The New Customer Experience Mandate: Post-Pandemic Trends in Customer Service

The role of customer service has changed post the pandemic. CX teams are no longer seen as cost centers and have become central to customer retention and growth. CX leaders, now under the spotlight, are relying on digital-first experiences to delight customers. In this conversation, Paddy and Nicole discuss digital CX trends, and best practices to effectively use them in a competitive marketplace.

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Nicole France

VP & Principal Analyst, Constellation Research

pradeep pradeep
Pradeep 'Paddy' Rathinam

Chief Customer Officer, Freshworks

What's in this conversation

  • The state of post-pandemic CX teams and new customer expectations
  • The impact of digital-first approaches on customer sentiment
  • Adopting new metrics to gauge efficiency of service
  • Growth opportunities for CX and customer service leaders



Part 1: Exploring changes in the world of customer service.

Pradeep: I'm Pradeep, the Chief Customer Officer at Freshworks; and today, we’re exploring the ‘New Customer Experience Mandate’. Nicole and I are going to have a conversation around what the new directive for customer service teams should be. 

Nicole: Thanks, Paddy. I'm Nicole France. I'm VP and Principal Analyst at Constellation Research, where I focus on all things customer experience. Paddy, I know this subject is close to your heart because it's your day-to-day job as well, so we're going to have a really good conversation about this. I'd like to kick us off by asking the first question that I know is really on everybody's minds. We've seen an awful lot of change over the last eight or nine months, and something that’s become very clear is the critical importance of customer service for just about every business out there. 

Nicole: The question to start with is, what really has changed in the course of the pandemic? What are the things that we're seeing, and what kinds of changes does that project for the future?

Pradeep: That's a really good question, because if you really see what happened with COVID, and how businesses had to change, customer service came to the forefront of every business. They were the first line of offense and defense. 

I would say that every individual and every organization had to, in some way, play the part of being a customer service agent, because organizations weren't prepared for it, right? From my perspective, I look at this, and say, this is a pivotal time. It is an inflection point for how customer service is being re-engineered as we go into the next decade, more than it's ever been in the past two decades.


“Customer service was the first line of offence and defence...every individual in every organization had to, in some way, play the part of a customer service agent because nobody was prepared for (COVID 19).” 


Nicole: I think you're right. We certainly saw examples of a kind of all-hands-on-deck scenario, where even senior executives who hadn't ever gotten near the contact center, were actually getting roped into answering first-line customer inquiries, because there just wasn't enough bandwidth to go around, and there was a massive influx. I mean, think about travel and transportation, for example, especially in those early days, everybody had to get involved; It gave a totally different perspective to a lot of senior executives of what role customer service really plays.

Pradeep: I've always believed that you should put every employee through customer service to get a true experience of what your customers are saying about you. Over the last year, support volumes have gone up significantly, and people didn't know how to deal with it. The traditional channels weren't as effective because employees were remote. And so, we saw a massive engineering effort by IT teams and organizations, trying to understand how to run customer service in this remote-employee environment, where all your agents are remote and need to have access to cloud-based systems. In my opinion, here are some trends that have gained momentum over the past year:

1) Contactless service. I think contactless services is the new mantra. For instance, I go to a restaurant now,  the experience is - you get a QR code, you scan it, and you have the ability to have your mobile open up a website, give you a menu, and also be able to place an order straight out there. So the only thing restaurant staff are doing is delivering the food to you. 

2) Acceleration of digital transformation. Digital transformation in the past was mostly around providing seamless handoff to digital touch points from physical ones, and vice versa. Today, it's all about being digital-first, which is about how your mobile experience is, and what your bad experiences are, and how they can be improved. How do we make everything work well together, and how do we make the customer experience absolutely seamless so that they don't need to think about having to meet a person to get customer service delivered.

3) The emergence of new channels. If you look at the new digital-first support we’re seeing – what I call ‘Digital CX’ – it involves SMS, Facebook Messenger, and Whatsapp. A concerned customer does not want to log into a web client to get their order information, but wants businesses to deliver the information to them, so the emergence of these channels has created the notion of a new customer experience platform which involves chat and SMS. If I were to start a new business right now, these channels would be a big focus for me in terms of customer experience.


