We tend to think that the thing that sets a company apart is its intellectual capital or its mighty inventions. But we often forget that doing business is a fundamentally relational operation. Ultimately, all we have as companies is our customers and their attitude towards our brand.
What is so striking about the history of business is the extent to which companies have risen up thanks to their impeccable customer service. It’s always been a way to differentiate from the competition and offer something that customers want more than an advanced product line.
As we enter 2017, the opportunities for companies to differentiate themselves from the competition are increasing. New technology is making it possible to offer customers unrivalled experiences. But the window of time to get ahead is short, so it’s important to adopt new technologies now.
Recently, Gartner did a study of the technologies that they expected would transform customer experience going forward. Let’s take a look at what they found.
One of the most annoying things for customers is having to restate their problems multiple times as they switch between various channels of communication. For instance, a customer might ring up a company to report a problem with their computer. The assistant on the other end of the line will patiently listen to their problem and then advise them that a technician will soon get in contact with them over a chat app to tell them what to do. Unfortunately, when the technician finally gets in touch, the customer has to restate their initial problem because the telephone assistant doesn’t have the systems to relay the client’s problem to the person who will actually fix it.
In 2017, businesses are going to start solving this annoying problem. Although the concept of omnichannel support isn’t new, this year is probably the first in which it has been truly feasible. Omnichannel support aims to eliminate this problem by integrating many different communication channels as well as remembering customer issues from the past. The idea is to have a universal data bank on any given client that can be added to and used, no matter how the customer chooses to interact with the business, whether it’s over the phone, via Skype, through emails or via instant messaging.
What this ultimately means is that it is no longer acceptable for businesses to merely respond to customers when they call up (something that was once considered a luxury). Now businesses have to “know” their customers inside out, right after they have collected the relevant information. This information needs to be spread throughout the firm as soon as it is received and transmitted to all of the people with whom a customer could interact. In a sense, a client shouldn’t feel as if they are talking to multiple people, each with different perspectives and knowledge. Instead, they should be able to speak to the business as if it is one person who knows them really well.
Although this might sound futuristic, it is already something that has been tried. Zappos, a company famous for wanting to make the whole world happy, has used omnichannel customer support extensively. It wanted to create a system whereby customers could get in contact with the business however they wanted, and the company would respond and get to know them, regardless of how they chose to communicate. Eventually, omnichannel support got people advertising the company through word of mouth, growing Zappos’ business and making it a household name.
Big Data Will Individualize Customer Service
One of the reasons why modern businesses are investing so heavily in IT support is to improve the level of personalised customer service their company can offer. Big data is changing how companies analyse customer needs and how they interact with them. Better information is helping businesses to learn about what their customers like and what they don’t, how they behave, and what they think of their customer service.
By using big data, even the largest companies will soon be interacting with customers as if they know them on an individual level. We can already see this sort of thing, of course, on ecommerce websites. These sites remember our click patterns each time we visit and quickly build up a picture of the kind of products we’re interested in. These data are then used to offer us products and discount according to our unique preferences, which in turn improve the overall experience.
But now the personalization of customer service is leaking out of the digital world and finding its way into businesses that are firmly based in reality. Take Southwest Airlines for example. Southwest, like many other great airlines, is known for the lengths it goes to to engender incredible customer service. Now they’re using big data to generate yet another leap in the quality of customer experience. One of the things that they are doing is recording their speech interaction with customers, crunching the data, and then using it to find out which forms of communication generate the greatest positive sentiment. It sounds pretty scary that an airline would record everything you say to its cabin crew, but Southwest feels that the recording will give it a substantial advantage over its competitors.
Artificial Intelligence, The Hottest Customer Experience Technology Right Now
Last year was a big year for artificial intelligence. At the beginning of 2016, there were perhaps a couple of thousand people beavering away in universities, a handful of tech startups and a few technology publications talking about the technology. But thanks to the fact that a computer beat the world champion Go player back in April, coupled with the emergence of self-driving cars and Google’s ubiquitous use of deep learning across its product line, AI is suddenly big news.
All this activity has gotten many people wondering how it can all be used to improve customer service. The first stage of AI implementation in customer service will be to provide customers and the people interacting with them with real-time, up to the minute information relevant to their particular problem. It’ll be like doing an instant Google search that brings up the exact information you need to benefit the customer.
The next step, and the one that most people imagine is getting bots to actually talk to customers and make decisions. We already see the precursors of this, thanks to rapid improvements in voice recognition technology, but right now there aren’t any companies where you talk to a bot about your problems, and then they offer you solutions.
This will all change in the future. Companies like Pypestream, a B2B company providing communication channels for business, want to use bots and AI to deal with routine tasks and customer issues. They’ve found that some problems occur over and over again and don’t actually require the full complexity of human intelligence to resolve. They can be passed off to an AI system, so long as the problem doesn’t contain any unique challenges, specific to the customer. Pypestream’s aim is to reduce the length of time that customers spend on hold and the time it takes to look for customer service email addresses.
More Messaging, Simple Yet Underutilised
The combination of big data and artificial intelligence is going to give companies more data than they have ever had before about their customers. This, in turn, will transform their ability to communicate with their patrons on a personal level.
At the same time, the market for messaging services continues to expand. Right now there are 2.5 billion people in the world who use some sort of messaging app. But the year 2018, that’s expected to go up to a whopping 3.6 billion. But it turns out that companies are underutilising personal messaging in their ad campaigns. This will all change when AI, big data and messaging apps merge to produce far more natural conversations between businesses and their customers.
In the future, customers won’t get spammed with random messages via text offering them discounts on their gym membership. Instead, advertisers will wait for the opportune moment to communicate, based on their customer’s behaviour and mood using data collected from their mobile devices. When a customer is about to go for a jog in the park, a gym might then text the customer to say that it is now offering aerobics classes at a discount. What’s more, the language that the company uses will be a lot more personal to the customer. It’ll communicate in a way that is similar to a person’s friends, using the client’s name, as well as remember what they like and what they don’t like. It’ll be more like getting a message from a long lost friend than the usual marketing material out there at the moment which comes with plenty of exclamation marks.
There are plenty of other customer service technologies in development, besides these main themes. These include better business process management, customer analytics, loyalty management and better privacy, given all those data that are now being collected. Gartner expects that these new technologies will improve customer experience in the long run.