Opinion

Will customer service teams need a strategy to manage loneliness?

By 2026, 75% of customers who call customer service and support organisations will do so out of loneliness, not because they have a customer service issue, according to Gartner.

“Lonely customers looking to fulfil their interpersonal needs through service organisations are unlikely to use self-service to resolve their issues, regardless of how well-designed the functionality is,” says Emily Potosky, senior research principal in the Gartner customer service and support practice.

Gartner research shows this trend will also impact customer service agents. For example, agents may experience longer handle times as a result of customers trying to socialise, impacting organisations’ coaching and performance management efforts.

Additionally, dealing with emotional customers is challenging and could lead to reduced agent well-being.

Gartner predicts that by 2024 the top cited reason customer service agents leave the service organisation will be the unofficial emotional effort they need to perform with customers outside their official job duties.

At first glance, these seem strange predictions. Are people really calling customer service teams out of loneliness? The Customer Contact Association (CCA) believes that these numbers really are on the increase – along with the complexity of the questions being asked. Ann-Marie Forsyth, the Chief Executive of the CCA stated:

“Just about every brand in the CCA network has reported a significant increase in the degree of complexity of calls. At times callers are presenting a need to chat and there have been instances where callers are suicidal. Calls are statistically proving to be much longer, preventing a real challenge to organisations struggling to recruit experienced workers, also leading to frustration and pent up anger by customers who are forced to wait for longer periods than usual.”

I believe there are several factors at play here, but the bottom line is that your recruitment profile for contact centre agents almost certainly needs to change. Customer engagement is switching focus from transactional to relational interactions.

Here are the key reasons why this is happening.

  1. Self-service is improving: when a customer has a problem they automatically turn to Google or their smart assistant first. It’s now entirely normal to ‘ask Alexa’ how to setup a new TV or reset a device. This first line of support is often all that is needed, especially if brands deliberately upload the answer to common problems in easy to find locations – such as explainer videos on YouTube.
  2. Automation is improving: customers arriving at the help page on a website or app are likely to find that a chatbot can answer many basic questions or queries – such as asking a courier company ‘where is my package now?’
  3. Customer service is no longer just about complaints: the transactional nature of customer service has evolved. Customers are no longer just calling with complaints. Smart brands are building connections to potential customers long before they ever make a purchase and then maintaining a strong connection to existing customers. Designing a customer service strategy today is all about planning how to interact with the customer over a period of 50 years – not a single phone call.

Agents in the contact centre need to know their subject area in more detail than ever before. When a customer does connect directly to a human agent, it will often be because they could not find an answer from Google.

This naturally means that the questions will be longer, more detailed, and complex, and interactions will not always be focused on a specific product or question. If you ask any major auto brand about their vehicles on a social network, it is almost certain they will respond with the requested information – even if you are just a teenage car enthusiast.

As brands facilitate this relationship-building aspect of the customer service process it is likely that many individuals will engage in conversation that is not at all focused on a transaction. A lonely classic car enthusiast may engage VW in conversation about classic Beetles, or an aircraft fan may talk to several airlines and aircraft manufacturers about the relative merits of different jets.

Managing consumer loneliness sounds like just one more cost that businesses will need to plan for, but I believe that there could be an opportunity here. Imagine you are that teenage car enthusiast engaging various auto brands in conversation. When you are old enough to buy a vehicle, will you opt for the VW – because they always replied to your questions about classic 1960s VW cars – or the rival brand that ignored you?

Designing a modern customer service strategy is all about building a long-lasting relationship with consumers – and that is certainly going to include answering questions when they are lonely.

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