“Digital transformation in the past was mostly around providing seamless handoff to digital touchpoints from physical ones. Today, it’s all about being digital-first."

Part 2: Is zero-contact customer service here to stay?

Nicole: It's interesting; because on one side, there’s a change in customer expectations, and you say, it's partly contactless. It's also the idea that things are going to happen quickly. You're going to be able to get answers; you're going to be able to get what you need really rapidly regardless of the channel, although they're probably all some version of a digital channel. Maybe you call, maybe you don't, and at the same time, there is a significant need for companies to change the tools that they're using. We certainly have seen, the move to cloud contact centers has been rapid, because any company that wasn't doing that before found just how difficult it was to support remote agents who were not working in a physical contact center, so that's been a big one. 

Pradeep: Let’s talk about what you just said. Bots have become the first line of defense and the first line of customer engagement. And that is interesting because in the past you'd have said, “I don't know if I’d want to talk to a bot as the first brand interaction I had”, but bots have to represent brand experiences. Bots are the ones that are answering the simple ‘how do I…’ and ‘why?’ questions; but they're also doing pretty complex things: refunds and exchanges and change orders; and businesses want to use the latest technology – AI, Intelligent Automation, and Process Automation or RPA to bring experiences together so that customer experiences can be better.


"Bots have become the first line of defense – the first line of customer engagement ... Businesses want to use the latest technology – AI, Intelligent Automation, and Process Automation or RPA to bring experiences together so that customer experiences can be better."


Nicole: It is actually fascinating at this point because one of the things that I know you and I have in common is that we both feel very strongly that a good customer experience is about actually creating that human connection. It's about feeling like you're getting personal care and personal attention, and it's not just a sort of automated voice on the other side; Counter intuitively, bots and automation are actually helping create that scenario.

I've got my own example, I live on an island, I have a car on the mainland, and we hadn't used the car in three months, and we had a trip, so we were going to drive. And luckily, we decided to get the car a day early, and it was a good thing because the battery was completely flat from not having driven the car for three months. So I had to call triple-A, the roadside assistance service in order to have them send someone out to give us a charge on the battery so we could start the car, and I called. And what was really interesting and great as far as I was concerned as a customer is they said, "You can wait and you can hold in line to speak to an agent or you can follow this link that we're texting you right now, and you can arrange whatever service you need". And there was a pre-selected menu of items you can choose from directly from our bot, and so I did, and on the bot, before I would have gotten to an agent, I was able to say, "I need a jump, my battery's dead, here is where I am". And the call went out to the local technician, I could see that the call had been received; I could see that there was somebody on their way to our parking lot to give us a jump up a car. The guy told me really quickly. Yeah, it was great. He was impeccable. He had his mask on, he stayed his distance, and we were up and ready to go and in far less time than it would have taken if we'd gone the traditional route of staying on the phone. And it made me actually like triple-A even better than I already do; because it got me what I needed faster and more effectively, so it's a big win when you can get it right.

Pradeep: To summarize, there are three or four things that might be talked about, but the reality is, contactless service is becoming imperative. The fact that there is a shift to digital channels is becoming more pervasive than ever before. An automation first approach is becoming a clear imperative for businesses, and the emergence of SMS, Whatsapp and Apple Business Chat, and new channels is becoming critical for businesses to actually start thinking about. 

Nicole: I think what you're pointing to here is the next big question, which is, how much of this stuff is related to the pandemic situation we find ourselves in, and what really is going to stick around for the long term? And I'm inferring a little bit here, Paddy, but I'm guessing that we have a similar view, which is that a lot of this stuff really is here to stay.

Pradeep: This is absolutely here to stay. Some of these changes are so permanent, that you're going to see that businesses are transforming themselves to be able to deliver these new superior customer experiences with automation, with a bot-first approach, that is going to be the new normal, that’s point number one.

Point number two: As a consumer, your expectations are also going to be changing. You're already in the new digital world, and you'd rather be talking to an agent, asking the question and having the answer come to you in an asynchronous fashion. These are superior customer experiences, it reduces the cost of delivering these services, and this is a great new thing for the new CX mandate that's really taking place right now.

