Customer communication preferences are always evolving. But, in the past few years, the rate of change has been exponential.
The COVID-19 pandemic accelerated the adoption of digital channels across countries and industries. It has also heightened consumer expectations for speed, personalization, and convenience.
The increase in consumer touchpoints and expectations has created both confusion and opportunity. With so many ways to engage, it’s critical for businesses to understand and prioritize what matters most to their customers.
In this article, we’ll review the top customer communication preferences business leaders should be aware of as we continue into 2023.
Revisiting the customer communication gap
In 2019, we talked about the disconnect between the service customers want and the service that brands provide. At the time, 7 in 10 businesses thought they were communicating effectively with customers. Only 2 in 10 customers agreed.
Today, the communication gap is growing even wider. While the pandemic forced many businesses to accelerate their digital transformation strategies, customer expectations are outpacing these advancements.
Like it or not, the pandemic made us more dependent on digital technologies for our professional, social, and recreational needs. At work, many of us now rely on an enterprise instant messenger to communicate with colleagues (like Slack or Microsoft Teams Chat).
Similarly, we now depend more on messaging apps like WhatsApp and Facebook Messenger to stay connected with family and friends.
This increased dependence on digital communication has affected how people want to communicate with brands.
Customer communication preferences and trends in 2023
Below we've outlined six key areas where customer communication preferences have evolved.
1. Customers want customer service interactions on social media
“47% of people say strong customer service is what they value most on social channels.” Source: Sprout Social
A new report from Accenture predicts social commerce will grow three times as fast as traditional ecommerce, more than doubling from $492 billion worldwide in 2021 to $1.2 trillion in 2025. Insider Intelligence also estimates that 50% of all US adults made a purchase via social media last year.
And while most brands understand the power of social media, they often overlook some key opportunities. They see it as a place for promotional campaigns and content distribution, instead of a customer communication channel.
The reality is, customers want to use social media to talk with companies about their needs, seek information, buy, and solve problems. They see it as a customer service tool and are looking for personalized engagement.
In fact, according to Sprout Social, 47% of people say that a brand’s customer service is what they value most on social media.
What’s more, they expect responses to be as fast, thorough, and as helpful as they would be through any other brand communication channel. Thus, conversational technology, like chatbots, is necessary to scale and maintain service levels on these channels.
Key Takeaway: Social media isn’t just a tool for content distribution or advertising campaigns. Strong customer service is what defines a best in class brand on social, and it will require collaboration between marketers, customer support teams, and technology providers.
2. The preference for messaging is growing faster than any other channel
It's predicted that by the end of 2023, messaging will be the number one B2C communication channel, making up 61% of total interactions with a brand.
Customers want to engage with brands the same way they engage with their peers in their everyday lives—on messaging apps. According to Forrester, prior to the pandemic, messaging was ranked 5th overall in terms of channel usage, but has since risen to 2nd overall.
This makes messaging the fastest-growing B2C communication channel–by a large margin.
Forrester also notes that leveraging conversational, messenger-based experiences is key to growth. “Across the board, customer support leaders are fully aware of the increased pressure to meet and exceed both customer and stakeholder expectations—and decision-makers agree that leveraging and scaling customer conversations is key to rising to the occasion.”
“69% of customer support leaders believe the strongest customer relationships are built through personalized, messenger-based support experiences.”
Forrester goes on to state that “personalized, messenger-based support experiences are no longer the future of support — they’re expected and here to stay. Firms that can best leverage the power of conversational support are positioned to drive customer retention, customer satisfaction, and business efficiency, resulting in increased competitiveness and resiliency.”
Key Takeaway: Messaging is outpacing other B2C communication channels in terms of both volume and customer preference. The overwhelming majority of customer support leaders view messaging as a critical tool to meet growth and retention objectives.
3. Customers don’t want to call for support anymore
“During the pandemic, telephone support saw the largest decline behind in-person assistance.” Source: Forrester
It’s no surprise that the popularity of new digital channels has led to a decline in telephone-based customer communication. People barely want to call family and friends anymore, let alone brands.
One of the main reasons why the preference for messaging is growing so fast is the fact that it provides a kind of freedom that calling doesn't. It allows customers to go about their day and multitask, instead of actively waiting on hold.
We saw that people valued this type of asynchronous communication, especially during the pandemic–when hold times were at their worst.
