The evolution of customer service has been relatively incremental over the years. Without question, there have been some ground-breaking innovations that have exponentially changed the way companies interact with customers – digital channels and self-service tools immediately come to mind. But for most small businesses, the maturation process has been steady, always seeming on the cusp of real transformation.

As the new year approaches, customer service leaders have a chance to reflect on what went right and wrong in this historic year. Overall, it appears many small businesses have been able to maintain operations despite a global pandemic. In a lot of cases, these companies have learned that existing customers and repeat business helped to soften the sudden downturn. The experiences and lessons learned from the past year are inspiring companies to adopt a company-wide focus on the customer experience (CX) and driving the strategies and technologies to be used going forward. In 2021, small businesses can expect this mindset to become mainstream, meaning more pressure to commit to CX investments.

Here are some changes customer service leaders can expect in 2021:

Contact Centers Will Be Smarter

It didn’t take a global pandemic for companies to realize customer relationships matter. Big and small businesses started to upgrade their infrastructure over the past five years to modernize customer interfacing. That trend shows no signs of stopping. As the year comes to an end, a significant number of companies have plans to improve their CX, with 42 percent who have plans to invest in contact center technology, according to the latest NICE inContact CX Transformation Benchmark business survey. The tools and capabilities that are now available will, at the very least, redefine the meaning of a seamless customer interaction.

Artificial intelligence (AI) is not alien to the customer experience technology stack. The most modern B2B and B2C brands are already leveraging AI to empower agents to personalize their approach with contacts. In 2021, AI will be a tool wielded by even the smallest of contact centers via chatbots and smart alerts. Every customer management professional will have access to advanced data analytics that translate customer feedback into insights, which will give teams the space needed to provide new levels of personalized support. In essence, there will a new baseline for customer service, changing the relationship between businesses and customers. Some companies will take it a step further by upgrading their systems to cloud platforms that offer intelligent routing and workforce management capabilities, giving organizations a bona fide CX operation.

Customer Service Grows Up and Becomes Customer Experience

During the early stages of the coronavirus pandemic, there was perpetual uncertainty as to which businesses remained open and what COVID-19 policies they were implementing. Customers new and old were in the dark about how they could interact with their favorite brands and organizations. As a result, contact centers agents became the voice of their companies, providing a personal, human touch despite the surge of call volume. Small businesses all over the world had to get creative to maintain continuity, and in a lot of cases contact centers became the backbone of their resiliency. As we enter 2021, these companies have learned that their current customer service systems are too antiquated and obsolete to fulfill customer expectations. A PBX phone system or server-based call center software could not cut it in the COVID era. 2020 hindsight shows that customer preferences rapidly change, and small businesses need speed and agility to adapt, survive and thrive.

Next year, small businesses are going to think beyond the basic piece-meal requirements of customer service and start considering the possibilities of a comprehensive CX strategy. Companies must realize that upgrading their aging call center is less about replacing their contact center software with the same limited functionality but a little more reliable; rather, to adopt a mindset about making an investment in the contact center that will help grow the overall business. CX is a key enabler to help companies acquire customers not only faster and for lower costs, but also to reduce customer churn and improve share of wallet. Further, innovative contact center applications will help managers manage change, identify improvements and measure results. This leads to improved performance and efficiency and lower operating costs. 2021 will be the year when old systems struggling to stand up a meaningful CX finally retire for cloud platforms that provide modern tools to create lifetime customers and improve cash flow

Contact Centers Will Become a Nerve Center

Finally, as companies become more focused on the customer journey, experience and the many interactions that occur across multiple departments, the contact center will cease being a silo and now function more as a hub. The contact center is not only a focal point for many interactions, it is also a valuable source of customer intelligence which can be used to improve both products and services as well as company operations. As result, the modern contact center platforms have open APIs that allow integrations with applications across the enterprise. These technologies can break down silos so that multiple departments within a company can heed and contribute to the CX. Support teams will finally have access expertise anywhere in their organization, in real time, to resolve increasingly complex customer interactions. Soon, standard customer engagement will include input from outside the contact center, as agents begin to connect with knowledgeable workers for assistance outside of the normal resolution flow.

Consequently, contact centers will not be alone when constructing and implementing a holistic CX strategy. In 2021, companies will have a CX engine that relies on contact center insights, communications tools and API integrations to deliver exceptional service. The result will be lower customer churn and improved cashflow.