A Sneak Peek at CX Trends in 2023 – With Reetu Kainulainen and Tim Sheard

Headshots of Reetu Kainulainen (left) and Tim Sheard (right)

At a our recent in-person fireside chat in London, Ultimate’s CEO and Zendesk’s Director of Messaging gazed into the near future of CX and automation.

Reetu and Tim touched on some of the hottest CX trends of 2023, including a growing appetite for asynchronous messaging, and the way Conversation Design is revolutionizing both the customer and employee experiences. Their conversation was moderated by their peer and fellow automation expert, Adam Benzecrit.

Q: According to CX today, 90% of customers want an omnichannel experience. But what exactly is an omnichannel experience, what does "asynchronous communication" have to do with it, and what makes this one of the most important CX trends to watch out for?

Tim: The word “omnichannel” gets thrown around quite a lot. When I go to conferences and see people say, “we do email, we do telephone, we're omnichannel,” that’s not omnichannel, that’s multichannel. Omnichannel is not just about offering different channels. It’s about having a persistent conversation thread across all of them.

So as a customer, you can talk to support via the web one day, and then the next day you're talking on WhatsApp, and the agent you’re speaking to will see the entire conversation thread, irrespective of which channel you're on. 

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And as an agent you’d want to be able to use a workspace tool where you can switch between channels at the top, but you have one conversation thread with your customers. So the true omnichannel is about that conversation, and then being able to farm that data as well.

Omnichannel support can include real-time channels like chat, but also channels where you message across hours or days, like email or WhatsApp. These channels are what we call asynchronous messaging channels.

A good way to understand asynchronous messaging is to think about what we're doing every day when we speak to our families. Like, I messaged my wife earlier because I actually broke my toe yesterday and she's a nurse, so I asked her to grab some tape on her way home.

She's not looking at my message immediately, she’ll look at it later on.

We are all communicating in this way, asynchronously. So why aren't we doing it with businesses?

“Businesses need to wake up. Everybody's expecting to communicate with you asynchronously.”
– Tim Sheard, Director of Tech Alliances, Sunshine Conversations & Messaging at Zendesk

Q: What are some concrete best practices of omnichannel communication done right?

Tim: I can give you an example in hospitality.

The Four Seasons has been a pioneer at omnichannel communication. What they're doing is connecting guests in the hotel with the staff through whichever channel they want through a QR code. 

They push those messages off to different departments within the hotel, then work out through Natural Language Proccessing (NLP) technology what the reason for the message was. The customer always has one persistent conversation stream with that hotel. 

I think the hospitality industry is really leading the way in this, but we're starting to see more and more use cases, particularly around retailers.

Retail needs to massively diversify at the moment to start reducing costs. To start not just handling support tickets through these channels, but actually interacting. Because once you've built trust through a channel, you earn the right to sales through that channel. And that's a really exciting thing that we're looking at at the moment, which is how you can start to transact and connect sales agents to these channels.

Find out more about how CX has become more proactive and unified across channels in Ultimate's 2022 CX trends guide

Q: While 90% of customers may want an omnichannel experience according to CX today, only 40% of businesses are actually able to deliver. So what’s the problem? And how do you get it right?

Tim: It fails when you don't have buy-in from the top. This is a radical change, so you need a radical shift across the business. We're seeing so many Directors of CX Strategy and Messaging roles start to pop up now and we really want to address those levels. It scares call centers when you start to say, “Oh, we're gonna open up a new channel.” Because the last time they did that, when they opened email, the call center blew up. 

The future is definitely in conversational CRM, but the way to get started is to start slowly. Turn on the channel. Start to get used to it. Really find out where your customers are. Start to build trust on that channel by communicating with the customer that has a problem.

We were starting to see that in fulfilment and delivery, where brands are starting to send out tracking information through WhatsApp. As soon as you do that, people start to interact with you back to that channel and they know they can respond to it. 

"The worst you can do is spit things out on those channels and say, 'Do not reply.'”

– Tim Sheard, Director of Tech Alliances, Sunshine Conversations & Messaging at Zendesk

Reetu: From an automation perspective, WhatsApp has only very recently developed rich messaging capabilities. If you have Zendesk Sunshine Conversation  widgets, you can use buttons, work with pictures, or create dynamic views, so you’re not just going back and forth in the conversation. Compare that to email where it’s quite difficult to provide anything other than just a text response. With rich media In WhatsApp, you’ve made it much easier for the customer. That also builds a lot of more trust and increased automation potential. 

Tim: Something else we'll be looking at is called multiparty, which is a way to facilitate communication not only between the brand and the end consumer, but between multiple stakeholders – like a delivery driver and the person they are delivering to, for example. 

Q: One question that many leaders continue to have is, “Is automation really capable of providing an amazing experience for customers?” What would you tell them, and how does the concept of Conversation Design tie into it?

Reetu: So to begin to answer that question, you should ask yourself: “What are some of the key ways that automation can positively impact customer satisfaction?” The answer is it’s absolutely crucial to retain a human touch. Conversation Design helps us do that. 

So what does that look like? 

"Many people think Conversation Design is all about tone of voice or using the right emojis, but that’s really just the fine-tuning at the end. What’s really important is what happens before that." 

– Reetu Kainulainen, CEO and Co-founder, Ultimate

We recently had a great educational webinar about this along with the Conversation Design Institute (CDI). Hans van Dam, CDI's Founder and CEO, laid it out quite nicely: There are three things you need. You need the brain, the tools, and the skills.

The “brain” is the tech. Conversation design draws on NLP technology, which is a type of AI. The human brain can have contextual conversations. And NLP technology lets your virtual agent have contextual conversations, just like humans. That’s something the first generation of chatbots could not do. 

Then, you layer your conversation tool on top of that. At Ultimate, we call this tool our Dialogue Builder

But before we start using it, we need to map out the conversation we would have if it were human-to-human. We call this process mapping. To do that, we use a communal board, then we transfer that flow to the tool. And this is where you’ll notice that human conversations can get very complex: You might need to check information in a backend system, check if there’s another ticket open, or something.  Our goal is to include that complexity in the process itself, but make it look really simple for the end user. And that’s what our Dialogue Builder does. 

And then finally, it's a skill on top of that, which is knowing how to use that tool. So you can learn how to use our tool quite quickly, within minutes, but there’s also a depth to it. So if you want to go deep, you can really hone that skill and turn it into a job. We’ve seen agents on CS teams become Automation Specialists or Automation Managers, and their main job is to learn Conversational Design, use the tool, develop analytics like “Hey, where are people dropping off the conversation for this specific intent, how does that affect CSAT, etc.”

The cool thing about it is that it allows you to be very data-driven, and I developing the tools and skills to master Conversation Design is the cool thing in this industry that I'm really excited about.

Q: Tim, how does all of this improve the omnichannel experience? 

Tim: At Zendesk, I think Madison [Hoffman] was the person who built out the design for our service bot. And it was difficult. A lot of people get stuck in that process. The tone of voice was important, but the tone of voice doesn't really help when you get stuck.

But we're starting to use orchestration tools to help agents out when they do get stuck. In Sunshine Conversations, the bot can advise the agent on how to best answer the question or point them to guide articles that could help answer it. Or the bot could say, “I've seen this kind of problem before. Would you like me to run this automation task or would you like to set the conversation back? If you set it back, I can continue speaking to the customer.”  So the bot doesn't just need to help the customer. It can help the agent provide consistent experiences as well. So that's something you're really gonna see in the next six months from us as we start to integrate these AI tools into the agent experience.

Learn more about CX's hottest trends