According to Forrester, before the pandemic, telephone (agent-led) was the top-ranked channel, followed by email and in-person. During the pandemic, telephone support saw the largest decline behind in-person assistance.
And, even as hold times return to normal levels, we’re seeing that in a post-pandemic world, customer patience is still scarce. Psychologists report that our attention spans are shockingly short, and are shrinking thanks to digital distractions and lingering feelings of uncertainty.
What’s most surprising, though, is that customers are even willing to pay added fees as a guarantee to avoid waiting on hold and other poor experiences. One recent study found that 56% of respondents said that they would be willing to pay a premium price for a product if it meant a company could ensure outstanding customer support.
Key Takeaway: The pandemic has made customers less tolerant of slow customer service and long hold times. With limited attention to spare, they prefer digital channels they can use on the go.
4. Customers now have a more positive view of automation
“Customers view automation less as a nuisance, and more as a bona fide, personalized option for getting help with their issues.” Source: Intercom
Another key trend we’re seeing in 2023 relates to customers’ attitudes towards CS automation and CX automation. Until recently, technology like chatbots has left customers underwhelmed, and often frustrated. But much has changed since then, both with technology and customer perception.
Conversational applications have evolved to the point where it’s almost unfair to call them “chatbots.” Advancements in AI, user interfaces, and software make them far more sophisticated than their early predecessors. So much so, that they are now invaluable tools for improving customer satisfaction.
Immediate, personalized, and contextual service is difficult–if not impossible–to manage at scale without automation. And customers are well aware of that.
According to Intercom, “while the term ‘automation’ may denote anything but personalization, its increase in functionality has sparked change in how customers actually view automation: less as a nuisance and more as a legitimate personalized option for getting assistance.”
Key Takeaway: Customers care less about who (or what) is helping them, as long as they get their issues solved quickly. They’re aware of how conversational technology has improved, and view it as a valuable B2C communication tool.
5. Customers seek self-service options first
“90% of customers globally expect brands or organizations to have an online self-service support portal.” Source: Microsoft
Today, customers prefer to handle their issues on their own. More and more, customers are seeking out information via online self-service support portals as the first step in issue resolution.
According to Gartner Research, 65% of CIOs saw an increase in the use of self-service by customers/citizens in 2020. 91% of people also say they would use a knowledge base if it met their needs.
However, there is still much progress to be made in the area of self-service. While many brands offer self-service portals, a large percentage of customers aren’t finding what they’re looking for. In fact, Gartner estimates that 20% to 40% of live volume could easily be resolved using existing self-service functionalities.
That switch from self-service to a live channel is costly (but avoidable).
Gartner states, “the problem is that most organizations design their self-service resources to signal comprehensive support to customers. But often, the result is an overwhelming maze of information that doesn’t help the customer to resolve their issues quickly and easily.”
“This makes sense logically, as customers’ negative emotions are heightened in self-service: No one is holding their hand, assuring them things are fine.”
Brands can benefit from making self-service options more conversational. They can carefully guide customers to the answers they're looking for with a better UI/UX. Doing so will help them will feel more confident in getting their issues resolved.
Key Takeaway: The demand for self-service options is on the rise, but self-service portals place too much of a burden on customers to find what they need. There is an opportunity to make these portals more conversational to avoid channel switching.
6. Consumers expect shorter response times
90% of customers rate an “immediate” response as important or very important when they have a customer service question. 60% of customers define “immediate” as under 10 minutes. Source: HubSpot
Lastly, customer communication preferences are evolving in a way that puts speed at the forefront. More customers today expect real-time customer service, regardless of which channel they reach out on.
According to HubSpot, 90% of customers rate an “immediate” response as important or very important when they have a customer service question. What’s more, 60% of customers define “immediate” as under 10 minutes.
Key Takeaway: Again, patience and attentiveness are scarce among customers, especially in a post-pandemic world. They have grown accustomed to the digital-first approach that many brands were forced to take during the pandemic, and they don’t want to look back.
A final take on 2023 customer communication preferences
If there is one thing that the COVID-19 crisis taught us, it is that customers have zero tolerance for digital inconvenience. Customer communication preferences are evolving such that speed, convenience, and personalization are the new normal.
Brands must adopt the right technology to scale customer engagement on more channels, as well as meet rising expectations. Naturally, technology will be critical for brands to navigate an increasingly digital world.