December 20, 2021

State of customer support 2021: 5 key insights on customer support software, channels, and challenges

Steve Pan

Managing a customer support department quickly turns you into an expert on what it takes to keep your team at its best. You learn what motivates your agents and empowers them to maintain your SLAs. While supporting your team is a top priority, so is staying in tune with what other managers are doing to ensure peak performance. 

Looking to forums and other online communities can help reveal what’s going on in the larger customer support space, but only to a point. Asking a question and then hearing anecdotes from just a few people doesn’t really provide you with any concrete information. 

It’s even possible that just a few power users with many resources at their disposal dominate the discussions on these forums. There are likely tons of support professionals going through struggles who have relevant insight to share but don’t feel comfortable posting in that environment.

At Assembled, we’re dedicated to helping customer support teams — who have the skills, but not always the resources they need to thrive — grow and continuously improve. This is why we decided to uncover exactly how support teams are engaging with customers, survey which types of customer support software they use, and share the findings of our very first State of Customer Support Software Survey. What we found just might surprise you.

A brief background on this industry survey

To get a snapshot of the different channels support teams focus on and the tools they use to support those channels, we distributed our first State of Customer Support Software Survey. Here’s a snapshot of the questions we set out to answer:

  • How many channels of engagement are being utilized today?
  • How many companies mix and match tools for different channels versus sticking with a one-size-fits-all platform?
  • What other types of support tools are being used today?
  • What is the #1 problem support teams are facing in customer experience that isn’t yet addressed by a tool?

We distributed this survey to customer experience and customer support professionals who are members of the ElevateCX community in September 2021.* Side note: Are you a part of this community yet? 10 out of 10 recommend! 

Respondents’ roles vary, but this community typically skews towards management positions, such as support managers.

In total, we received 120 unique company responses and 52% of them came from support teams with 20 or fewer agents. While most responses came from relatively small operations, we also heard from organizations with support teams of more than 1,000 agents. 

Survey responses came from all different industries as well, but 44% of those companies are in the telecommunications, technology, and electronics industry. Other top industries represented include education, retail and consumer durables, business support and logistics, and finance and financial services.

5 takeaways about customer support tools, channels, and obstacles  

While analyzing the survey results, some clear themes emerged about the current state of support teams. Let’s take a closer look at the five primary insights that we noticed. 

1. Offering multi-channel support is the norm

The survey results confirm what customer support teams probably already know intuitively — engaging with customers via a single channel just doesn’t cut it. Today’s customers expect to be able to reach out to support teams in a way that fits their communication preferences, rather than being forced to use a channel they don’t naturally gravitate toward. 

Most support teams use 3 channels of engagement; 13% use 1, 2% use , 31% use 3, and 28% use 4

Luckily, support teams clearly understand the need to offer customers a variety of communication options. Our survey results show that the majority of support teams use at least three channels, with 31% using three and 28% using four.

What this really reveals is that more and more support operations are striving to offer an omnichannel customer experience. As Zendesk explains, omnichannel customer service creates connected and consistent customer interactions across every type of communication channel. 

But going from multi-channel support to omnichannel support takes time, and it certainly requires the right approach to adopting customer experience software. There’s more on that below, but for now, know that if your team currently engages with customers via a few channels, especially email, you’re in good company

2. Text and chat are more common than talk

In this survey, we not only asked how many channels support teams are leveraging, but also which channels they’re using. While there are tons of communication channels out there today, including video chat and self-service, we focused on the four most common options:

📧 Email

☎️ Talk

💬 Text/Chat

📱 Social

No surprise here — email is the most heavily used channel in customer support. This is likely because it’s the easiest to set up and manage given its asynchronous nature. If you ever worked as a support agent yourself, you know that email is slightly more forgiving than a phone call because customers’ expectations tend to be less urgent in comparison. On top of that, it’s much easier to manage service levels and build schedules in an asynchronous environment. 

As for live channels, text and chat are more common than phone calls. In fact, our survey results reveal that support teams that use three channels are 21% more likely to use text and chat than talk. Why? Probably because managing phone-based communications is more challenging. Agents often need dedicated training to effectively navigate live calls with customers because of how personalized they are. And with chat and text, agents can handle multiple customers at once, reducing staffing needs and lowering costs.

It’s worth pointing out that engaging with customers through talk, while more challenging, is still important. Many customers actually prefer reaching customer support over the phone the Statista Research Department shows that 42% of customers prefer to resolve issues over the phone. 

On the other hand, communication preferences vary by generation. A report from Zendesk shows there was a huge surge in the number of millennials and gen Zers who started using text and chat over the last year. It just goes to show the importance of moving toward omnichannel support. 

3. Most teams use one type of customer support software per channel

Having the right tools is essential for customer support teams, and there are a lot of options to choose from. Some are targeted toward specific channels while others can support every interaction a support team has with customers. For example, Zendesk offers solutions for chat, email, and talk.

