If there’s one thing I’ve learned about technology predictions, it’s that they consistently validate the famous saying that “the hardest thing to predict … is the future.” Still, that doesn’t stop us from taking educated guesses at what the future holds. In 2016, there were several exciting developments in business and technology that give me a great deal of confidence about the year ahead.
First, advances in Internet of Things (IoT), artificial intelligence (AI) and machine learning (ML) are beginning to have a notable impact on mainstream business operations, and will play a significant role to play in shaping the customer experience going forward. We’ve seen announcements from virtually every major tech player in these areas. Second, the tech industry has awakened to the power of chatbots, and we’re seeing businesses in all industries deploying this technology. Third, a recent Forrester survey that found 37 percent of marketing decision-makers see improving customer experience (CX) as a critical priority for them in 2017, second only to growing revenue.
We are entering a new era for businesses where consumer expectations are higher than ever, and customer experience is paramount. It’s an era where the companies that understand, anticipate and act on consumer intent will thrive, and those that don’t will be disrupted. I call this “the Age of Intent.” It’s an age that technology, when applied correctly, can significantly improve a consumer’s experience with a business, driving improved customer satisfaction and increased revenue for that business.
2016 brought many exciting technologies into the mainstream, and 2017 will be a test of their usefulness in enhancing the customer experience. As such, here are five major trends that I see heading into this year.
1. Chatbot assistance will become widespread
Chatbots took centre stage in 2016 with Siri, Cortana, Alexa, IBM Watson, Salesforce Einstein, and Facebook’s Bot Engine for Messenger. In fact by now you have heard that through the holiday season, Amazon Echo and Google Home were so popular that the companies ran out of stock. That’s how much people underestimated the demand for these assistants.
Now that the groundwork has been laid, 2017 will be the year in which more and more businesses deploy AI-powered chatbots to handle customer queries efficiently and at scale. This will be especially critical as the number of consumers who begin their customer service journey online increases, with 64 percent of U.S. consumers making initial contact with a company via its website. And with nearly 40 percent of U.S. Millennials open to interacting with a company through a messaging app, we are on pace to see the early stages of adoption on this front -- specifically as these apps are used to communicate order updates to the customer: 1 in 5 consumers are most excited to receive instant order updates via a messaging app, over receiving other retail tech offerings, like immersive virtual experiences and drone delivery. The idea isn’t that chatbots will cover everything, and companies shouldn’t think of them as a silver bullet. It's that they will empower us all to do things more efficiently. Humans will still be a critical piece of the equation for the foreseeable future. Still, 2017 will see more companies applying chatbot technology even beyond messaging apps. Chatbots will empower customers to self-serve on several channels, including SMS, mobile apps, e-mail and even phone.
2. Marketing will become more personalised
The digital transformation of business activities is changing the way companies market their products and services. Businesses are taking a deeper dive into customer preferences, including specific styles, product features or colours that best resonate with that shopper.
Today’s businesses have endless opportunity to capture data about customer preferences. In 2017, more companies will use cognitive science to grab a consumer’s attention and continuously gain insight into what works. The results of personalised ads will be cycled back through machine-learning models for continuous improvement. By dynamically blending creative content together in interesting new ways, companies will be able to serve up ads that outperform generic ones.
3. Channels will blend together and the handoff will be more seamless
Central to understanding intent is the need to orchestrate channels. Rather than adding more channels, companies will begin to orchestrate the customer experience by pairing channels to make a consumer’s experience easier. Intent-driven engagement uses a variety of data (profile, interaction, relationship) and applies artificial intelligence and machine learning techniques to understand the what a consumer is trying to do, predict his or her next-most-likely action and deliver an experience that meets that consumer’s needs.
For example, many consumers are already on the website while making a phone call to the customer service department, so pairing web and phone will be the logical starting point for most businesses. For example, a company could make use of the consumer’s screen to enhance the interaction. Companies will do a better job choreographing a consumer’s experience within and across channel pairs such as chatbot to live chat, or mobile app to IVR.
4. Companies will increasingly adopt intent-driven engagement
The role of data will evolve from being reactive to proactive. Rather than analysing data to simply understand how consumers have behaved in the past, companies will tap into the power of prediction to determine, in real-time, a customer’s true intent. Leading companies are already using data to accurately predict consumer behaviour to improve and expedite customer journeys, and this practice will spread widely throughout consumer-facing companies 2017.
Intent-driven engagement can be done today through both automated self-service (such as a chatbots) or through the help of a live agent, but the applications don’t end there. Machine-to-machine communication through devices and IoT sensors will also be a useful source of data that can be used to deliver personalised support. For example, in consumer electronics, it could help to predict or even fix problems before they happen.
5. Regulated industries will jump on the bandwagon
Companies such as Amazon, Uber and Airbnb have ushered in a new set of customer expectations because they’ve prioritised the customer experience to the point where it’s barely noticeable. The rise of innovative startups in fintech and insurance will force companies in regulated industries to adapt to this evolving consumer mindset, or else lose customers to the competition. Last year, Bank of America and Mastercard introduced chatbots, signaling the technology’s foray into industries that are traditionally slower to adapt.
There is a logical evolution taking place, from in-person visits with a healthcare insurance company or personal banker, for example, to online virtual assistance. These intelligent assistants utilise technology such as natural language interfaces, self-service or chat to engage and guide consumers along their journeys, and when done correctly, can perform as effectively as a company’s top human agent. With an abundance of options available to consumers, regulated industries will take a cue from the on-demand economy and invest in technologies to make the customer experience feel effortless.
6. Traditional Technology Silos Will Break Down
We will see a blurring of lines between traditional technology categories. For example, companies often think in terms of “salesforce automation,” “lead management,” “customer interaction cloud,” etc., however, we’re moving into a world where those technologies can, and must work together. The new era will be all about the consumer, as opposed to the technology itself. And it’s about time. With the rise of service architecture, an enterprise can now put together a complete system that integrates with back-end data. With the rise of APIs and micro-services, we’ll see many more companies move in this direction over the coming year.
2017 will be a very exciting year to watch, and I believe it will be pivotal in transforming the way that people relate to technology and in making it simple for consumers to get things done.