There is a formula to these “Hottest Trends and Predictions You MUST Know For 20XX” posts that proliferate across the internet at about this time every year. Harried blog writers browse the latest Gartner and Forrester summaries, read a handful of the earliest prediction articles, and pick out the five items that turn up most often.

Then they shuffle the list just enough, write an introduction, and publish, secure in the knowledge that they are not saying anything that people could possibly disagree with or take real action on. And yes, I have done this too.

This year, I don’t want to do it. Not only because those posts are so rarely useful, but also because 2020 has been so different.

The truth about customer service trends in 2021

The biggest trend affecting customer service and experience in 2021 is not going to be a surprising new technology or a huge growth in adoption of some long-predicted tool like AI.

What’s different about 2021 is the people. Those people — your customers, suppliers, and colleagues — have just come through a year of trauma and disruption, with an unknowable amount more still to come.

Delivering high quality customer service under these conditions may require new tools, but it will definitely require new thinking.

In the last year, millions of people have started working from home and communicating with remote colleagues. The line between work life and home life has been heavily blurred. They’ve had to do more business online, including using services typically done in person, like education and health.

All of those changes created new stresses that often flowed through to customer service interactions. But they have also created higher expectations for online business.

Some customers who have been required to use online services have found them to be better than the offline alternative: more efficient, more cost-effective, offering greater choice or convenience.

In 2021, your customers will be looking for more services that can be delivered online and choosing those providers who can deliver the best experiences.

In the early phases of this pandemic, businesses scrambled to deliver any sort of online option just to survive. In our own data, we saw the dramatic shift in customer service volumes across different industries.

Customers through and post COVID-19 will demand more and better online service because they have been forced to experience and compare new types of customer interactions over a long period. The bar has been raised; it is not likely to drop again.

People who have become used to self-service online will want more information and control over their accounts and tools instead of waiting for a slow email reply or being forced to make a phone call.

The intense experiences of 2020 have accelerated these shifts in customer behavior that we might have expected to slowly occur over the next few years. In response, businesses now need to move quickly to support those new behaviors and meet or exceed their new expectations.

6 ways to deliver better customer service in 2021

Here are six decidedly non-trendy areas to prioritize as you plan your coming year:

  1. Deepen your customer knowledge. The more you know about a customer, the better service you can give them. Has their business been badly affected by COVID-19? Do you really know why they use your service? Look for ways to collect and make accessible the information they share with your company.
  2. Use self-service to give your customers more control. Self-service isn’t just about having a great knowledge base. Find actions and settings that your support team are currently handling for customers, and build tools that let your customers take charge. My personal favorite example is the “temporarily lift card limit” my bank offers in-app.
  3. Review your security and privacy controls. 2020 saw a lot of businesses move online and a lot of people doing much more business online. Customer service is always a popular security attack vector and is now a bigger target thanks to inexperienced customers and providers. Review your security approach, teach your team, and consider some customer service security testing.
  4. Reconsider your customer service metrics. What you measure will change how your team delivers service. Earlier in 2020, Shervin Talieh wrote for us about KPIs during COVID — what behaviors and customer interactions are you creating through your metrics?
  5. Build up team empathy and flexibility. At Help Scout, we’re not making software for giant enterprises. Smaller businesses can be more human and make better decisions on individual cases. That makes for a better customer experience, as long as you have an organization that allows for people to care and to respond with flexibility in tricky times.
  6. Scale up your chat and messaging capabilities. Here is my one nod to classic “trends.” More customers will want and expect to have conversations with their suppliers, especially when they can’t just walk into a store. Offering live chat and messaging is more sustainable than phone and closer to real time than email. 2021 might be the time to focus on those channels.

There are no shortcuts to providing great customer service

The appeal of a “top customer service trends for 2021” article is that it promises you a clear answer — this is what to buy or what to do, handily numbered for you. The reality is that mostly those trends just don’t matter — or, rather, they will matter eventually, but by then they will be obvious.

Better service will come with small improvements to your processes, smoothing away rough edges wherever you can find them. Continually working to understand who your customers are and what they want to get done, then finding ways to help them do that.

Spend your time delivering good experiences conversation by conversation — and noticing what is stopping you from doing it more often. That way, you won’t need to chase trends and can adopt a new system or tool only when it will solve a genuine problem for your team.

Mathew Patterson
Mathew Patterson

After running a support team for years, Mat joined the marketing team at Help Scout, where we make excellent customer service achievable for companies of all sizes. Connect with him on Twitter and LinkedIn.