Faced with seemingly random and fast-moving challenges throughout 2020, each one of us has had to consider what a changing world means for our personal life and for our business. It is hard to stay in this mindset because we all want to find a place where we feel comfortable again.

I feel lucky because I work and lead in an industry that is leaning into change: the customer service industry. As hard as it is to keep pace with everything happening around us, one thing I have noticed is that the companies and individuals responsible for helping us through many of our current challenges are doing a great job. Sure, there have been bumps and frustrations, but overall, contact centers have rolled with the punches and the lessons that came with them.

To find out how other leaders in customer service are adjusting to a new workplace, we worked with an independent research firm to find out which tools, technologies and processes might become a permanent part of customer service.

The Remote Workforce Is Here to Stay

The study we conducted with contact center managers across the U.S. and U.K. found some very interesting trends for the evolving world of work. Almost three-quarters of managers we talked to think that changes made to accommodate the pandemic will become permanent models for the customer service industry.

I will start with the most obvious change. In March 2020, hundreds of thousands of customer service agents transitioned to a remote-work world, much like the rest of the world. While some are still skeptical of long-term adoption, with doubts about productivity, team connection and managerial insights, many contact centers are reevaluating their previous resistance to work-from-home, in part because the option for a full return to the office is not on the horizon just yet.

In fact, over 70% of contact center managers we surveyed say they are satisfied with remote work productivity, intend to continue remote work, and may even make the remote workforce model their standard. Customer service agents approve of remote work too — with 72% of management reporting agent satisfaction in their more flexible remote roles.

This isn’t just a customer service phenomenon, though. According to a recent Robert Walters study, 45% of workers believed they were more productive from home and 78% of employers saw equal or increased productivity from remote workers during lockdowns.

For businesses leaders, these stats should be welcome numbers. A remote workforce can create a financial gain for businesses by reducing overhead costs, and because agents seem happier working remotely, lower agent turnover will reduce the cost of onboarding new agents.

However, as contact centers and customer service agents move away from a centralized office and toward a virtual setting, business leaders need to adjust how they support their agents.

For example, one challenge that we have seen from remote work environments is in maintaining employee engagement. Staying connected to agents and creating a relationship-based culture is difficult with varying hours and employees that could be spread around the world.

On the operational side, facilitating customer service operations and monitoring agent performance also propose challenges in a remote-work operation.

The best solution is for businesses to lean into the right technology to engage, educate and manage the workforce while remote. Employee self-service apps can empower teams to schedule their work time and provide the flexibility they need right now. In addition, coaching and development must be a priority for all contact centers. Artificial intelligence (AI)- and business intelligence (BI)-fueled analytics tools can help ensure managerial awareness that would otherwise come from walking the floor.

Leveraging cloud-based systems will also create better connectivity and access, higher data-processing speeds, and more workforce flexibility for on-demand staffing than centers did in the past. A cloud-enabled operation provides the agility to scale up or down to accommodate swings in call volume and more.

Escalating Expectations for Excellence

The customer service reality created by the pandemic is that customers are often highly stressed, emotional and need to feel heard by brands. Contact center managers expect that customers will need extra emotional empathy from customer service representatives, even after the pandemic subsides.

This expectation places an even greater importance on the development of a customer-centric business. Even before the pandemic, great customer service was viewed by 96% of customers we surveyed as a determining factor in loyalty to a brand. Now, over half of contact center managers believe that the customer experience will impact brand loyalty even more than before the pandemic.

Raised customer expectations also highlight the importance of visibility into customer sentiment and satisfaction. Keen customer service teams already knew that analytics-based insights offer a wealth of customer knowledge and help them make informed decisions. According to our study, more than half say marketing teams are already using real-time automated analytics dashboards to access critical customer insights from the contact center.

Understanding customer sentiment through speech analytics creates rich customer interactions and bonds. These insights can help managers build informed agent training, prepare agents for what to expect and keep other departments in touch with customer opinion.

A Bright Future

The pandemic forced business leaders to adapt faster than they had anticipated. The future looks bright for those who are ready for it — 84% of contact center managers we surveyed believe that the pandemic permanently elevated the importance and value of the customer service function.

For help building a game plan, there are a couple of strategies to consider. First, invest in the cloud. Only 4% of contact center managers we surveyed don’t plan to increase cloud use — for good reason. Second, look at what industry leaders in customer service are doing and see if it would work for you — many have made it through the pandemic unscathed because they pivoted in all the right ways.

With the right mindset and technology, the customer service industry could help write the playbook on how to succeed during a time of intense, and sometimes welcome, change.

By Tom Goodmanson

First published in Forbes October 2020