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Customer experience in the next normal

A global crisis is accelerating the digital transformation of customer service

customer service covid-19

As hundreds of thousands of businesses, schools, and public agencies wait to reopen, digital services in every industry are booming. They will continue to do so long after the COVID-19 pandemic passes.

Take banking, for instance. In May, Forbes reported that daily mobile-check deposits rose 84% at Citi, while transaction activity on ApplePay jumped 10x as customers turned to digital tools to handle basic needs. Digital self-service options are seeing a similar spike in dozens of industries. Self-service transactions on the ServiceNow platform, for example, jumped 30% between February and March at the outset of the crisis.

Demand for high-speed, high-touch digital service has skyrocketed in every industry—and will continue to define the “next normal” for customer service in years to come. That’s a huge opportunity for enterprise leaders, but it comes with some big requirements.

While these aren’t necessarily new requirements, they’re urgent for many companies. First and foremost is ensuring that your customers can access everything they need online, on any device, at any time. If your call center is shut down or no longer working near capacity, you need other digital channels to pick up the slack. If those weren’t in place before COVID-19, they need to be now.

The second requirement is less visible but just as important. Companies must ensure that these digital experiences connect back to the service-operations teams that fulfill those customer needs.

Retail operations must be fully online and have flawless supply chain visibility for customers ordering products. Restaurants must transition from seating tables to taking online orders and scheduling deliveries and pickups. Utility companies and banks need to implement hardship policies to give customers payment relief in the coming month—and digital workflows to handle those issues efficiently without overloading human agents.

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Pandemic opportunity

The pandemic hasn’t been a wake-up call for digital customer service as much as an accelerant. Companies that went full-bore with digitizing customer experiences before the crisis are seeing payoffs that will grow over time. Even those that were forced to scramble to build those capabilities because of the pandemic are seeing some early wins—and they’re not going back to the status quo ante.

Consider the State of Tennessee, which worked with ServiceNow and GlideFast Consulting last year on a digital revamp of its food assistance program. The goal was to digitize the application process so that citizens didn’t have to go to a state office and stand in lines to get help. On the back end, ServiceNow connects citizens via digital applications to service operations teams who approve the request. Citizens using the online experience received benefits 10 times faster than they had before.

When the COVID-19 crisis hit Tennessee, citizens flooded the state with more than 300,000 unemployment claims. The food-assistance revamp gave officials the confidence to use workflows to connect citizens to the service operations teams so they could approve applications for unemployment benefits more efficiently.

Other organizations are earning similar wins the hard way. The experience of one major digital streaming service—as it approached a major product launch just before the pandemic crisis hit—illustrates the point. Prior to launch, the focus had been on a new front-end service and app, not customer service. Recognizing the need to close the gap, the company implemented a digital customer-service platform in record time.

Case study: Tennessee DHS redefines the customer experience for government services

When the pandemic suddenly sent millions of customers—and most of the company’s employees—home, the new platform was there to handle huge spikes of new-customer needs during a major crisis. It didn’t just help keep a new launch on track, it’s carrying the company during a challenging time for other parts of the business.

Experience breeds confidence

Other trends are also shaping the next normal for digital customer service. Call centers, for example, aren’t going back to business as usual after surviving the COVID-19 challenge. In fact, many are thriving because of it.

In March, many companies were forced to migrate thousands of call-center workers into a remote-work model in a matter of days. Having now seen some of the benefits of virtual agents, chatbots, and other tools for online customer engagement, it’s allowed workflows to be the powerhouse that connects the customer with the right person in service operations. This is enabling some of these companies to embrace a distributed workforce permanently.

Enterprises that made the fastest transitions to remote work during the early days of the crisis have another important edge. They did it with digital platforms that managed fast-moving supply chains for critical necessities like secure laptops and other equipment.

There’s a great halo effect inherent in that experience. Post-pandemic, companies like these are gaining more confidence to make bigger bets on digital technology. And there’s no bet more important right now than on customer experience.