Customer Service 2025: „Hello, Colleague Robot, Can You Take Over?"

The customer service in the telecommunications industry meets a clientele that already lives mostly digitally. The challenge for the future is therefore to intelligently combine digital and human skills for a solution-oriented and empathetic customer service interaction. What does this mean for customer centricity? Gereon Hammel from Deutsche Telekom Service GmbH and Detecon's associate partner Andreas Penkert venture a visionary outlook.

In 1978, the Electropop pioneers of Kraftwerk dedicated a concept album to their ideas of the interaction between man and machine and created an epochal milestone in their genre, which is often quoted even today. What was a vision more than 40 years ago is now, in the digital age, occupying us in all areas - be it science, society or business.     

Customers already live digitally - with consequences for customer service                              

The telecommunications industry, with its service-intensive business and high volume of contacts, is driving these questions in this context: How can digital and human skills be intelligently combined in the future to provide empathic, individual, high-quality and efficient customer service interaction? What possibilities are offered by artificial intelligence (AI)? And how to push customer centricity by customer service?                                                                                         

Customers have long since gone digital - across all age groups and segments. Figures prove it: For example, 86 percent of those surveyed in a cross-industry study store online because it seems more convenient, and 69 percent because it is cheaper.1 A majority of those surveyed are also willing to communicate with a chatbot. Digital shopping is named - after e-mail and search engines - as the third most frequent online activity. A glance at faraway China confirms the trend: 63 percent of China Mobile customers were already using digital channels exclusively in 2019.2 The trend is also clearly visible in this country. For example, a leading European telecommunications provider recorded an increase in chat dialogs from 7 to 11 percent of contact volume from 2019 to 2020 alone, and a further increase to 19 percent is expected by 2023.3              

Since 2020, the corona pandemic has been providing an accelerating special effect and becoming a catalyst for digitization. A glance at the medical sector shows this impressively: The willingness of the German population to seek medical advice via chat or video conference has increased by more than 60 percent in the last few months alone since the outbreak of Corona.4 Since that time, one in four German citizens still works in a home office, which is now being promoted and even incentivized by the majority of companies in Germany. 

Customer service from the perspective of customers, technology and service agents    

Back to customer service. The telecommunications industry rightly asks itself the question: Where is the journey going? A visionary view, as Kraftwerk once interpreted it musically, offers itself. So let us venture a journey into the future and a vision for customer service in 2025 from three relevant perspectives: 1. customers, 2. technology and 3. service agents.

          1. Customers want a solution immediately - as digital and individual as possible!

Customers expect to be able to use the fastest and most convenient contact channel for them around the clock and seamlessly. An immediately available as well as proactive, individual solution to problems is a prerequisite. Customers prefer to solve problems digitally themselves; in special cases, it is still people who make the difference. Innovation and integrity are more appreciated, brand loyalty loses its significance.

What expectations do customers have of the customer service provided by their telecommunications provider?

Omnichannel: Customers prefer the channel that is most convenient for them in the respective context and change this channel flexibly as required. The only important thing is that the issue is resolved quickly. The smartphone is the most important contact channel, with all devices and touchpoints connected to each other. Disney amusement parks are a shining example of how it can already work today: Visits and stays at amusement parks can be planned in detail online from home, saving time-consuming orientation and searches on site. Guests of Hilton hotels enjoy using the Hilton Honor App to select and book their room online and to check in and out via smartphone. The way to the reception? Completely superfluous - the smartphone also serves as the room key.

Proactivity: Customers no longer want to report problems, but instead want to be informed early and proactively about solutions. In this context, communication is good from the customer's point of view if it is proactive, predictive, individual, simple and fast. One best practice for this type of proactive support is the car manufacturer Skoda with its Car Connect service in the event of malfunctions: the vehicle automatically reports status data to a server, and Skoda service employees then proactively arrange maintenance appointments with customers. Apple customers who go to an Apple Store are already familiar with the direct, personalized operation by querying their personal Apple ID.

Anticipation: The telecommunications provider knows its customers better than they know themselves and anticipates their needs. Personalized product recommendations are highly appreciated and are provided at every preferred touchpoint based on data analytics, accompanied by individualized communication. In the "Nike Live" store concept of the sports goods manufacturer of the same name, for example, the personal shopping experience is stimulated by updating the product range every two weeks on the basis of behavioral data (sports, buying, app usage) of local, registered customers.

Best-in-Class: Customer demands for quality, consistency and reliability continue to grow. The affinity for innovation is increasing, but brand loyalty is decreasing. Service promises and actions must match - along the customer-centric value chain of marketing, sales and service. Tesla, for example, promises a completely new driving experience through a system of technology, features and services - all digitalized and very easily accessible to the customer. The smartphone app serves as a central hub: vehicle settings, service upgrades or maintenance services can be individually and modularly adapted as required. HUK Coburg Versicherung, on the other hand, deliberately targets those customer groups who value personal advice on site or by telephone. Here, the focus is on qualified, empathetic problem solving by customer consultants and the positioning as a traditional company.

