5 Realistic Customer Service Trends for 2021

2020 was marked by a pandemic that shook the global economy to its core, but also acted as a catalyst for digital transformation and adoption .

Amidst lockdowns, restrictions and social distancing, many companies were forced to quickly move large parts of their business online, and with it, their customer communication.

Others were already there but still overwhelmed by a rush of consumers that now wanted to not only order online but also receive support right there and then.

In 2021, we'll see more of this – plus that many of the challenges and the ways in which businesses react to them, are here to stay. In fact, this is what guides the development of our own product . Let’s look at the most promising trends and how they’ll continue to impact your business in a post-Covid world.

Omni-messenger support

The surge in e-commerce consumers at large has been accompanied by an increase in mobile app usage and spending, which saw a plus of 40% in 2020 . From here, the nearest point of contact to a business is in messaging apps. As a result, we think that channel integration will play an even more important role in 2021.

Ever since omnichannel came up, its premise was to cater to the preferences of every single customer. We argued that this only works if all channels are well-integrated and easily accessible. Also, we were certain that it will be consumers, not businesses, that define those channels.

Sure enough, the playing field has shifted in favor of the channel with the largest following: messaging apps. The biggest apps account for a combined total of around 6 billion users worldwide . So it’s safe to say that messaging is winning out over all competing channels. That’s not counting SMS, the messaging archetype.

Sure, there’s email. But messaging already contains and exceeds the benefits of its biggest competitor in B2C communication. What’s more, they’re also the standard for text-based private communication across several generations.

Screenshot of Userlike’s Message Center with conversations on different contact channels.
Userlike’s Message Center.

While your customers are united in their channel choice, they’re still divided between the different messaging apps. Many even use several. That’s why the ideal customer service setup integrates all messaging apps. It allows service agents to reply to them from one single interface that’s built for the sole purpose of delivering outstanding service, like Userlike’s Message Center .

On a related note, we also think that there’ll be a shift toward privacy-conscious apps, irrespective of who makes that shift – users or app makers. The mass user exodus from WhatsApp following their privacy-unfriendly terms update proves that the topic has entered the mainstream.

Consequently, messengers that subscribe to high data privacy standards are gaining popularity, as we’ve recently seen with Signal . Arguably the most secure option out there is Threema , which is why we’ve integrated it with Userlike .

Data privacy-focused are currently going viral every time Big Tech screws up. A more sustainable perspective is offered by the fact that the GDPR is prevailing law in the EU and the de-facto international standard to which companies outside of the EU aspire. The topic will only get more exposure.

To get you ready for omni-messenger support in 2021, here’s our overview of the best messaging apps for customer service .

Chatbots get on the slope of enlightenment

The chatbot hype peaked in 2017 and was followed by a phase of disillusionment (and some relief). Everybody realized that the digital helpers won’t be able to take over entire customer service departments just yet.

The delusional capabilities chatbots were often imputed with slowly but surely receded. Even the most concerned future skeptics now believe that chatbots won’t make conversation like humans anytime soon. This new objectivity sharpens the bots’ actual job profile in customer service.

Visualization of the Hype Cycle graph by Gartner.

If you apply Gartner’s “Hype Cycle” to chatbots, you’ll see that they’re now most likely on the “slope of enlightenment.” It’s the phase in which we’re beginning to understand a technology’s actual benefits and see real practical applications. The two most prominent ones for chatbots to date:

  1. FAQ chatbots that answer customer questions sourced by a knowledge database. A prime example for a conversational FAQ is OMQ’s chatbot , which also integrates with Userlike .
  2. Concierge-style chatbots that take over the “dumb” parts of customer service. They collect customer information and questions before handing over to humans for the actual support.
  3. Lead generation chatbots that qualify website visitors by asking them questions based on a predefined decision tree.

Innovators in the field are embracing technology that is tailored to the needs of chatbots that aren’t good at everything but very good at helping customers quickly with simple issues.

What’s more: As consumers spent more time on websites and in apps during Covid, they also realized they could find much of the information they were looking for without contacting customer support directly. As a result, the use of self-support and interactive sessions with chatbots has shot up .

Check out our dedicated post for more chatbot applications and benefits for businesses and customers . If you wonder whether a chatbot would be a good addition to your support squad, this post helps you find out.

Natural language processing matures

Natural language processing (NLP) is what made the chatbot hype hype-worthy in the first place. It’s the AI-powered program that runs within a chatbot and, in theory, provides it with humanlike capabilities.

Visualization of a brain with a speech bubble.

So, if you want to be precise, it’s NLP that was hailed as the technology to forever alter the communication between businesses and their customers. The explosion in popularity of virtual assistants like Alexa, Siri and co. along with their residential smart speakers further fueled expectations.

