I Asked 9 Leaders About The Future of CS: It’s Not All About AI

Luke Walker
March 7, 2024

If you sneaked into a room where CS leaders and VPs at market-leading companies were discussing the future of customer experience, you’d bet the whole narrative would revolve around automation, personalization, or making services available all day, every day, right?

Last week I got to be in exactly that room: for four days, CCW 2024 in Berlin was the spot where experts dissected the future of customer experience, and the buzz at the event was about way more than just artificial intelligence.

I interviewed nine industry leaders and asked all of them the same question: “What do customer service teams need to get right in 2024 to meet rising customer experience expectations?” There’s one specific word that I didn’t expect to hear more than a couple of times: ethics.

Here’s how my conversations went.

CCW is Europe's largest customer experience fair, holding both a conference and a trade show.
Image source: CCW

🔮 The Future Goes Beyond Tech

Surprisingly, leaders in the CX and AI space deviated more than once from the marvels of AI and automation (something we love at Next Matter) towards a deeper, more nuanced narrative around ethics, sustainability, and the human element of customer experience.

📖 READ: AI in Customer Service: How To Use It – And When Not To

⚖️ Prepare To Counterbalance AI With Ethics

We shouldn’t rush changes just because technology allows us to apply them fast.

Pedro Andrade
VP of AI at Talkdesk

CS was one of the first industries to embrace and adopt AI at a rapid pace, even before ChatGPT was a thing. That has led innovators to move from the “Will AI solve every single problem we have?” question (it potentially could, but only if perfectly aligned with the problem at hand) to now wondering what other implications AI has that they need to take into account.

For Pedro Andrade, leading the AI efforts at Talkdesk, it’s all about focusing on value, and not on the technologies:

You can get a lot of value with simple use cases and technology. Too many times we get excited about technology and end up over-engineering systems. If you focus on value and understand your customers’ problems, you will figure out most of them are basic enough to solve by deploying the current technology and running few risks.

Pedro Andrade
VP of AI at Talkdesk

Talkdesk has used AI since 2018 and they are a relatively mature player in the space. They have experienced first-hand the dangers and biases that arise when using GenAI in customer service.

They use AI to enhance customer interactions with better-tailored responses, handle a higher volume of inquiries more effectively, and generally increase their availability and responsiveness. Still, they keep a sharp focus on aligning AI with their human values and ethics, and introduce the concept of “Responsible AI”: an artificial intelligence governed by principles and guidelines that ensure transparency, fairness, privacy, and accountability.

Pedro shares three principles to keep in mind in order to implement AI and provide value for the customer at the same time: 

  1. Transparency: Your customers should know they’re dealing with machines.
  2. Privacy and accountability: User data should comply with the existing regulations, which are becoming stricter over time with frameworks like the European AI Act or the Bletchley Park Declaration.
  3. Fairness: CS agents should be actively involved in the digitization, upskilling and moving up to supervisor roles.

🌪️ Embrace the 3 Driving Forces That Will Disrupt CX

Everybody knows we’re in a transformative environment in CX at the moment. The challenge is not only embracing that shift but also understanding what forces drive it.

Julian Hertzog
Head of Sales at Babelforce

In their CCW keynote, Babelforce used existing research to portray the complexity affecting CS systems, with 149,000 IT jobs left unfilled in Germany in 2023. 

This developer shortage, coupled with the CS agent labor crunch, turns into a daunting obstacle for building CS automation solutions. And that agent crunch is consequently tied to a second driving force: macroeconomic pressures.

What arises from these market trends is a perfect storm, with ambitious ROI goals that are hard to meet, and market dips where customers aren’t necessarily lining up to buy software.

When CS teams try to react and survive these forces, fierce competition introduces a third driving force: the pressure to innovate and a need to gain attention. That’s why decision-makers often see AI as a shiny new object that can become the sole differentiator for a company, which Hertzog calls an “AI hype cycle.

Those three factors are shaping the contact center landscape, and every CS manager should embrace understanding them better. Once your strategy is aligned with those shifts, AI will help as a catalyst to get there quicker, but it won’t be your lifesaver. There’s still too much human interaction in CS to be completely absorbed by AI.

