Why Women Should Shape the Future of Customer Service

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Sarah Al-Hussaini, Co-founder and Chief Operating Officer at Ultimate, believes now is the time for the gender leadership gap to be closed, and for women to step up and shape the future of customer service

The gender gap in customer service

Customer service is an industry that has long been underpinned by women.

In the US, for every male customer service representative, there are two women, according to 2019 data from DataUSA. A similar ratio is seen in the UK.

But despite making up two-thirds of the customer service workforce, only a fraction of those women make it to the ranks of leadership — 48%, to be exact, according to the UK Office of National Statistics.

The bleak picture doesn’t stop at the gender leadership gap.

Men working in the industry are on average, 2.5 years younger than their female counterparts. This indicates that as men get more experienced, they move up the ranks into leadership, or move out of the industry, while women remain in roles that don’t offer meaningful career progression.

This trend in the customer service industry resembles a similar trend worldwide: the higher up the ladder, the fewer women can be found.

The gender leadership gap translates into a pay gap as well. As women get stuck in lower level roles, and stay there longer than their male counterparts, a pay gap starts to emerge for both part-time and full time workers.

Workplace discrimination might be one of the contributing factors to the leadership gender gap, a 2019 report by McKinsey & Company and Lean In found.

“Women are often hired and promoted based on past accomplishments, while men may be hired and promoted based on future potential,” the authors wrote.

CS roles are changing

Due to Covid-19, businesses have been forced to digitize more rapidly than ever before. As customers grow more sophisticated, and as volumes of customer inquiries balloon, the complexity and demands of the job increase. 

This also gives rise to tech-driven solutions like process automation and conversational AI, which helps agents complete repetitive, predictable tasks faster, or take over those tasks altogether.
They include automated ticketing for emails and messaging, as well as virtual agents — intelligent chatbots powered by AI —  that can provide instant responses and reduce handle times with partial and end-to-end automation.

You can find an overview of automation solutions for customer service here.

It also creates new tech roles within the industry, which is in the process of transforming from a low-skill industry to a high-skill one. A talented and experienced workforce is needed to build, test, train, and operate the technology that is scaling the impact of customer service teams.

A pivotal opportunity for women to transform the industry

In the customer service industry, we are on the cusp of an enormous opportunity to create the first deep tech specialization (conversational AI) dominated by women. Who better to shape the future of the industry than the women who make up the majority of its workforce?

However, the software industry should serve as a cautionary tale for us.

In the early days of software development, simply getting a program into a machine took a long time. A lot of the work was manual, tedious, and repetitive. And a lot of this work was done by women. Women paved the way for the software industry that we have today.

As the industry became more lucrative and complex, it drew more men. When they began to enter the industry, software development started to be classified as an engineering and STEM discipline, educational paths that societal structures discouraged women from pursuing. Men took on the new roles that were being created while women left the industry or were stuck in lower level positions.

Today, if you look at C-level executives and founders in tech, you see a sea of men. And as the industry becomes more technology-driven and sophisticated, we may see the same trend repeat itself in customer service, if this industry continues to be served by women, and led by men.

Because of the number of roles they hold in this industry, women are the group most impacted by automation and AI. Women have unique expertise and frontline knowledge of what customers want and need, and thus, they should be leading the way and building the technology of the future for this industry.

As AI-related job titles such as Automation Managers and Conversation Designers are rapidly growing in the industry, the window is open for women to step into these new roles and specializations, leveling the playing field and upending the status quo.

Going digital while staying human

The customer service industry is one that is rapidly evolving, and at Ultimate, we truly believe that conversational AI is the future of customer service. It allows companies to handle high volumes of interactions while delivering personalization in a human way, using AI and deep learning.

For customers using Ultimate in their customer service, we’ve seen over and over again how quickly the project leads get promoted or become product owners of the tech, helping their companies transform digitally and adding tremendous value in a short amount of time.

For example, Fintech company TransferGo and ecommerce jewelry marketplace PURELEI created new roles for their former female support agents after automating, who now manage their support team's virtual agent platform full-time.

Informed by women leading this shift, technology can help companies “go digital while staying human”, to borrow the words of Eveline Erkelens, an experienced Agile CX strategist and thought leader, and founder of Bright6.

There is so much evidence out there that women are less likely to put themselves forward if they feel even slightly unqualified to do something. But when it comes to conversational AI and automation in customer service, because this domain is so new, it’s still an emerging field, with a limited supply of talent to fill in the gaps.

Our domain expertise as women on the frontlines of dealing with customers is an incredible asset, and cannot be discounted. We have the chance to be the champions and early adopters of this technology. Ultimately, technology is just a tool, and most things are no-code today. Women should not be intimidated by a perceived “skill barrier” when hearing words like “AI” and “automation”.

Find out more about the future of customer service

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