How chatbots and automation will update outmoded customer support in 2021

"Good enough" support no longer cuts it. It's time to ratchet up tech investments, which tops the list of Intercom's 2021 Customer Support Trends Report.

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Image: iStock/b4lls

For some companies, there's often a disconnect between a goal of exceeding customer expectations and the capabilities customer support can actually deliver, given the limited tools they're provided by the business's tech leaders. That's all about to change in 2021, according to a new research from the messaging platform software company Intercom. The 2021 Customer Support Trends Report assesses the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on the enterprise, on support teams' budgets, plans, and technology investments, as it identifies transformative trends.

If it didn't actually produce anxious customers, the pandemic certainly facilitated them. COVID-19 affected IT support teams across the country as they struggled to meet customer needs and demands, resulting in overwork and frustration.

To meet ever-rising expectations, support leaders plan to invest in conversational support capabilities, including proactive supportchatbots, and automation in 2021. The transformative trends will help teams deliver conversational support and bridge the gap between what customers want and what support teams can realistically deliver.

SEE: Chatbot trends: How organizations are leveraging AI chatbots (free PDF) (Tech Republic)

According to the report, 73% of support leaders said customer expectations for personalized and fast support are rising, but only 42% of those support leaders are sure they're meeting those expectations. The report also found:

  • 46% of support leaders believe that the current support tech stack retards their goals
  • 41% of support teams are slowed  daily or weekly by siloed tools
  • 44% of support teams use between six to 10 tools in their tech stack
  • 54% of support leaders plan to optimize and consolidate their support tech staff

Chatbots on the rise

Intercom's report identified an essential tech element: Chatbots are driving significant gains for support teams and customers alike; 47% of customer support teams use some type of chatbot tech. Those chatbots must be well-crafted, but have the ability to provide immediate resolutions at the right time, in the right place. The study found: 

  • Support leaders whose teams use chatbots are 60% more likely to report an improvement in resolution times and 30% more likely to report an increase in customer satisfaction than those who do not. 
  • Support leaders who have already availed of the benefits of chatbots (68%) said they will plan to invest in more of them in 2021 (and those companies are four-times more likely to invest more in chatbots). 
  • Teams that use chatbots to automate conversations are 27% more likely to meet rising customer expectations  than those that don't. 

Companies that use chatbot tech are 35% more likely to be able to track support team ROI, leaders who do so are 60% more likely to report a definite improvement, and 73% of companies that automate support with chatbots saw an increase in conversation/ticket resolution in the last year.

Smart investment: Team efficiency

For respondents to Intercom's survey, team efficiency is both a top challenge and an area of investment. Workflow efficiencies are ranked as one of the top three investment areas for next year, noted the report, and citing this as a support leader priority.

Automation workflows and chatbots take center stage in this examination to solutions which would increase team efficiency for 2021--so much so that 50% of respondents said they'll invest in automation. 

Often discussed, support leaders are ready to implement what workers have been asking for: To take mundane and repetitive tasks away from human hands, thus freeing the woman/manpower to have the time "and headspace" to manage critical queries which need human interaction and touch. Increasing workflow efficiencies is a top reported challenge. Sixty-one percent of support leaders said their team hits roadblocks monthly because their support stack isn't integrated with technology from other teams.

While less technology-focused than the first two key takeaways from the report, each involves and relies upon technology to function well. 

Overpromising and underdelivering is the bane of customer support, and it has created a massive gap between customer expectations and what support teams can actually deliver. Seventy-three percent of support leaders said they've seen increasing customer expectations, yet only 42% believe they're meeting those expectations. "Automation is helping bridge the gap as support teams turn to chatbots to deliver fast and personal support," the report noted. Support teams who use chatbots are 27% more likely to say they're prepared to meet accelerating customer expectations than those who don't.

From "cost center" to value driver, customer support is on the move. More and more businesses are acknowledging the positive effect well-crafted customer support can bring to their company, and worth the actual bottom-line value. 

Yet 52% of leaders will reduce their customer support staff in 2021 because of the economic downturn, and two out of three companies that plan to reduce staff said they know it will negatively affect the support experience they offer, which the report cited as longer wait times, lower customer retention, and missed customer support goals.

Customer support comes down to the kind of conversation support teams have with their customers. Often, the support function is reduced to reactive conversations and the goal should be to devote more time and energy to create a mutually beneficial, yet strategic, revenue-generating business partnership.

  • 58% of support leaders are unsure they are meeting customer expectations
  • 30% of support leaders plan to measure their team's impact on customer retention in 2021
  • 25% plan to do the same for customer renewals 

Time for a switch

As customer support transitions from reactive to proactive, the importance of proactive support grows in relevancy. Historically and traditionally, proactive support has been the bailiwick of marketing or product teams. As conversation volume rises, and customer expectations increase, proactive support is now a top priority for many support leaders.

  • 78% of support leaders want to move from a reactive to a proactive approach
  • 26% are sure they have the knowledge and tools to do so
  • 55% plan to increase their budget for support tools in the coming year

Support leaders said they will meet increasing customer expectations through better agent training, workflow efficiency, and online chat tools.

"Even during turbulent times like the COVID-19 pandemic, conversational support is helping support teams enhance their customer relationships, increase their efficiency, and boost their CSAT scores," said Kaitlin Pettersen, global director, customer support at Intercom. The "transformative trends point toward a new era of fast and personal customer support."

Methodology: Intercom surveyed about 600 customer -support managers and leaders from both B2B and B2C organizations in industries including technology. 

Also see

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Image: iStock/tero vesalainen