Do today’s customer communication patterns give us answers for the future? Andrew Herd, Chief Digital and Information Officer at Adare SEC, discusses a new survey on customer comms.

The ongoing legacy of the pandemic, the cost-of-living crisis, a sharper focus on environmental challenges – all of these factors combine to create today’s unique social and economic climate. This is the current backdrop to any decisions made by UK consumers, and the strategies businesses use to communicate during this time require very careful thought and management.

Of course, managing customer communications can never be a once-and- done exercise. The playing field changes so rapidly, and consumer expectations are constantly shifting as new technologies and techniques take hold. So, what are these expectations right now? And can they tell us anything about how business will be communicating in the future?

Adare SEC recently conducted research amongst 2,000 UK consumers to get the very latest barometer reading on attitudes towards business communications. The responses paint a picture of a consumer audience demanding choice and control, with environmental considerations very much to the fore.

Voice of the consumer today

Amongst the headline findings to emerge, one statistic left absolutely no room for doubt: 80% of consumers revealed that they are less tolerant of poor customer service than ever before. How capably a business communicates is a key element of the customer experience, and organisations are tasked with ensuring communications meet these sky-high consumer expectations.

The challenge of doing so is compounded by another key finding. Consumers were asked to agree or disagree with the following statement:

‘In 3 years’ time, I expect to be using a different channel of communication for enquiries with organisations’.

52% of respondents agreed, raising huge questions about the ability of supplier-side systems to keep pace.

Consumers were also asked about channel preferences – specifically the channel they want to turn to when an urgent response is required from a business. Here, despite all the recent developments in digital chat and other customer service apps and tools, the most favoured channel (40% of consumers) was the phone. Thinking to the future, it is this result — the reliance on the phone and human interaction — which perhaps carries the most significance.

Social media and channel choice

Plotting how communications will look in the future is no easy task. One might start by examining the digital platforms that are most popular today. Here, social media and online channels are the clear winners. Facebook leads the pack with some 2.9bn monthly users, followed by YouTube (2.5bn monthly), through to relative newcomers such as TikTok at 1bn monthly users. If businesses are thinking strategically, surely it would make sense to somehow target these platforms with their vast captive audiences? However, the reality is that people use these channels for a variety of purposes, such as entertainment and distraction, rather than solely for communication. Equally, the demographic make-up of the audience may not be a good fit.

Looking at the communication challenge from a more practical perspective brings us back to the survey results and the evergreen appreciation of the phone. Put simply, as humans we like to talk – we enjoy conversation. Why does the phone persist? Because we haven’t really tackled the interactive nature of conversation through any other channel. Equally, the phone provides an immediate response at a time when nobody wants to wait for anything. Instant answers and resolutions are expected and, compared to the phone, all other channels lag. Live chat services are increasingly visible, but are these used more out of necessity than desire, when no option for voice interaction is available?

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Despite this, email remains hugely prevalent – but for how long? Recent reports in publications such as The New York Times have questioned email’s longevity as a communication channel of choice. The argument goes that Generation Z (born between 1997 and 2012), a generation raised on social media and instant messaging, prefers almost any other communication channel to email. Given email’s well-established position as a vital channel for business, however, dissenters may not always get the choices they prefer.

Then there is the growing preference towards self-serve options, which have fantastic potential; how satisfying to be able to solve your own queries and issues without having to rely on remote supplier contact. The challenge lies in ensuring these portals are slick and seamless, which requires businesses to avoid departmental siloes in order to ensure the information presented to each individual is up-to-date and accurate.

Vision for the future

Bearing all of the above in mind, the challenge for businesses is discovering how to leverage the huge captive audience that consumes social media whilst recognising the communication channels that are still relevant for today and the near future. Inevitably, there is a degree of synergy between the two, and there is much to learn from social media user trends and how these might be applied to everyday communication channels. But in a world of ever increasing channel choice, the delivery of a more curated, personalised experience which avoids clutter, waste and over/under communication requires careful thought and planning.

There are many expert opinions on the future of this challenge but one growing area of interest is AI in contact centres. It’s not a major stretch to imagine a time where consumers can choose to deal with a personalised contact centre agent, selecting the voice, personality and more. This instantly accessed automated professional will be able to interrogate the customer’s entire history of interaction in the blink of an eye, expediting decisions and resolving queries in a way that is hugely efficient and cost-effective to the business.

Ultimately, with so many options for communications available and so many more being introduced, understanding customer journeys and preferences whilst retaining operational flexibility will be key. Many organisations have taken the first step to modernising communication by moving from paper to email. However, to truly understand the right channel for their customers it’s important for organisations to deeply understand the ebb and flow of communication within an interaction journey and to ascertain whether the chosen channel is fit for purpose. Looking further ahead, there is no doubt that other channels will increasingly replicate the interaction and immediacy of the phone – a must if these channels are to truly fly as customer service tools. The path towards fully personalised service assistants may seem a long one, but it is perhaps closer than we think.