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3 Trends Shaping a New Year

Baseball legend Yogi Berra once quipped, “It's tough to make predictions, especially about the future.”

I’ve concluded that making accurate predictions is actually pretty easy—if you keep dates out. For example, I expected home agents to become commonplace; and I predicted that social media would encourage (pressure) many companies to improve service. Both were... ahem...right on the money. And both were early (home agents by fifteen years and social by a few). I’m not an economist, but I can tell you there is a recession coming….... and another boom. Just don’t ask me when! :)

By any measure, this past year has been a dynamic season of change for customer service. Customer expectations evolved at a fast clip, social continued to emerge as a powerful service channel, and many organizations made genuine strides to become more customer-centric (with a notable trend to cultivate services that are mobile-friendly).

3 Customer Service Trends to Watch in 2017

These themes will undoubtedly continue. And let me suggest three standout trends that will help shape the coming year (and beyond).

Mainstreaming chatbots. Here’s a factoid to chew on: More people are using messenger apps than social networks. More than 2.5 billion people currently have at least one messaging app (e.g., WhatsApp, Facebook Messenger, WeChat, Viber, etc.) installed on their smartphones, a number that some analysts believe will reach 3.6 billion by 2018 (source: The Economist). Predictably, many organizations are rapidly deploying capabilities to interact with customers via a chat/messaging interface.

If this sounds like the makings of a bad B movie, go to your mobile and give one or two applications a try. I transfer American Express points flawlessly. Bots help Whole Foods’ customers shop, and 1-800 Flowers’ bot enables customers to order flower arrangements. The game changer: machines that use AI to learn as they interact. A robust community of technology and support companies has emerged in this space.

Supporting those who serve. As technology and automation (i.e., bots) proliferate, the human connection is becoming more important than ever. We’ll see more organizations adapt and operationalize the perspective of Jan Carlzon, former CEO of Scandinavian Airlines, when he conveyed this message to the broad organization: “If you’re not serving the customer, your job is to be serving someone who is.”

When an organization stands behind customer service, employee engagement tends to thrive—and there is a powerful connection between employee engagement and business results. (Example: Gallup concludes that companies with highly engaged workforces outperform their peers by 147% in earnings per share.)

As Southwest Airlines writes on their company blog, “In our ‘order of importance,’ we put our employees first, then our customers, then our shareholders. Many companies feel you have to appease the customers or shareholders first… We believe that, if we treat our employees right, they will treat our customers right, and in turn that results in increased business and profits that make everyone happy.”

Effective Personalization. Personalization has been around for years, but both data analytics and customer expectations have evolved. Variables such as customer demographics, likes and dislikes, purchase history, and the context of how customers engage (channels, location, social communities, etc.) can be harnessed to deliver personalized services customers love. Examples include:

  • Alerts for new products or sales
  • Intelligent call routing
  • Security alerts and fraud protection
  • Customized content
  • Guided website search and navigation
  • And others…

Amazon—who has become a bellwether for mass-market personalization—attributes up to 35% of its revenue to cross-selling. As customers browse Amazon’s website, the company uses both purchase histories of those customers and the histories and preferences of other customers to offer relevant and targeted product recommendations.

When misapplied, personalization can be a big turnoff (or downright creepy)—this is an area you have to get right. Doing so requires a full complement of disciplines that include customer service, marketing, IT, and others. Ironically, the renewed focus on personalization is forcing many organizations to better understand and refine the end-to-end customer journey—a positive development for customers, regardless of personalization.

These and other trends will help define what promises to be an active year in the growth and evolution of customer services. My take on the overall message? This is an important season of development—one that, more than ever, requires a cross-functional approach.

(This article was originally published in The Edge of Service™ newsletter, December 2016)