Cast your mind back to the past week. Think of all the service interactions you had as a customer as you moved through your days. The petrol station, the supermarket, a familiar restaurant, a retail store, a phone call to a telco provider. How many of these moments in which you spent your hard-earned cash were outstanding, really?

Outstanding service means different things to different people, of course. It could mean:

  • a slower pace versus a faster pace
  • having the choice to phone and speak to someone versus not having to speak to a human.

Look, for example, at Joe Salanitri’s recent video, ‘Employee of the month’, which went viral. In it, the Melbourne comedian slammed a supermarket retail giant for making him ‘work for his groceries’ via the innovation of self-service checkout lanes. His idea of outstanding service seems to be having a human service attendant scan his purchases and pack the bags (without squashing his grapes!) – to do the work for him. Fair enough.

One of the great things about us humans is that we’re all different; we all want different things. Our world moves fast, and businesses try to give us what we want when we want it, battling with how to respond to all our different needs simultaneously. Tech advances have led us to expect increasingly quick and convenient ways of getting products and services, and to demand efficiencies in doing business with brands.

When it comes to human-to-human service interactions, we find ourselves in an interesting spot of bother:

  • Mediocre customer service interactions are rampant in Australia. Very few brands and businesses stand out for their outstanding service interactions.
  • And we customers have all become, well, accustomed to poor service. When, once in a blue moon, we do have an outstanding interaction with a fellow human – someone who smiles, listens, uses their pleases and thank yous, makes us feel seen and heard and asks great questions to be helpful – we’re surprised and feel like this exceptional being must be from another galaxy.

Okay, so I may be being slightly dramatic there. However, the term ‘customer service’ certainly doesn’t evoke the same enthusiasm as it did five years ago.

Customer service died in 2020

There are many reasons why service has taken a massive hit in this country. It might be unfair to blame the pandemic – yes, I acknowledge these were unprecedented times. But whether it was due to staffing shortages, supply-chain issues or to businesses deciding to leverage the situation to lower their customers’ expectations (and thereby lower their costs), service died.

It’s part of human evolution for societal norms and values to change, influencing the standards we expect from the world. But the changes from a pandemic are often accelerated and forced – at least, that’s what it felt like to me, having lived through this one.

So, it’s no surprise that people’s expectations of themselves, others and the brands and businesses they interact with have altered in the wake of COVID-19. But have we lowered our expectations forever? Will service bounce back, or does it need a complete overhaul?

The past will not equal the future

The saying ‘What got you here won’t get you there’ has never been truer.

With every death, there is a birth, and we are birthing something new. It’s a wonderful time to be alive and be of service to each other, no matter what we do. New ways of thinking will be required to lead organisations and lead a new way of serving customers. To influence the future of service, I’m suggesting we start by narrowing in on the role of technology and the role of humans to understand the sweet spot between them.

Ultimately, the future of customer service is a fusion of technology and human touch. Businesses need to decide what points of their customer journeys are high tech and what points are high touch. Advanced technologies enhance efficiency and accessibility, yet the human element remains crucial. But how well are we developing, strengthening or even simply recognising the human dimensions of service?

Perhaps we customers also need to praise and recognise service professionals more often when they deliver us outstanding service: to show businesses what we truly value when we spend our hard-earned money. Could the overhaul of service for the future be led by customers as much as by the businesses we buy from?

Jaquie Scammell is the award-winning author of The Future of Service is 5D, Service Habits (2nd ed) and Service Mindset, a keynote speaker, thought leader in the field of service leadership and CEO and founder of ServiceQ.