Nicole: Yeah, I agree, customer expectations aren't going to reverse themselves either – or employee expectations for that matter. So certainly, we talked about this hybrid work model, where there is the option, even in CX, which has not traditionally been a big supporter of remote working, that people will be able to work remotely longer-term or permanently as well. 

I would even go so far as to say, we're starting to see a kind of gig economy, an opportunity emerges in customer service; I actually was talking recently to a new startup that is doing exactly that. They've created a platform to connect customer service organizations with customer service agents, who particularly are experts in certain areas, and might actually be working across a number of different brands or different customers, but they're effectively working based on the number of queries that they answer. And it's only just beginning, but we're going to see some of these things become a lot more prominent, especially as we deal with the fact that not everybody's equally good overall channels, and somebody who's really great on the phone might not be all that great through a chat channel of some kind. It's partly a question of subject matter expertise, it's partly a question of style, and it is really partly a question of the channel, how we match up the most effective response to the customers' question.

Pradeep: I think it's a great point, I can relate it to my own life. My kids barely pick up the phone. If you ask for a look at their phone time on my bill, I can barely see the number of call hours versus just the instant messaging that they use. The new economy is going to enable you to be able to onboard gig workers, and these are folks who basically are used to these new channels. 


back2work back2work


Pradeep: The new world of work also means that you're going to have a truly hybrid environment, right? You know, some folks who are there 100%, in at the workplace, some 50, some 25%, but it’s highly unlikely that it's going to be a 100% workplace environment; because you've seen that productivity is high, and you’re still able to deliver a high level of service without really moving to the old model where your infrastructure costs are high. So, I think there are clearly some advantages that we're seeing with this new workplace, although it can be equally challenging because you now have to onboard all of these employees. How do you do that in a remote environment? How do you use training besides just watching a video, but also like using AI to enable them to learn faster so that they can respond back to customers? 

Very interesting times, as we look at what's going to change with respect to the internal workplace as well as how we use new transformations in technology to deliver to customer expectations.

Part 3: Customer service as a growth function

Nicole: There's another aspect of this that I find really interesting, too, and this is one of those longer-term changes that we're really starting to see happen, and in an accelerated way as a result of the current situation, which is the lines are really blurring between what used to be some very distinct customer-facing organizations, namely, marketing, sales, and customer service. And it's interesting because to use another of my own recent experiences, especially that boundary between what's sales and what's customer service, or what's customer service, and what's marketing is getting particularly blurry because good customer support staff, good agents are really good at doing multiple things at once.

I bought some window shades for my house because we are doing a perpetually long list of projects. And since we're here all the time, they are a much higher priority than they used to be. I couldn't have a designer come to my house, and so, I had a bunch of questions that I really wanted to have answered about the products before I clicked buy on my cart. And it was great because I was able to do this over chat with an agent, so I didn't have to pick up the phone again because I could do it while I was working at the same time. 

We're starting to see, not just different ways of working, and different tools to support that, but a fundamental question about what it is that we expect people in those roles to do, what is the point of those jobs? And how can we think of it more from the perspective of what customers are expecting and what customers would prefer, in order to meet those needs more effectively, despite the fact that it doesn't necessarily fit into a traditional departmental box on the org chart?

Pradeep: That's a great point. I do think that customer service agents are, in some ways, your best salespeople, because they build trust, they have empathy for the customer. And if they solve a problem, the likelihood that you listen to a customer service agent say, "I think this product is better suited for you because of this reason", you're more likely to buy that product and so, that brings you to the next question, which is what's really happening in terms of the shift of customer service. Those are a couple of things that strike me.

The first thing is the metrics have changed, the old metrics used to really be around what is your average handle time, and what is your first contact resolution? Now they're moving to this whole notion of zero contact resolution. And the point of zero contact resolution is the number of cases I can solve without touching an agent, right? So that's kind of one of the new metrics that people are starting to think about, and they say: I need to be able to have a way to do this without having to touch an agent, solve queries for my customers without having to have them reach out to us, right? That's why having automation and bots at the forefront are important.

