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Customer Service Is the Profit Center of the Future

Technology, empathy, and culture are transforming customer-agent interactions into new revenue gains.

By Mark Osborn, Cindy Waxer | 9 min read

Contact centers were never more important – or more under the gun – than when COVID-19 brought the world to a grinding halt. “March of 2020 stopped us in our tracks,” recalls Jeremy Hyde, director of customer service for Sun Country Airlines. Desperate calls from panic-stricken travelers flooded the airline’s customer service center, while social distancing measures forced many of its employees to work from home without the infrastructure or support of an office setting.


Sun Country Airlines’ customer service agents weren’t the only ones experiencing turbulence. Overall, contact centers had 300% more calls than usual during the early stages of the pandemic. Average handle time skyrocketed from an average of 3 to 6 minutes to more than 10 minutes, creating a cadre of frustrated and angry customers. And about 90% of global contact center agents were forced to work remotely to meet stringent social distancing mandates.


Nearly two years later, the acute challenges of the pandemic are subsiding, creating space for new opportunities and a reimagined corporate mandate. Forget about drastic cost-cutting measures and meeting age-old success metrics. Rather, COVID-19 has taught organizations valuable lessons about the critical need to embrace sophisticated technologies, experiment with new customer care models, and design customer experience strategies that drive growth and profitability. According to research firm Gartner, “40% of customer service organizations will transform into profit centers by becoming de facto leaders in digital customer engagement.”




AI as a customer experience influencer

Currently driving the contact center’s transformation into a revenue generator are artificial intelligence (AI)-powered tools, such as chatbots, which can simulate human-like conversations with customers through chat messages.


An example is Erica, Bank of America’s virtual financial assistant. Using a combination of predictive analytics and natural language processing, Erica helps the bank’s mobile app users pay bills on time, review past transactions, check account balances, and receive personalized, proactive insights and guidance. These capabilities not only help improve customers’ financial health but also provide a fast and efficient alternative to waiting lengthy periods of time to speak with a human agent or visit a brick-and-mortar branch.


Conversational AI

The more we use chatbots and digital assistants, the smarter they’ll become.

Agents also benefit from chatbots: by translating complex financial concepts into conversational language, Erica handles routine queries while freeing up agents to focus on more pressing issues. AI-enabled chatbots are expected handle 20% of all customer service requests by 2022.


Another innovative use of AI in customer care is sentiment analysis – a market that is expected to reach US$6 billion by 2023, according to a Market Research Future report. And for good reason: by using algorithms to evaluate customer conversations, sentiment analytics tools can detect phrases or tones that may indicate a customer’s increasing frustration during an interaction. By analyzing sentiments associated with certain phrases, organizations can make changes to contact center scripts to avoid unnecessary friction. Conversely, sentiment analytics can flag wording in an interaction, such as a mention of a company’s favorable return policy, that may signal an opportune time to upsell or cross-sell products and services.

All good customer interaction and experiences are really centered around what the human can provide to the process.

- Colin Taylor, CEO of The Taylor Reach Group

To support safer on-site experiences by social distancing, video banking at automated teller machines (ATMs) is also gaining traction as a viable alternative to in-person customer care. At Tampa Bay Federal Credit Union (FCU), for example, interactive ATMs allow customers to interact with a live agent without having to go inside a branch and wait to speak with a teller. This way, Tampa Bay FCU can continue to build strong relationships with its clients while facilitating faster transactions and extended banking hours.


“I don’t think video banking is applicable for every instance of customer service, but when there’s an advantage to having a visual connection, it can be very successful,” says Colin Taylor, CEO of The Taylor Reach Group, a customer service consultancy.




The importance of a human touch

But technology is only part of the customer care equation. Organizations also must strike the right balance between supporting agents with digital solutions and addressing more complex and personal issues with human empathy and understanding.


“All good customer interaction and experiences are really centered around what the human can provide to the process,” says Taylor. “The technology can support them and be an extension of them, but it’s got to be architected or orchestrated by a human being. People want to deal with people; they don’t really want to deal with machines.”


Annette Franz, CEO of CX Journey, a customer experience consultancy, agrees. “Digital experience is less about digital and more about people,” Franz says. “Digital transformation is about meeting the needs of the connected customer and changing your processes to do so. But companies must keep in mind that the more technologically advanced they become, the more people want that human interaction. There’s a lot of fear that AI and automation will take the ‘human’ out of everything. Digital is great, but one of the things we learned last year was that we still need social and human interactions, too.”


However, good interactions with human representatives hinge on their agency to empathize, understand, and respond to customers’ problems. Today’s customers are savvy enough to know the difference between an authentic interaction and a purely scripted one – so agents must have the autonomy to act on their instincts and make critical decisions on the fly.


The Business of Returning Things 

Your returns process could be a secret weapon for winning customer experiences. 

