The future of exceptional customer service will be a united front powered by artificial intelligence.

That’s the theme of Saleforce’s Second Annual State of Service Report, which surveyed more than 2,600 customer service professionals worldwide to better understand how smart technologies are affecting service protocols and how service leaders are responding to customer expectations.

For example, the report found that 64 per cent of consumers and 80 per cent of business buyers expect companies to respond in real time.

Not only does meeting that heightened customer demand require a unified approach, companies need to arm their agents with the right tools and training, in addition to leveraging artificial intelligence to deliver a smarter customer experience, Salesforce said. Customers are expecting these smarter experiences because they are “super-connected” and more informed than ever – and more empowered than ever. In fact, 70 per cent of consumers and 82 per cent of business buyers say technology has made it easier than ever to take their business elsewhere, making customer experience more than an indication of loyalty, but a means of rising above the competition, the report found. As a result, customer service has become a key business differentiator rather than merely a cost centre to be managed and controlled.

According to the Salesforce report, 81 per cent of service teams believe service has the largest impact on how customers perceive their brand, and over the past two years, 89 per cent of service teams have increased or maintained their budgets. Because customer experience has become such a key competitive differentiator, it’s more important than ever to invest in customer service.

And creating a great customer service experience requires a collaborative effort across the entire organization, the company said. Not only does this business-wide approach deliver a more consistent and efficient customer experience, the Salesforce research found it also creates opportunities for cross-selling and upselling opportunities: 78 per cent of customer service teams believe that every employee is an agent of customer service, hence the need for collaborative customer service across sales, service and marketing.

Collaboration between sales and service also needs to get better, Salesforce said: right now, 63 per cent of service teams have a formal process in place to collaborate with sales and more than 65 per cent of service teams are able to proactively provide their sales counterparts with intelligence on customer issues and needs, so there remains room for improvement.

As already mentioned, collaboration is not just about making customer service a better experience. The Saleforce report found that cross-team collaboration can boost sales, as 59 per cent of service agents find themselves empowered to create add-on renewal quotes and orders directly from their CRM.

Technology plays a part in creating the unified customer experience: service agents need access to the right tools, including a single view of the customer, as it dramatically increases their productivity. The report found that 79 per cent of service teams agree that a shared, single view of the customer empowers agents to provide consistency and continuity in every customer interaction. Having the right tools also makes agents more likely to stay with the company, as 90 percent of those among the top performing service teams intend to work for their same company a year from now.

Technology is also changing how customers interact with service agents, as phone and e-mail interactions are merely the tip of the iceberg, Salesforce said. More than half of service teams deliver customer service on at least five different channels, the report found, with mobile apps in particular seeing a spike with triple-digit growth: From 2015 to 2016, there has been a 196 per cent jump in service teams using mobile apps.

Ultimately, customer service interactions will involve more technology as service teams are doubling down on their use of artificial and predictive intelligence, which are expected to benefit both the agent and the customer. The Saleforce research found that 77 per cent of top service teams excel at leveraging AI as it enables agents to focus on the most complex customer inquiries, better understand the customer and deliver a more personalized experience.

By 2020, 51 per cent of consumers and 75 per cent of business buyers expect that companies will anticipate their needs and make relevant suggestions before they reach out. But in the meantime, there is plenty of room to improve intelligent service capabilities as only 37 per cent of service teams excel at gathering insights across the entire customer lifecycle and perform next-step analysis that enables sales, service and marketing teams to anticipate customer needs and prioritize tasks.

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