Customer Service in the All-Digital, Work-from-Anywhere World

In times of global crisis, no industry is left unaffected. Many are forced to establish entirely new infrastructures and ways of work seemingly overnight. During this time, service organizations play an integral role in preserving norms, the delivery of essential goods and services, and the maintenance of our critical infrastructure. To meet these new demands and protect against potential pitfalls that accompany rapid upheavals, service organizations need to establish processes that empower their workers (customer service agents, dispatchers, and field service technicians alike) and heighten operational efficiency. We've seen companies do this by enabling service teams to work from anywhere and scaling customer service with artificial intelligence.

With that said, these priorities and initiatives are not entirely new to service organizations. There has been a long-term effort toward providing service agents with the tools to help deliver the most efficient and accurate service to customers. COVID-19 has simply accelerated this, bringing these capabilities from a mere point of differentiation to a crucial necessity for survival.

Building a Remote Service Infrastructure

Like most industries, COVID-19 forced service organizations to shift to an entirely-remote workforce overnight, and there was very little margin for error when making this transition. Such a drastic change can be a truly daunting task for some service organizations, as many had been reliant on outdated, archaic infrastructure. Transitions, for the most part, have been seamless and smooth. Our research shows that of all workers who have been moved to remote environments, an overwhelming 86 percent of workers claim that their productivity levels have been good or above (with 37 percent labeling productivity as excellent).

For example, Standard Life UK was tasked with building such an infrastructure from an outdated system that was not designed for remote work. With Salesforce, Standard Life UK was able to establish a new, entirely-digital infrastructure and train its staff to become digitally native, and the organization now services its customers through a next-gen online contact center.

Beyond the infrastructure hurdles that need to be overcome, there are instances where workers need to learn how to use new technologies to complete their day-to-day tasks and potentially even shift their roles and responsibilities entirely. Our research shows that nearly a third (31 percent) of employees are using new technologies and applications for the first time since moving to remote work environments. AAA Carolinas is a great example: The company was able to temporarily restructure job roles for 228 of its employees in just five days, training and deploying them to execute on a new member outreach program using Service Cloud. Through this program, these retrained employees conducted more than 25,000 hyper-personalized member calls in just one week, and a whopping 80 percent of members contacted expressed genuine appreciation for the initiative.

Bringing AI to Its Full Potential

With the potential for sudden demand spikes, access to real-time data and the ability to lean on AI is absolutely crucial to operational efficiency. Service agents have been adopting AI at a steady rate for quite some time, but COVID-19 fast tracked AI innovation in more ways than one.

With an influx of service requests across industries, AI-driven automation provides a safety net for service agents tasked with meeting this rising volume. The ability to immediately understand details, like a customer's biographical info, call history, and past purchases, helps service agents best understand that customer's needs during any given interaction. Powerful AI can actually recommend which actions service agents should take, serve up the answers to customer queries, and automatically transcribe voice calls into text, helping the agent best serve the customer and sift through reams of data to find the best answer.

AI-driven chatbots can automate customer interactions to help meet the growing volume of customer requests, which allows service agents to focus on more complex issues. Through our research at Salesforce, we saw a significant uptick in chatbot sessions since the start of the COVID-19 crisis. From Feb. 26 through the end of April, we saw a 115 percent increase in weekly chatbot sessions. We're seeing this trend firsthand among several of our customers, like meal delivery service Sun Basket, which was able to use Service Cloud and Einstein bots to automate a significant portion of its increased customer service demand when COVID-19 first hit.

AI can have an impact beyond the contact center as well. Field service agents are on the front lines, helping maintain critical infrastructure and meeting customer service needs. AI-driven service and self-service capabilities can help eliminate unnecessary in-person visits, which is especially important during times of crisis to make sure that technician and customer safety is upheld. AI can also determine field service technician availability, understanding where agents are at any given time and prioritizing and scheduling service repairs in times of increased demand.

Again, these developments and initiatives are not entirely new concepts to the service industry, but have accelerated to meet immediate demand. The exciting part now is seeing how these newly built remote and digital infrastructures will inspire future innovation. Service agents now have access to increasingly intelligent tools that are being integrated at each point of the customer service journey, and AI is driving large-scale service automation from the contact center to the field. These capabilities will only become smarter and more integrated with each other; and while it's uncertain what the new normal will look like after COVID-19, the ceiling for customer satisfaction and operational efficiency will only continue to rise.

Mark Abramowitz is senior vice president of product marketing for Salesforce Service Cloud.