The Great Balancing Act: 3 Key Takeaways from Service Summit 2023

Luke Walker
November 24, 2023

Our team just returned from Service Summit 2023 in Hamburg last week. To put it simply, we were highly impressed.

What struck us most, however, were not the prognostic tech overtures and unbridled futurism that the event program suggested. On the contrary, we noticed immediately the pragmatism and pure, customer-focused orientation of the panelists. 

That much came as a surprise, and this dichotomy – between automation, on the one hand, and a customer-first orientation on the other – was a central theme that played throughout the two-day summit.

“Der CS Spagat”: Finding a Balance Between Customer- and Tech-Focus

“In the near future, 99% of inbound requests will be automated.”

Tetyana Keyvan, Senior Account Executive at Zendesk

That statement – from Tetyana Keyvan, Senior Account Executive at Zendesk – wrapped up the Day 1 panel Complaint Management in Customer Service in incendiary fashion. It was one of the more memorable “mic drop” moments from the event that left many Customer Service leaders and tech enthusiasts on opposite sides of the aisle.

Keyvan’s statement was by no means out-of-place. Over 70% of the event’s presentations, panels, and masterclasses featured the words “AI”, “Bots”, “Automation” and/or “Machine” in the title. Even the event’s poster made a not-so-subtle reference to a robotic future in customer service.

But on this particular panel – and throughout the event itself – many CS leaders expressed strong skepticism regarding a “fully automated” future in customer service. Their opinion, in short: that’s not what good customer service is all about.

As an American-born citizen living in Germany, my experience of customer service in my adopted homeland has been questionable, to say the least, sufficient, to say the best, and plain awful, to say the worst. I believe that’s partly due to culture and personality differences, and partly due to my own expectations having grown up in a service- and gratuity-obsessed economy like America.

So naturally, I was intrigued to see CS leaders at the summit take positions that reflect a strong, customer-first mindset, look prospectively at technology, but never at the expense of customer experience. In spite of the digitization push from above, outside, and within, many leaders all over the DACH region are holding fast to the line of customer-led service.

This tension played out, over and over, throughout the event: How do you strike a balance between, providing excellent service that customers love while building automated experiences that increase efficiency, reduce costs, and satisfy modern CX expectations?

With that in mind, here are our 3 key takeaways from Service Summit 2023.

1. Everything Automated with Chatbots & AI? Not quite

“The biggest enemy of a chatbot is a great customer service hotline.” 

Torsten Elsner, Head of Global Service & Support at Schwarz IT KG

By the conclusion of the Service Summit program, “voice bots”, “chatbots”, “machine learning”, and “generative AI” had all taken the mainstage, surrounded by an expo of CRM, chatbot, and other automation vendors purporting similar use cases.

Many customer success leaders and panelists however, maintained a pragmatic approach in spite of the tech litany. Torsten Elsner, Head of Service & Support for Schwarz IT (the tech & support services behind Lidl, Kaufland and others), was one of several panelists to express that “the best customer channel is the one they love most” – meaning, for chatbots to succeed, they need to enable your best performing channel, not replace it.

That could mean using an AI-powered chatbot for customers to access the knowledge base like“Miley” - the chatbot created by Anna Jucikas, Product Manager for Miles Mobility. Or alternatively Felix Olms, Head of Service Operations & Service IT at congstar suggested using language learning models and internal chatbots to help frontline service reps access the right knowledge and respond to inbound queries fast, instead of “shoving inbound customers into a chatbot”.

Whatever the chosen application, the takeaway was clear: technology is a tool to improve customer service, not replace it. AI is still incapable of reasoning and empathizing at the level of a human personal customer service experience. For escalations, denials of coverage, and many, many more service cases, a “human touch” is still required.

“You can’t digitize passion,” says Pierre Hartmann, Head of Customer Sales & Service at s.Oliver Group. “Involve people, speak to customers and ask employees before digital actionism kicks in.”

2. Shifting CX Expectations and Self-Service 

“The happiest customer is the one who doesn’t contact you.”

Julia Sötje & Timo Sievers, Freenet AG Customer Service Leaders

So, if a human touch remains a critical variable in good customer service, what factors continue to push for greater digitization in customer service? Why justify the investment, if your customers won’t see the benefit?