Julian Hertzog
Head of Sales at Babelforce

The conference was home to some of the leading innovators in the CX industry.
Image source: CCW

📱 Voice Channels Will Be Value Drivers, Not Cost Centers

Voice as a digital channel provides a wealth of data that you can leverage to serve your customers better.

Carina Kern
Senior Product Marketing Manager at Twilio

Phone-based support channels are rarely considered to bring the most value. Phone is seen as a legacy channel, both complex and traditional, and often leads to fragmented comms that aren’t as easy to track as your back-and-forth email tickets.

Twilio conducted an EMEA market research and interviewed decision-makers only to find out that voice is still very much alive: 72% of consumers use it.

Carina Kern, Senior Product Marketing Manager at Twilio, stresses the need for businesses to harness as much data as possible from their voice interactions. They can be the gateway to more personalized experiences:

Companies need to ensure they’re combining all the fragmented data from their calls and other channels and using it as a single source of truth. This is key to knowing when the customer interacted with the business and serving the customer better.

Carina Kern
Senior Product Marketing Manager at Twilio

Anna Mutska, Bot Development Specialist at Crealog, also highlights that you should leverage voice channels as a gateway to learning how your users prefer to be communicated with, and what they expect to hear at every stage of their customer journey:

Used incorrectly, voice bots often lead to so much wasted time waiting for agents. During this time, you should ask important questions about the problem at hand and make sure you provide and store the right details about the case so that no more time is lost by CS reps asking your customer the same questions.

Anna Mutska
Specialist Bot Development at CreaLog

🔧 When Complexity Takes Over Your Customer Experience, Use Tech To Fight Back

Our very own Jan Hugenroth was a speaker at CCW too, and he used Next Matter to exemplify complexity as an issue in most aspects of life, including deciding which Netflix show you will watch or remembering where you parked your car, but especially as a critical trait of customer success.

80% of consumers expect chat agents and representatives to assist them in everything they need – already from the first call. The problem is that 30% of customer service tickets are too complex to be solved fast – unless you use technology to build, run, and optimize workflows for those tickets.

Jan Hugenroth
Founder & CEO at Next Matter

AI and workflow automation can be key to meeting your customer’s expectations, especially when some problems arise:

  • The volume and complexity of your tickets grow and your customer service becomes too expensive to scale or outsource:
  • And your senior agents have to dedicate their time to manually handling those complex tickets, even though their bandwidth is limited and they’re an expensive resource for the company;

Those conditions end up creating a bottleneck for how good of a customer experience you can provide, and that’s when automation kicks in: it immediately empowers CS agents to manage complex cases, and they get to scale their efforts and solve mission-critical problems with very limited bandwidth.

Jan listed some examples of workflow automation, such as Trade Republic with their visa card and the compliance-ready workflows they created to handle high demand, and Fond Of, a German backpack brand that automated all product claim processes that were limiting agent capacity during peak periods.

Next Matter was quite present at CCW: while our CEO Jan delivered a keynote, our team was automating on the spot at a booth where all attendees could bring their most complex workflows.

🎯 CS Experts Will Be Elevated From the Trenches to Strategic Positions

Björn Bauer, Director of Solution Engineering at Zendesk, didn’t deliver a keynote, but he made a case for testing AI and using a model that isn't solely focused on ROI to determine whether you should implement it or not.

Björn is an expert in solution engineering for customer service use cases, and Zendesk is a top investor in AI, having acquired companies like Cleverly and partnering with Next Matter for workflow automation. Their insights related to customer service tech are usually on-point:

In the two-ended spectrum of businesses, with one side being skeptical towards AI due to its possible implications on user experience and ethics, and the other side seeing AI as the ultimate solution for their CS systems, we need to meet in the middle. And the way to do that is by testing AI as we use it.

Björn Bauer
Director of Solution Engineering at Zendesk

Björn also adds a warning against underestimating AI's potential and advocates for a balanced approach, where AI is implemented and CS teams evolve alongside it: “CS agents need to remain and to scale to the role of supervisors. This way, they can leverage their experience and previous knowledge for strategic tasks while a bot can solve simple tickets.”