          2. Technology is an enabler to make the service more digital

AI and Big Data enable the carrier to identify customer problems in advance and to solve concerns before they even arise - at the latest during the initial contact. Text and voicebots are the 1st level assistants of the future, AI including proactive tools is fully accepted as communication media on the customer side. In individual cases of need, the human being takes over again, the transfer from bot to employee is fluent, without waiting time.

How can customer service become so digital and at the same time empathetic in order to excellently meet increasing demands and expectations?

Data-driven: Customer problems are predicted and solved before they arise, but at the latest finally in the first contact. Service agents know why a customer is calling and inform directly if there is a problem. As a basis for this, "customer insights" must be systematically collected across all channels and made available for interaction at any time. The car manufacturer Volvo reads out machine data via a telematics system, employees monitor this machine data in real time and send warnings to Volvo dealers if necessary. The dealers in turn contact affected customers and take the next steps before failures and damage occur.

Bot-to-Bot: In the future, not only companies, but also customers themselves will use the "colleague robot". In many cases, customers will communicate their own personal bot, which will independently find a solution. Voice Assistance will become the preferred channel in this context. Google Duplex, as a smart Personal Digital Assistant, already handles smaller matters such as booking appointments at the hairdresser or in the restaurant by voice call with real people, completely autonomously in the background, without the active participation of the human "client". Duplex is easy to integrate as a voice interface on Google Speaker, Smartphones and Chrome Browser.

AI: Customers don't mind if they are not supported by human service agents for simple requests. Their primary concern is an immediate solution. Artificial intelligence is therefore fully accepted as a discussion partner. In special cases, when the bot cannot help, the handover to the agents is seamless. For this purpose Hello Fresh uses the chatbot "Freddy" which - integrated in Facebook Messenger - provides customers with recipe ideas from the Hello Fresh blog on request. For regular customer contact, "Freddy" proactively asks quiz questions about healthy nutrition or proactively posts new seasonal recipes.

          3. The work with the customer becomes more qualified and flexible

AI and service staff work in an integrated and efficient manner for the benefit of the customer. The service center will be hybrid - partly virtual, partly with presence, decentralized. Motivation shifts to impact and purpose, and the patchwork work style has become widespread. Service work has become more complex and demanding in terms of content:  The "super agent" is empathic, technologically affine and highly competent.

How does this change the service organization and the world of service employees in concrete terms?

Human Machine Interaction: The working methods in customer service are evolving from manual to cognitive skills, from machines as tools for natural human-machine collaboration. Here, humans and robots work harmoniously hand in hand. The company 4tiitoo has developed an AI-based solution for this purpose, with which desktop application programs can be easily and intuitively controlled by gestures, speech or simple eye movements (eye tracking). By reducing mouse movements, employees increase their efficiency with less manual work at the workplace.

Hybrid Office: The existing service center has been transformed into a hybrid office model. New Work concepts make working more attractive, and poses at the same time new challenges in terms of staff management and control of day-to-day business in an environment in which employees work partly on site and partly virtually distributed. OKRs, for example, are a useful tool for promoting team self-management and motivation. As a consequence of the Corona experience, Facebook already advertises purely remote positions for certain job profiles (e.g. software developers) and also offers this option to existing employees. Twitter sent its 5,000 employees to the home office at the beginning of Corona and offers those who stay in the home office permanently a $1,000 grant for workplace & IT equipment.

Balance: Motivation is shifting towards work-life balance and the sense of purpose of one's own actions - classic career paths, on the other hand, are becoming increasingly uninteresting. A "patchwork lifestyle" with high mobile work shares is very common. Purpose, sustainability and ethical corporate governance are also important criteria for customers when choosing a service provider. Patagonia, a Californian manufacturer of outdoor clothing, has made "saving the home planet" a clear purpose and has taken a strong public stance against racism. After the purpose campaign there was a clear increase in sales figures.

Superagent: In the future, so-called super agents will take care of the really complex customer requests, where the machines reach their limits. This type of customer advisor is an effective problem solver: highly qualified, empathetic, solution-oriented, empowered and supported by the use of the latest technology. At T-Mobile US, teams of experts (TEX) - small, regional service teams - take care of customer concerns personally and immediately or they are solved by technical experts in a team. TEX are trained in all necessary products and technical solutions and act independently.

Conclusion: Continue to develop good basics consistently! 

There is still a long way to go before the idea of Customer Service 2025 can be implemented and developed. The good news is that the basics already exist, but must now be consistently pursued. Customers are ready and open for the next step of digitization. The technological dimension, for example AI, is sufficiently developed and proven to revolutionize customer interaction in the coming years. If telecommunications companies take a pioneering role as enablers for the digitization of society and become pacemakers of the customer service of the future - and take their employees and customers with them - the vision can soon become a successful reality.

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