The second part is, if the lines are blurred, the question could be about, "Hey, I need this product, this is not working or I would like a replacement” versus “By the way, I need an add-on clip to my biking shoe. How can I order that, and I can order that from you, right?” Those lines between sales and marketing are completely blurring; Earlier, you thought of customer service as a pure cost center. Now, in the eyes of business leaders, customer service is right in the forefront because the boards and leadership teams are worried about customer retention, customer satisfaction, especially as through the pandemic people have seen revenues go down. And so with that, this is a great opportunity to surface how in your new digital transformation strategy stitch, the whole experience in which customer service can play a bigger role than just servicing a customer passively. 

In the old days, the analogy of customer service used to be, you're a goalkeeper, you're trying to figure out which way the ball is going to come from. And all you're doing is defending, but in the new world, it's really about productivity in the way you can anticipate customer needs, use your empathy and connection to be able to really serve the customer that goes beyond just retaining, It can go into advocacy and helping your customers grow. And that's what I feel is from a pure shift, I can see a lot of that shift clearly happening on both the metric side as well as how customer service departments are viewed.


churn churn

Part 4: CX leadership in the C-suite

Nicole: You're right. Just looking at how customer service is actually a huge asset when it comes to building and deepening customer relationships as opposed to just kind of unnecessary investment, as you say; and certainly the shift away from being a cost center to one that's really more of an investment approach that is measured beyond just the customer service organization. And really isn't things like customer lifetime value, for example, advocacy, loyalty, and those are complex things to tie together, but we're increasingly able to do that; and partly because let's face it, customer service has always been a huge source of insights from customers because you get it verbatim and often unprompted. 

That's one of the areas that we really can understand, observe, and apply into other parts of our organizations as well, whether it's product development, or sales or marketing, all of these things actually benefit from the insights that derive from customer service, and that's a big step. The exciting question, which is hopefully an exciting one for everyone who's listening to our conversation today as well: What are the prospects? What is the future opportunity for customer service and customer experience leaders? And you've got a whole lot of this to talk about from first-hand experience.

Pradeep: Yeah, it's a very good question because, as I said, this is a pivotal time, and probably one of the most strategic inflection points and the customer service leader's life; because you have never had that attention span, you're in the spotlight. 

You're basically being brought into a leadership meeting saying, "Hey, what are customers saying about us? What's going on with the churn and retention?” Historically, all customer service reviews have been post-mortem: “What happened when we lost customers? What happened when a defect caused an increase in customer service requests?” Now, they’ve become, "How can we anticipate and understand where problems are going to happen?” 

From a leader's perspective, this is the chance for customer experience leaders to go on the forefront and say, "How do I help redesign the customers’ and the business’ digital transformation strategy"? And this is really the opportunity because you have the eyes and the ears of the management, and your leadership’s and the boards’, who are basically looking at you and saying, "How are you going to redefine the customer experience? How do you reduce the customer effort? How are we going to increase our advocacy and NPS scores across every element of our product"? And that's where I feel this is an opportunity for leaders to step up, really think about what their current organization design is, build it for a new digital era for the new millennial customers, and millennial employees. 

Nicole: It's interesting, Paddy, because in a lot of ways, we're talking about things coming full circle here because I remember and I'm dating myself tremendously, but when I was at my University's job fair. When I was about to graduate, I remember going around and looking at the different companies that were there and they were essentially all recruiting for their management training program to become future executives. And what has stayed with me is that one of those, in particular, was a very large insurance company. And their expectation was that if you wanted to be a senior executive in that business, you absolutely had to start in customer service. The reason is that that was the place where you got the most exposure to the widest range of customers and customer challenges, and customer feeling, and belief and views, and all of the things that really give you that absolutely critical, really innate sense of what matters to customers. And it's interesting because I think what you're talking about is what we're both seeing, which is actually businesses are finally recognizing, again, the extreme value of the insights and the knowledge that come from customer service organizations, and individual conversations, but particularly the knowledge, and insights, and expertise that CSA leaders have and can contribute to the rest of the business. And if you're going to be a customer-centric organization, why not start with people whose whole business is really focusing on the customer?