Digital-First Customer Service Gains Momentum in a Post-Pandemic World

Customers expect more from customer service organizations. They expect that their time will be valued; that any desired information or service is available on any device, at their very moment of need, and delivered in a highly personal manner, in the context of their actions and journey. Forrester data finds that 66 percent of U.S. online adults identify valuing their time as the most important thing companies can do to provide them with good customer service.

Customers use self-service as a first point of contact with companies and turn to digital agent-assisted service to increasingly resolve issues and get answers to questions. In the 2019 CX Benchmarking Report by Dimension Data (now NTT), 88 percent of contact center decision makers predicted self-service volumes will increase in the next 12 months; 77 percent predicted that digital agent-assisted volumes will increase.

The COVID-19 pandemic has accelerated these trends as companies look to move phone inquiries to more automated and digital channels. This is because since the first days of the pandemic, companies continue to report wait times that are often hours-long for customers waiting in queue to connect with agents. This friction only amplifies the emotional state of customers who are already likely to be anxious or angry.

The following two trends are noteworthy as digital engagement increases:

  1. Asynchronous messaging gains traction. These are interactions over channels like Facebook Messenger, WhatsApp, Apple Business Chat, or SMS to name a few. Why? Messaging offers great customer experiences, allowing customers to move across channels and touchpoints and carry the conversation forward without having to repeat themselves. It's a rich experience that supports images and video. It's contextual to the customers' actions and journeys. It also makes customer service operations more effective as they do not have to staff agents to the precise peaks and valleys of engagement.
  2. Artificial intelligence and automation become foundational to customer service. These technologies power chatbot conversations, automated answers, and self-service processes; removeagents from repetitive interactions; and intelligently route work to the most suitable agents so that customer service organizations can keep up with ballooning volumes of customer interactions without adding headcount.

There is no single customer service solution that serves all sizes of organizations, industries, or business models. For example, many B2B companies have long-running customer service processes that involve many stakeholders and that require collaboration between account holders and the customer service organization. Contrast that with retail commerce, which is more transactionally focused, where customer service interactions are typically simpler and more repetitive.

Forrester sees two categories of customer service solutions emerging: traditional customer service solutions and digital-first customer service solutions. Typical characteristics of these solutions are as follows:


Traditional Customer service solution

Digital-first customer service solution

Engagement type



Inquiry volume

Lower volume

Higher volume

Inquiry type

Typically more complex

Lower complexity (one-and-done)


Account or household


Customer value

Higher price point products

Lower price point products

Agent collaboration

Often needed

Seldom needed

Channel use

Phone, email

Self-service, digital channels

Digital-first customer service solutions support automated and agent-assisted customer interactions over a range of digital channels. They can be used by themselves or with traditional customer service products to add digital channels to their offerings. Some vendors specialize in customer service over a few channels, such as social customer service or asynchronous messaging; others specialize in a range of synchronous digital channels, like chat, video and cobrowsing; and others offer a broad footprint of digital channels, including digital voice.

Kate Leggett is a vice president and principal analyst at Forrester Research.