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Jul 13, 2023

Do you know what your customers want from digital service in 2023?

By Dr Nicola Millard Principal innovation partner

Customer service is often on the bleeding edge of technology deployment – but it is all too often about taking costs out and can be at the expense of a good customer experience.

But rushing ahead without a fundamental understanding of what your customer wants can be a recipe for disappointment all round, as well as wasted investment.

With impeccable timing, in partnership with Cisco, we’ve just completed our latest round of Autonomous Customer research. This takes a global snapshot of how consumers feel about digital service and is the ideal starting point for any organisation wanting to take stock of their customer experience strategy.

It’s a rich buffet of data about what customers want in 2023. To give you a bit of a taster of what we found, here are four things that stood out for me:

1. Technology only works if it’s easy

Effort / ease of use has always been something that strongly dictates customer behaviours. Fundamentally, we’re lazy creatures and don’t want to work very hard when dealing with organisations. 89% of customers think that organisations should make it easier to contact them by phone, web-chat, e-mail, messaging and social media (up from 82% in 2020). 80% also say that they buy more from companies that make it easier to do business with them (up from 71% in 2020). Unfortunately, 69% are saying that they are finding dealing with organisations around customer service issues tiring and exhausting (although that is down from 73% in 2020).

Digital channels can give customers many of the tools to let them help themselves. However, if these tools are too complex, confusing, or time-consuming, customers are likely to fall back into human channels like the phone, which can easily get overwhelmed and can cause significant frustration.

If digital channels can pick up most of the routine and transactional contact, you can then use human channels for the complex and emotive stuff. But this may come at a cost as average handle times may go up rather than down and agent skillsets / support demands will be higher.

2. Stop focusing on channels and use the consumer perspective instead

It’s easy for us in the contact industry to get unhealthily obsessed with channels. But customers don’t think about channels – they have goals and look for the easiest path to get to them, depending on how they’re feeling. It’s often their positive, negative or neutral state of mind that dictates their channel choices, and this tends to apply whether the customer is sixteen or sixty-four.

This means that organisations must look at their channel strategies carefully. Rather than provide all the channels in the universe thinking that that’s what matters to customers, look at the channels that work well for both the customer and the organisation, and focus in on integrating these channels seamlessly into customer journeys. There’s no point having TikTok if your customers prefer to email you.

Channels may come and go, but the phone is a constant with 74% saying that it is their channel of choice when contacting an organisation (up from 66% in 2020). The phone is also a channel that picks up many ‘customers in crisis’ - after all, we wouldn’t WhatsApp the fire department to tell them our house is on fire. 51% of these customer in crisis want immediate access to a well-trained person on the phone when they have a problem. It’s important to recognise this human desire for the closest possible connection to another person when things are going wrong or are stressful.

For many, the end goal is to take the human agent out of the equation all together, but that is going to be difficult to achieve for a while yet. Instead of eliminating the agent role, there’s value to investing in training and supporting frontline agents because they’re often dealing with both complex and emotive contacts - especially as automation takes away the predictable, transactional, and routine ones.

3. Time matters to consumers – but can you bend their perceptions?  

Time is as much a currency as money – and we tend to value organisations that value our time. I expect to queue a lot in the physical world, but the digital era has created assumptions that we can access whatever we want, whenever we want, 24/7. We’re then seemingly startled to discover that queueing has gone digital. Messages saying ‘we’re busy’ don’t cut it with customers – experienced by 80% of customers with only 43% believing that it’s true. But it’s probably easier to look at both managing demand and how we can use design to make the queueing experience better, than to increase contact centre capacity.

It’s interesting when we look at the psychology of queueing that it isn’t necessarily all about the actual length of time that people are waiting, but the perception of the length of that time. This is especially problematic if the customer is in crisis because their perception of time will be distorted by stress.

This is where innovation can help to make time more malleable – 69% of customers want updates on the wait time, 68% want to know what number they are in the queue, and 64% say that it would be good to be offered a call-back option. Even hold music can be creatively used to distract and entertain and change customers’ perceptions of their time in the queue (36% would welcome being able to choose what music they listen to while on hold).

Not having to queue at all is the big attraction of proactive service. Pushing demand out by having an organisation alert you to something before you have to tell them is brilliant if it’s done well. Customers are open to more messages about problems with their products or services, better deals, prices changing, progress on returns, or contract changes. This means that organisations need to figure out what things are important for customers to know, when they might be relevant to them, and what channel they’re likely to see it on. Personalisation and machine learning can help here, but there’s a fine line between a butler and a stalker and, if messages are repetitious or irrelevant, customers are likely to opt out of proactive services.

4. Artificial Intelligence (AI) isn’t ready to dominate customer service   

AI is back at the top of the hype cycle again – with generative AI able to have convincing conversations with customers. This makes it extremely attractive to the contact industry because it can act as an always-available triage tool and can potentially solve customer problems before there’s a need for human intervention.

However, this technology has often been deployed badly – in the wrong part of the customer journey, on the wrong tasks, and separated from the contact centre. Bad bots can be extremely damaging for brands – with 70% of customers saying that bad chatbots damage brand reputation.

Large language models have now become much better at having coherent conversations, but they don’t work by magic – they need good data, otherwise they tend to make things up. The key to effective deployment is a stable and accurate data set – but the multiplicity of systems in the contact space can hold this back.

Bots also need to work with the contact centre. As with Interactive Voice Response (IVR) systems, there needs to be a rapid path to a human agent if the bot fails, as well as a seamless transfer of knowledge between the bot and the human, so that the conversation can flow without the customer having to repeat themselves.

Get to the heart of consumer opinion in 2023

The bottom line is that organisations should be focusing on doing everything possible to get digital channels working better for customers. The question of the moment should be: are we using the technology we’ve got in the most effective way?

For the full picture behind this, plus the stats to back it up, download our new Autonomous Customer 2023 whitepaper.