The study provides a snapshot of the priorities, challenges and trajectories of customer service teams around the world. This edition is based on Salesforce's largest and most global survey of customer service agents, decision-makers, mobile workers and dispatchers.

It had over 7 000 respondents across 33 countries, including South Africa. The survey suggests that from the channels they use to serve customers to the spaces employees work from, to the skill sets agents require, there's not much that hasn't changed for customer service organisations.

Here are the key takeaways from the study:

The pandemic has exposed customer service shortcomings, but leaders are taking action; 88% of service professionals globally say that the pandemic exposed technology gaps; a further 86% say the same for service channel gaps as customers moved away from physical locations and started using digital channels at a much higher rate.

Eighty-seven percent of South African service professionals say that they have seen an increase in customers using digital channels. Faced with these challenges, service teams and their leaders are making changes that will serve them and their customers beyond the current crisis.

Eighty-six percent of South African service decision-makers say that they are accelerating digital initiatives, while 78% say that they have invested in new technology.

Digital transformation is accelerating for customers and employees alike. A related research report shows just how much customers have shifted to digital and that this is expected to persist. Consumers and business buyers estimate that six out of 10 of their interactions with companies will occur online in 2021, up from 42% in 2019.

This uptick has coincided with a surge in adoption of various digital channels by service organisations. Globally, video support saw the highest rate of increase in adoption since 2018 (+42%), followed by live chat (+35%) and messenger apps such as WhatsApp and Facebook Messenger (+29%).

Conversely, the share of organisations offering in-person service and support fell by 16%. Service teams also ramped up their adoption of artificial intelligence by 32% since 2018, and their adoption of chatbots shot up by 67%. Of the South African respondents, 58% say their company has a completed redefined AI strategy.

Service teams are also being challenged by a new era of workforce engagement. Customer service workforces, rooted in contact centers, had to scramble as stay-at-home orders spread across the world and social distancing became part of daily life.

Over half (54%) of global customer service professionals worked from home during 2020 and only 43% expect to return to their normal workplace in 2021.

The shift to remote work has not impacted productivity as much as some may assume, with a majority (72%) of service agents agreeing they have all the tools and technology they need to work remotely. Of the South Africans surveyed, 72% said that they feel they can provide an excellent customer experience from home.

Training is a focus as requisite skill sets evolve. Particularly during a crisis, the role of a customer service agent can no longer be limited to closing tickets. Agents are now expected to be knowledgeable, consultative and, above all, empathetic to customers' unique needs and circumstances.

A mix of hard and soft skills (communication, listening and product knowledge) are in the highest demand. What's more, service organisations accelerated their tracking of revenue more than any other metric since 2018 (up 57%), putting new expectations for sales savviness on agents' plates.

Field service is said to be thriving, even amid a pandemic. Consumer research conducted in June showed that 70% of consumers still preferred in-person appointments where on-site support was a must, such as appliance repairs or internet installs, with the remainder opting for digital alternatives.

Accordingly, 80% of South African service decision-makers say that field service is a key part of their overall strategy, while 70% of them say COVID has permanently transformed field service.

Three-quarters of decision-makers with field service continue to see significant revenue from their operations and nearly seven in 10 (69%) continue to make significant investments in their mobile workers through tactics such as additional hiring, training and technology investment.

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