into them needing help from a colleague or team leader for 1 in 5 of customer contacts. They can no longer rely on swivelling their chair around and getting help from their nearest co-worker or flagging their supervisor down, if they are working remotely, or in a COVID-safe work environment. Because of this, they need to be super powered by great technologies that allow them to collaborate and find answers easily (including access to comprehensive knowledge bases, and AI assistants).

Most striking, though, was the variation in agent experience across the three countries we looked at. The UK ranked significantly lower in employee satisfaction, staff turnover, quality of technology and colleague support, and higher in terms of anxiety than agents in India and the US. It seems that the support agents need goes well beyond the technology (especially during a pandemic) because, as they acknowledge themselves, they are a valuable part of the brand experience, and they build loyal customers.

Super agents need to be super charged by the network powering them (both technological and human), because customers haven’t reduced their expectations, even in these extraordinary times.

I think it is fair to say that it’s been an extraordinary year.

To get the full picture of customer attitudes towards contacting large organisations and the agent experience, download our Autonomous Customer 2021 whitepaper in collaboration with Cisco.

Dr. Nicola Millard is the Principal Innovation Partner at BT

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