This is the key difference between cost-focused and customer-focused organizations, says Jeff Toister, author of Getting Service Right: Overcoming the Hidden Obstacles to Outstanding Customer Service and founder of Toister Performance Solutions. “In a cost-focused company, an agent might be severely restricted in terms of what they’re able to do,” he explains.


“Even in a situation with a clear and obvious error, they’re not empowered to resolve it. In a customer-focused organization, however, that agent has been empowered to not only fix obvious errors but to act in areas that aren’t so clear and obvious.”


Toister points to an encounter with Chewy, an online retailer of pet food and pet-related products. After receiving a shipment of dog food shortly after his dog passed away, Toister says he contacted Chewy’s contact center for support. “A cost-focused company would say, ‘Here’s the return process and here’s how I’ll make you jump through these hoops.’ Instead, the Chewy agent encouraged me to donate the food to a local shelter.”


For some organizations, empowering agents to make in-the-moment recommendations requires a loosening of strict policies and procedures while granting agents permission “to deviate from the script when it’s warranted,” according to Toister. “A combination of processes, authority, and resources empowers agents to make customer-focused decisions.”




A question of culture

But culture can also play a role in extending an agent’s powers. Just ask Steffanie Wilk, professor of management and human resources at the Fisher College of Business, Ohio State University. Wilk says an agent’s powers are determined by “the way the job of [an agent] is structured – with autonomy and control – and the voice they have in terms of their role.”


For instance, organizations that attach little value to the role of contact center agent often deploy complex technologies that fail to properly consider the impact they’ll have on an agent’s day-to-day activities. This indifference can lead to a variety of problems, including poor digital adoption and high agent turnover.


Wilk says, “I can’t tell you the number of times technology has been rolled out to agents with very little input” into the functionality and features they need to do their job well. Rather, companies that aim to empower their agents “involve people on the frontlines, which is a really meaningful way to hear what changes should be made” when it comes to both deploying technology and creating positive customer experiences.





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Empower employees and customers alike

Many organizations are discovering the correlation between employee experience and customer experience. Studies show that companies whose employees are more engaged are more likely to excel at customer experience and drive sustainable growth. That’s not always easy, especially in industries hard-hit by the pandemic. Just ask Hyde of Sun Country Airlines. “The pandemic has been hard on so many people,” he says. “We try to help our team members stay grounded because they’re dealing with some challenging conversations – it’s important that we don’t lose sight of what our agents are going through.”


One way that Sun Country Airlines supports its agents is by providing them with easy access to up-to-date information on everything from refund policies to airline safety requirements. Rather than “pull people into meetings,” Hyde says, an internal knowledge base provides agents with critical information “in real time, even as things change.” This significantly enhances an agent’s ability to provide customers with timely and accurate information.


Self-service is another key trend helping to redefine customer care. In the case of Sun Country Airlines, Hyde says, “We focused on how we could get information to customers without having to rely on one-on-one interactions.” One solution: send customers personalized emails advising them on everything from pandemic-related travel restrictions to vaccine requirements, based on their unique travel itineraries.

Customers are very happy to use self-service for simple transactions. But they’re even more likely to experiment with self-service if they know finding a real person is just a simple click away.

- Jeff Toister, author of Getting Service Right: Overcoming the Hidden Obstacles to Outstanding Customer Service and founder of Toister Performance Solutions

But self-service isn’t about leaving customers to their own devices. The best experience is one in which companies strike the right balance between enabling customers to help themselves and letting them know where to turn for additional assistance. Says Toister, “Customers are very happy to use self-service for simple transactions. But they’re even more likely to experiment with self-service if they know finding a real person is just a simple click away.”




Getting it right regardless of preference

In response to this demand for seamless transitions across channels, many companies are turning to a new and innovative contact strategy known as right-channeling. According to a Deloitte Digital survey, 36% of leaders say that despite the ongoing proliferation of service channels, customers primarily rely on the phone, one of the costliest – and most frustrating – ways for agents to connect with customers. Right-channeling addresses this challenge by meeting customers where they are in their journey and seamlessly guiding them to the most appropriate channel using techniques such as personalized messaging, promotional offers, and custom content.


Certainly, the most appropriate channel may not always mesh with a customer’s perceived channel preference. This, though, is the challenge presented to today’s contact center agents – to respond to customer queries in a fast and efficient manner while elevating the customer experience. Achieving this outcome requires a combination of the right technologies, a human touch, and willingness to empower agents and customers alike. Successful businesses can transform the contact center from a cost-cutting entity into a revenue generator – and the heart of a company’s customer experience.

Meet the Authors

Mark Osborn
Global Vice President, Business Development & Strategy Consumer Products Industries | SAP

Cindy Waxer
Independent Writer | Business and Technology

Further reading

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