To answer that question, we looked at the critical role of automation in volume management, workflow/process optimization, and knowledge access. A self-service portal is one, prime example of technology that can facilitate a more efficient customer service workflow, while reducing volume and sharing knowledge at the same time.

"By enabling customers with self-serve," continues Pierre Hartmann, "we're reducing overall CS volume, so it doesn't have to be optimized in the first place." According to many panelists and experts, self-service tools are a fairly "low-hanging fruit" for ticking multiple "good" service boxes in 2023. In reality, the advice seemed to ring true - I certainly won’t be forgetting the best self-service option made into reality. A delicious example made by way of a donut self-service stand by Zendesk at the event. A cute showcase of how the concept of self-serve connects with people on a whole new level by pleasing people's taste buds along with their support needs mid-exhausting conference.

But now I’ll digress back to the facts, which reflect the anecdotes; customer expectations are steeply rising, and self-service has become the preferred experience for an entirely new generation of customers according to the research. For many, a customer service chat or phone call constitutes an unnecessary barrier to resolving an issue they could potentially resolve themselves.

Freenet AG Customer Service Leaders Julia Sötje & Timo Sievers understood this principle when they hypothesized that their best and happiest customers were those who did not contact their customer service department. Building on that assumption, they sought to reduce total customer contact with a two-part strategy of business process outsourcing and heavy investment in process optimization, app development, and online service portals. The results have been remarkably positive.

Viewed in this light, the promise of emerging CS tech shines much brighter, provided the application represents a surgical incision in the customer service workflow: precise, timely, and inflicting as little pain on the customer as possible. 

“We don’t need more customer service experts,” according to Felix Seidel, Service, Sales, and Projects Lead at W&W Gruppe. What we need is to embrace the role of technology in enabling experts to do the work they're trained to do and automate the less complex manual work that eats up their time.

3. Deep-Dive Analyses & Incremental Changes for Process Optimization

"Not every change is an improvement – but before every improvement there was a change"

Rico Guadagnato, Director of Customer Service at Home24 SE
(by way of Winston Churchill) 

Which leads us to the hardest truth revealed at Service Summit 2023: that the real work of making customer service better doesn’t have anything to do with technology.

Take the example of customer onboarding. The real work of creating a better onboarding experience comes from the intentional mapping, understanding and scrutinizing of your current process, and the subsequent hypotheses, tests, and incremental changes that may or may not lead to improvements. It isn’t glamorous work, and it doesn’t make for great PR either – but for most of the CS leaders and panelists we heard from, this is how the job is done.

Take Ronny Rodschnika, Senior Customer Integration Manager DACH & High Growth Markets at Kellogg’s Northern Europe for example. Ronny’s team invested in process mining tools to help with the ‘mind mapping’ of customer order processes to understand what’s working and what’s not at a granular level. For Ronny, building the ‘happy flow’ of a customer experience is an iterative process, complete with inspiration, technology, trial, and error.

“We can learn a lot from E-Commerce,” said Ronny, echoing a deep understanding of order & delivery processes, while gladly taking cues from other industries.

Other experts like Katrin Zech, Team Lead Process & Project for CS at Hilti, and Paul van Doorne, Global Head of Operations, Service and Business IT at E.ON, emphasized clear ambitions to improve service experiences and efficiency through greater standardization of processes across operational markets. 

Whether it’s process automation for having building material delivered faster or charging a Swiss-registered car at a charging station in Denmark, the case remains the same – a deep understanding of the current process and a clear view of the ideal state (or “happy flow”) is required, before the question of the “how” – AKA technology – can be addressed.

Closing Thoughts

Whether you stand on the side of technologists or the tech skeptics, the truth clearly emerges somewhere in the middle. Will the robotic hand of customer service automation be flying forward to serve the majority of customers in Germany soon? Probably, but only partially.. 

But that doesn’t mean that customer service experts aren’t working hard to craft better customer experiences – and they’re leveraging technology to do so. Most importantly, they’re preserving service-orientation, and a customer-first mindset along the way. Customer Service technology is a better means to an end – not an end in itself.

Returning back to my initial impressions of customer service in Germany, I left Service Summit 2023 in the cold, windy Hamburg rain with a new perspective: America might have had a headstart on the customer service game before, but the experts here in Germany are working on it, and catching up fast.

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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