The future of customer service

A tale of polar opposites

Low human-contact business models

We are all familiar with the ways digital technology is increasingly acting as a bridge for customer contact and information. This development is helping savvy businesses become gatekeepers of customer and vendors in private marketplaces. The business models of Uber and Airbnb are so lean in human contact yet are hugely popular and successful despite most of the customer service elements being delivered digitally. This kind of game-changer has been enabled by the uptake of smartphones and will accelerate as we acquire more devices that connect online. Mass market customer service plans will continue to include an important digital element since this makes huge financial sense for the organisation and when things go right most customers seem to like the convenience of digital transactions. Look at the Amazon experience and how popular this self service model has become.

Temporary pleasures

Into the next decade many Millennials (those born around 2000) will be in work. They are consumers who have only ever known digital ways of working. Studies on Millennial behaviours reveal that apart from being very comfortable with digitised customer service they are virtually immune to traditional advertising.

Millennials are highly mobile and many see rental of all services and assets their parents owned as inevitable. The rental of housing and vehicles is joined by all you can eat media services such as Spotify and Netflix as society enters this rental age in which Millennials are entering the job market.

The emerging Millennial trend observed more recently that there is an expectation of perfection when engaging with a brand or service. Such demanding consumers will help shape the customer service model of the future.

Rapid growth

By understanding this behaviour we begin to see how Airbnb and Uber have grown so fast. Both organisations use purely digital customer service models. This supports businesses constructed as marketplaces in which vendor and customer are able to rate one another. These are super-lean business models positioned at the extreme end of digital dependence. A disruptive approach to business now has its place in the corporate ecosystem.

Take an established industry - retail supermarkets - and we can see certain players successfully using this lean model of service combined with high value at low prices. Aldi is growing at 36% year on year as its larger competitors struggle, and is an excellent example where efficiency and quality with a no frills approach to service are working very well. This approach could be the blueprint for other retail experiences where digital technology in physical space will reduce the reliance on human assistance. This future coffee shop example from Japan demonstrates how retail business could work when emerging future technologies are here.

The future for many businesses will be decided by how well digital technology can equal or improve the customer service experience for individuals. Where staff are employed, the training and attention to detail will need to measure up to the exacting standards of Millennials.

Social Enterprise to inspire Millenial consumerism

Technology never destroys existing systems it only disrupts and this will be as true for customer service as any other area of life. The polar opposite of the ‘Aldi model’ will be an intensively good customer experience as personified in the John Lewis operational model. There will always be a need for a higher value model for a proportion of consumers that engages their every whim and pampers them. The continued success of John Lewis is part due to its customer service and products, but brand loyalty is also how it gives back to its staff and society. Another key driver for Millennials is supporting businesses that give back and don’t just take. The John Lewis approach chimes strongly with the belief systems of many Millennials and other groups of our society. Indeed many businesses built around social enterprise or co-operative principles will be very popular models for future organisations to adopt.

Planning for the future

The next decade will reveal a choice of polar opposites for service where any business in between will need to adapt their customer service offering to fit either the Aldi or John Lewis levels of engagement. This is a risky strategy with such savvy future consumers, and will be considered an average or poor approach to customer service. In a world of time-poor individuals seeking perfection in every brand engagement there won’t be a place for an ‘ok’ or ‘average’ level of service. Ruthless competition amongst the digitally heavy Uber, AirBnB and even Aldi level will remove all but the top flight customer service brands. The revolution is starting and it may be time to decide which way to build your customer experience while there is still time.

Mike Ryan is a futurist who writes for BrightHR and expresses his own opinion.
He can be contacted through twitter using @mikemanchester