Consumers still fantasize about chatbots that live in their devices and can not only read like humans, but also listen like them, make sense of whatever they hear and reply adequately on any channel. But speech recognition, natural language understanding and natural language generation – those are several mountains to climb, each of them an Everest.

WIRED’s John Pavlus recently wrote a piece on the state of NLP and came to find that despite obvious advances, computers are “still not so smart.”

Screenshot of Google’s Smart Compose feature.

Like for chatbots, a narrower application of NLP in customer service is more useful for the time being. As technology matures, so does its role.

Google’s Smart Compose feature for Gmail is a perfect example of a complex technology put to a simple but highly effective use. The AI that powers Smart Compose offers suggestions for finishing sentences as you’re typing.

We articulated our sceptical view on email as a customer service channel, but we already know similar technologies from our smart phone keyboards and Google’s web search suggestions. The latter was recently updated to consider more context , thus to be more like a conversation. We’re pretty sure to see such technologies in a messaging context soon.

Another application of NLP is live machine translation in customer messaging. This one’s already happening, for example in Userlike. Our Live Translation feature enables agents and customers to write in different languages but still understand each other perfectly.

Screenflow showcasing Userlike’s Live Translation feature.

When customers send messages in Spanish, for example, agents can simply switch on Live Translation and the customer’s messages will appear in the agent’s chosen language.

Service becomes part of the product experience

Improving customer experience has been one of the key challenges for businesses in the 2010s. Now consumers, especially young ones, appear to further raise the bar by turning their back on traditional materialism.

This doesn’t mean they consume less, but they like to think that every buy means something. The New York Times’ Amanda Hess recently called it “spiritual consumerism.”

Put simply, in a time where more and more products become commodities and the negative results of our material wastefulness are undeniable, it’s all about the experience you have with them.

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Increasingly, service is an essential part of that experience. Either because consumers need companies to charge their desired products with meaning and showcase experiences they can have with them. Or because the service is the product.

For example, many young urbanites prefer carsharing over owning a car. What they care about is the idea of mobility and independence, of getting around town, not the wheeled object itself. Consequently, these consumers place higher expectations in the service, be it an app or one-on-one conversations with the business.

For customer-centric companies, this is huge. While customer service for a long time was either considered as a vehicle for selling and solving issues, it is now part of the product. This continues well after the purchase. Customers want to use their product in different ways to create new experiences. If companies support them in that, they can build lasting customer relationships.

B2B customer service levels up

In the 2010s, B2C companies have widely followed up on the end customer’s desire for a better customer experience, which I outlined in the previous point. In B2B, we’re not quite there yet.

The B2B e-commerce market was already growing before Covid, but just like for its B2C counterpart, that growth was accelerated by the pandemic . To deal with increased demand, more businesses needed more help and services from B2B companies. The service mentality in B2B, however, was and is often rather minimalistic: “Just tell us if anything doesn’t work.”

One reason for this is that vendors and service providers can expect their business customers to send their experts. Those are already on the lower end of the sales funnel and so, after onboarding, vendors switch to a service that only reacts to hiccups that might cost them the customer or their reputation.

Screenshot of Apple’s home page for business customers.
Apple for business customers.

Now, more and more traditional B2C companies are starting to also target businesses. Some examples are Apple , Amazon , IKEA , and Starbucks . In the B2B world, they suddenly encounter more representatives on the upper end of the sales funnel.

Thus, when people shop for businesses, the service will need to look more like what we know from the B2C world. Customer communication solutions that fit both B2C and B2B strategies help them connect with any type of customer.

The role of customer service in 2021

In 2021, one-on-one communication is getting a more prominent position for companies in the B2C and B2B sectors. It’s now being recognized at scale as a competitive distinguisher. As a result, the customer service department is taken more seriously and entrusted with larger responsibilities.

Your most unhappy customers are your greatest source of learning

Bill Gates

It took some time for businesses to embrace Bill Gates’ famous quote. Now, customer service is no longer a necessity; it’s a resource to guide your product development by, an asset to show off and a cornerstone of a business’ culture. Proof of this new, bigger role is the innovation that takes place in the field, like chatbots, messaging apps, reputation management and many more.

With Covid, another one materialized, though born out of necessity. Many businesses pulled workers from their closed or less-frequented physical stores and added them to their online squads.

As Lydia Belanger describes in her Fortune article , some businesses noticed how well this worked right off the bat. The repurposed workers knew how to talk to customers and their pain points, they were already well-equipped for customer service online.

If we imagine this trend on a larger scale, we see a thinning boundary between physical and online personnel and the rise of versatility as one of the key skills in all customer-facing roles. The connected idea of a more holistic approach to staffing could well outlive the pandemic.