Interestingly, our State of Customer Support Software Survey results show that most teams have a different type of customer support tool for each channel they use. The portion of teams using a single platform is quite small. Take a look at the difference based on how many channels a team uses.

Most support teams mix and match tools for different channels of communication, and no teams offering 4 channels use a single tool

As you can see, a mix-and-match approach is very common. Consider teams that use two channels. Of those teams, 69% use two separate tools, like Salesforce Service Cloud Email for email communications and LiveChat to manage chat messages. Only 31% of teams in that same group manage those channels with a single platform. The likelihood of using a single tool to manage all channels diminishes as the number of channels grows as well, dropping to 0% among teams leveraging four channels of communication. 

While it’s difficult to explain exactly why support teams are using so many different types of customer support software, it might have something to do with rolling out channels one at a time. For example, consider a team that has been using just email and text for a few years, but as their support operations grow they decide to start leveraging talk. Rather than finding a single platform to replace what they’re already using, identifying one more tool that only needs to support talk is faster and easier to implement without disrupting current processes. 

This approach is common, but it can also lead to frustrations down the road. Many support teams eventually find that their various tools simply don’t work well together. One study conducted by Five9 shows that 37% of contact centers are struggling due to a lack of integration between their voice and digital channels. 

It’s also possible that support teams use one tool per channel because they’re prioritizing the customer experience over the agent experience. For a customer who calls with an issue and then later receives an email following up with a solution, the experience is pretty seamless. But it’s anything but for an agent who has to work out of multiple systems to keep track of that single ticket. 

Another theory? There just isn’t a single tool that excels on every channel. 

4. Teams prioritize support delivery tools over support operations tools

Aside from customer support tools for different channels of communication, there are other options that can help teams improve agent performance and overall operations: QA, routing, onboarding/learning and development, knowledge management, and workforce management. Most of the teams we surveyed use a few of these options — 23% of respondents use two additional support tools and 20% of respondents use three additional support tools. 

What are the most commonly used additional support tools? Knowledge management and onboarding/learning and development tend to be adopted first, followed by quality assurance, routing, and lastly, workforce management. 

It’s interesting that workforce management tools are often adopted last. From Assembled’s perspective, we believe that workforce management tools enable teams to build their foundation for customer support early on. This ensures key workforce management elements are incorporated into agent education and measurement as well as the larger team’s operations. With a solid workforce system in place, finding the best time to schedule knowledge refreshers and training becomes much easier. 

Effectively, the right platform can help you scale the right way, eliminating the need to fix issues later on. But many support managers find it difficult to give up using the spreadsheets they’ve become so accustomed to. In many ways, transitioning to a more robust workforce management system feels like breaking up with a spreadsheet that got their team through countless months. 

While many teams in this situation don’t feel as though they’re ready for a workforce management tool yet — hint, hint they are 😉 — there are some undeniable benefits to getting started sooner rather than later:

5. Support teams struggle with improving agent interactions and gauging customer sentiment

You probably don’t need an industry survey to tell you this, but effective tools help customer support teams deliver a positive customer experience. But if there’s just one insight the 2021 State of Customer Support Software Survey made clear, it’s that customer support teams still have challenges to overcome. 

We asked, “What's the #1 problem you are facing in CX that is not currently addressed by a tool?” to get a sense of what support teams are up against. Two common answers emerged — 17% of respondents mentioned difficulty with agent productivity, performance, and development. Another 12% of respondents say they struggle with gaining clear insight into the customer journey and what customers think of the product and support. 

Take a look at exactly what some survey respondents said, in their own words:

  • “I think that a better new team member oversight function would make my life easier!”
  • “Managing customer data between channels of communication”
  • “Having support associates that can genuinely connect with customers even when they themselves aren't able to experience the product in full”
  • “Growth of individuals within a team”
  • “Tracking team performance (quality over quantity)”
  • “Tracking customer sentiment”
  • “Referral loops - there hasn't been a great tool out there to solve for this. We're currently building out our Voice of Customer program and layering on Machine Learning. It's a lot of work and has been a very long process”

These challenges are common for a reason — they’re difficult to solve. 

Knowing just how important customer support software is, think about how to refine your choice of tools to better support agents and customers. Are there redundancies you could fix by consolidating tools? Are there integration issues that need to be addressed? The right technology ecosystem can alleviate a lot of headaches both now and in the future.

Leverage these insights to start planning the future of your support team

Armed with relevant information from the State of Customer Support Software Survey, you probably now have a clearer understanding of what your team needs to do next. Maybe that means exploring options for tracking and measuring agent performance. Or perhaps you see the potential that going from two channels of engagement to three opens up.

If you’re thinking about adding additional channels, take some time to think about your approach and craft a support channel strategy that considers your current staffing capabilities and your future goals. Unsure of how to proceed? Consider these four questions every support team needs to ask themselves as they continue to grow.

*Thank you so much to ElevateCX for their continued partnership and for allowing Assembled to distribute this survey to their community. It was instrumental in gaining valuable insight into the customer support industry.

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