This evolution from CS reps to AI supervisors can be seen as a better way to fully leverage expert knowledge, but it also has a daunting backside: there’s usually more room for supervisors than for those working in the trenches, and this is manifested in recent tech layoffs such as Klarna’s.

📉 Frustration Is the Biggest Threat to CX (on Both Sides)

While at CCW, Axel Dittmann, the Chief Evangelist at Parloa, shared some statistics that paint a fairly grim picture of how frustrating customer experience can be on both sides:

  • 91% of customers have experienced poor customer service in the last 6 months.
  • CS agents dedicate up to 40% of their time to repetitive tasks.
  • 71% of agents have considered leaving their jobs.

He particularly highlighted one statistic:

70% of customers still prefer phone-based support, yet, over the last decade, they have systematically been deflected from calls to live chats or to emails, experiencing poor service with long wait times or unnecessarily complex processes that sometimes end up with an ‘Oh, sorry, I’m not the right specialist for this, I’ll re-route you’.

Axel Dittmann
Chief Evangelist at Parloa

Dittmann’s takeaway is clear: if you want the full spectrum of positive CX, which involves happy customers and happy agents, then you need to ensure quality phone-based support is an option and your CS team can benefit from AI as assistance for their work.

Image source: CCW

🧠  AI and Agents Won’t Be Mutually Exclusive in Digital Transformation

Sprinklr is a CX management platform that works with a contact center as a service (CCAAS). Paul Herman leads their digital transformation and solution engineering efforts.

Herman held a keynote that felt more like a fireside chat together with Stefan Gunziger, the CEO of Infinite CX. After reflecting on the fact that 70% of digital transformation projects fail to meet their goals, they shared how AI should be taken into account for that transformation:

In the digital service centers of the future, the new role of call center agents will be to train AI, bring empathy into the dialogue with customers, and take personalization to a much higher level.

Paul Herman
Senior VP, Global Digital Transformation at Sprinklr

🤝 Leverage Personalization To Make Users Feel Appreciated

Yoummday serves as a two-sided network that connects skilled freelance agents and brands that want to outsource their customer care, bringing a level-up in flexibility. 

This CS freelancer model turns traditional “brick-and-mortar contact centers” into environments that are more efficient for companies (because they can pay experts on a per-interaction basis) and more interesting for CS experts (because they normally have higher hourly rates).

Chris Hague, the Head of Brand at Yoummday, goes beyond the advantages of its model and touches on what CS teams will need to get right in 2024 and beyond: it’s not only implementing AI, or focusing on voice, but rather doubling down on personalization and more proactive outreach for customers:

Most companies lack proper interaction with their customers. Think of those phone companies that only get in touch with you to send a monthly billing email, instead of reaching out with insights or tips such as “Hey, we noticed you're barely using this function; you could save a few dollars by switching to this plan”. They could be much more proactive in making customers feel appreciated.

Chris Hague
Head of Brand at Yoummday

➡️ Closing Thoughts

Reflecting on our journey through CCW, it's clear the future of customer service isn't about choosing between technology and the human touch. It's about combining both in a framework that is customer-centric and CS-empowering. 

Every leader I interviewed agreed on what their shared challenge is, and it’s not just gaining efficiency and convenience with AI. 

The challenge, after they harness all the automation technology at hand, is ensuring it aligns customer experience with ethics, respects legal frameworks, fosters agent empowerment, and ultimately enriches the customer's journey.

These were the most interesting takeaways from my interviews with CX experts, but I’m constantly researching how to improve customer service with automation. If you were at CCW or want to share your thoughts with me, reach out on LinkedIn.

📖 READ: Customer Experience in 2024: 4 Key Priorities for the Year Ahead


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About the author
Luke Walker is the Product Marketing Manager at Next Matter. He is a longtime process hacker, and writes about marketing, business digitization, leadership, and work-life balance. When he's not at work, you can find him listening to records or climbing rocks.

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