6 minute read 15 Mar 2021
Customer ordering food social distancing

Why the future of customer service lies in enterprise value

By Barbara Porter

Managing Director, Power & Utilities, Ernst & Young LLP

Progressive customer experience leader. Entrepreneur. Driver of innovation, engagement and results. Avid reader. Enjoys running and spending time with family and friends.

6 minute read 15 Mar 2021

Each interaction is an opportunity. New technologies and strategies enable ways to strengthen relationships and help achieve business goals.

In brief:

  • Cost and efficiency remain important. And as customers grow more demanding, excellent service stands out as a differentiator and a source of value.
  • Artificial intelligence, machine learning and data analysis equip your agents to deliver better outcomes, and enable greater customer self-service options.

The COVID-19 pandemic upended what customers want to buy and how they want to buy it, with profound and long-lasting implications for how businesses continue to fulfill their service needs, especially in a complex set of physical and digital experience. Addressing the shifting dynamics in the market is an opportunity to reimagine customer service: not as a cost to minimize but as a driver of revenue and value to maximize.

Recent trends are accelerating: customers want assistance on their schedule instead of yours, or self-service to avoid interactions altogether. They increasingly expect functionality and communication across their devices. To garner and hold their attention, they also need to be treated as an individual, with relevant personalized information. And they demand transparency that demonstrates trust — for example, through price comparisons that clearly convey the value received. 

Meeting these expectations is the defining responsibility of customer service leaders. But how can you address so much complexity in the market, across different channels and customer types, and deliver innovation and value creation in the process? How do you even begin to imagine the possibilities and path — and do you even know the right path to take?

A continuum for understanding and reimagining customer service

Chart of Societal norms disruption — pandemic

Sometimes understanding where you aren’t helps you understand where you are. By looking at today’s customer service expectations (and subsequent delivery functions) on this continuum, you can see where you are on the journey of the possible. Many industries find themselves at the early stages: a traditional service approach that is reactive, centered around efficiently responding to calls and other customer-initiated interactions. 

While everyone appreciates efficient issue resolution, a company’s brand and customer service promise likely demand more than that. Yet metrics are defined around speed of resolution, revealing a mindset focused on minimizing interactions and the time spent addressing them — and therefore costs. Greater understanding, insight and value lie in informing the customer about an opportunity, validating a past decision or simply acknowledging a trust-based aspect of the relationship.

Technologies such as chatbots and improved experience design can serve as cost-effective solutions. But better use of data analytics and artificial intelligence can add another dimension, enabling agent interactions that are efficient and anticipatory instead of reactive — promoting solutions rather than merely resolving problems. Here’s what to consider.

Pandemic accelerates technology investments and progress along the continuum 

As the pandemic began, many customer organizations struggled to shift agents into working virtually. Enterprises have now renewed their focus on service and accelerated technology investments to move through the continuum faster and realize value creation and innovation. 

Technology systems are only as smart as the information that is put into them. And patchwork approaches have not delivered the benefits that many businesses anticipated, including providing agents with a complete picture of the customer when it’s needed. 

Today’s solutions can integrate different systems into a uniform and easy-to-use interface, including the full journey of customer interactions. Agent augmentation technologies, such as ASAPP , can “listen” to both voice and text conversations in real time to understand customer intent and context, and quickly surface relevant process steps or knowledge-based articles so that agents quickly and accurately complete complex tasks. And automation technologies such as UI Path and Blue Prism can help companies build bridges between legacy systems to reduce manual workarounds and improve agent access to needed information.

Becoming more predictive and data-driven is a must for all sectors — for instance, in health care, information is increasingly used to help customers to adjust their diets and behaviors before minor problems become larger. In utilities, data can be used to offer tips to customers on lowering their energy usage if it’s higher than typical, or payments behaviors can indicate when to share links to budget billing and payment options before a customer falls into arrears. Many such possibilities exist within customer service, but companies need to both capture customer data and do correlations, which requires investment. Possibilities include: 

  • Machine learning can identify the interactions and procedures that produce the best customer outcomes over time (as defined within each business) and prompt agents to act based on those learnings. Every agent can therefore perform at the best level.  
  • Artificial intelligence (AI) can monitor social media for specific complaints to alert call centers about a potential spike in call volumes. For example, it can signal the need to include a recorded message at the beginning of calls about system downtime. 
  • Predictive call analysis can identify call drivers to help improve customer voice self-service, reduce internal transfer rates and decrease customer churn. 
  • Technology also enables the 24/7 service that customers increasingly expect, through AI-powered chatbots that at least offer guidance after hours or that can accelerate resolution times when a human agent gets involved.

Metrics reflect and validate when a new service experience is delivered 

Productivity and quality metrics are historically part of all service organizations. To transform customer service into value centers instead of cost centers, new outcome-based metrics are needed to align agent behaviors to deliver your defined customer experience. 

In the continuum, you can see how metrics evolve from a focus on cost and productivity to lifetime value, loyalty and sentiment, measuring the service experience and product engagement. How customers feel about your brand is determined by each interaction, on the phone, digitally and socially.

Instead of average handling times to serve a customer, look at the experience customers have with each interaction using first-person resolution (FPR), revenue per call or the number of services per customer. Efficiency will always be important, but let’s consider the value that an extra minute can drive to deepen loyalty. Sentiment analysis, as performed with AI, can also indicate whether a call is running longer than typical not only because of a dispute but because services are being offered and a relationship is being strengthened. 

Finally, think about how you will align metrics per channel — for instance, through digital self-service. You can measure how many people adopt your mobile app, the time they spend using it, how many clicks it takes to find a resolution, and levels of product churn or incremental adoption.

The pandemic’s universal impact on customers, employees and performance  

Regardless of service expectations and delivery goals shown in the continuum, all employees and your customers are living in a new reality caused by COVID-19. The step change in remote working has turned the typical call center into a virtual collection of at-home workers enabled with laptops or mobile workstations. 

New talent strategies and real estate priorities should be revisited for a mix that makes sense based on what your customers demand and what your workforce prefers. Does it make financial sense to bring them back to one location — or have hybrid at-home and in-person staffing based upon your workforce preference? Should your call center be based in a different location — or, with a remote-enabled workforce, no specific location? Should you pivot from an offshore hub to onshore, with gig workers? If location is less of a factor, how does that affect whom you really want to hire and where? And what do these changes mean for work/life balance? 

Retail stores should also revisit customer experiences. Whether these spaces “return to normal” is unknown — but the pandemic has offered opportunities to re-envision and reoptimize service in modern, technology-driven ways that are more aligned with customer and employee needs.   

For those whose jobs can be performed at home (or elsewhere), many companies may find that they don’t have centralized coaching for agents to learn from their peers and learn the next best product to offer. Help and support must come from technology — through engaging AI and machine learning technologies that augment agent performance, as well as web learning, videoconferencing and other means that facilitate human interaction and a team atmosphere.


The pandemic has turned many companies upside-down — shattering the norms of how work is done, where to meet customers and what they want to buy, and how best to remain connected to them even while keeping a social distance. But within these challenges are profound opportunities for repositioning with the future of service — and value — in mind.

About this article

By Barbara Porter

Managing Director, Power & Utilities, Ernst & Young LLP

Progressive customer experience leader. Entrepreneur. Driver of innovation, engagement and results. Avid reader. Enjoys running and spending time with family and friends.