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PHOTO: Charles

Customer support capabilities have only increased with the explosion in communications technology over the past 10 years. Now when we call in with an issue, front-line agents often know who we are, our purchase history, previous issues we’ve faced, and what products we’re likely to buy in the future.

We have come to think of these support agents as expert problem solvers, and indeed they are. From minor purchase questions to significant account issues, these professionals answer questions, resolve issues and otherwise do anything necessary to meet a customer’s needs.

Looking ahead to 2020, we expect to see even more advances in the systems and tools used by support teams, leading to better ticket resolution, more upselling and cross-selling opportunities, and more satisfied customers — all of which benefits businesses’ bottom lines. 

AI as Backup, Not Competition

Many support agents are concerned about computerized systems eventually taking their jobs, which is a natural extension of a fear that has been around since the Industrial Revolution. After all, many contact centers already route customers through a series of automated menus before connecting with a human agent. When businesses take the technology one step further through AI integration, what will happen to the agents?

Fortunately, we don’t expect to see a mass reduction in support employees. Rather than replacing humans, AI systems will provide assistance to the agents, giving them access to information that will enhance the care they provide to customers. For example, AI-powered sentiment analysis can help agents integrate an appropriate degree of empathy into the conversation. And the data models will continue to be refined and become even more beneficial as time goes on.

In 2020 and beyond, AI and human agents together will provide a higher degree of technical accuracy and personal engagement than either could alone — improving customer satisfaction in the short term and loyalty in the long term.

Related Article: AI's Greatest Gift to Your Customers? The Vanishing Interface

Soft Skills Become Critical

We also expect the role of support teams to continue to evolve as customer experience (CX) technology grows in sophistication. For instance, many of the straightforward tasks that agents are accustomed to handling will be off-loaded to automated systems. Think of the Amazon automated refund process that doesn’t require any human interaction.

Ironically, this increase in automation will actually free up support agents to put a more personal touch on the remaining interactions they do have with customers. Rather than getting mired in the minutiae of every ticket, agents will be able to focus on truly listening to and empathizing with each customer.

As a result, the soft skills necessary to cultivate customer relationships will become critical during the hiring process — even above technical proficiency in some cases. Ultimately, the emphasis on soft skills will lead to a higher level of service that improves the customer experience from beginning to end.

Related Article: Customer Experience Pros Have a Mix of Technical and Soft Skills

Greater Cross-Team Collaboration

Another soft skill we expect to receive greater attention in 2020 is teamwork. As companies achieve full digitization of customer records and other data and the various tools used by employees become more highly integrated, it will become easier to share information within and between departments. This increased information sharing will lead to greater collaboration among all of the teams serving customers across the CX journey.

For example, marketing and sales will gain access to insights from customer support that will help them to better identify target audiences and potential leads, making their future campaigns and sales pitches more effective. The support team, in turn, will have a deeper understanding of the messages that customers heard prior to the sale, helping them to better anticipate potential questions and frustrations.

Another expected impact of this increase in technology-based information sharing is the ability of more support agents to work remotely, which will not only reduce the company’s overhead costs but also boost employee satisfaction as they gain greater control over their location and schedule.

Related Article: Commit to Customer Experience With a Company-Wide Strategy

Looking to the Future

It’s astonishing to think how far CX has come over the last century. As local mom-and-pop shops gave way to the huge online and physical stores we know today, we temporarily lost the personal touch in favor of convenience.

But now, technology is helping us to practically come full circle. Over the coming year and beyond, dedicated support professionals utilizing the right technology — along with a large dose of soft skills — will be equipped to offer assistance that provides each customer with a helpful, human and personalized interaction.