The six trends that shaped customer service in 2016

Customer service
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Has customer service ever been as important as it has in the last 12 months? At a time when the majority of business leaders believe that customer experience is becoming the main basis for competitive differentiation, customer service plays an integral role.

Indeed, a survey of 1,000 UK consumers, commissioned by Interactive Intelligence, found that over three-quarters of consumers will use a different retailer if they don’t receive adequate service, while half will share negative feedback online or via social media if they are unsatisfied.

So with service being a key battleground for businesses, what are the main trends that have characterised its development in 2016? MyCustomer spoke with some of the leading experts in the field to find out.

1. Messaging apps

2016 heralded the era of the messaging app. In March, an important milestone was reached when the top four messaging apps combined (WhatsApp, Facebook Messenger, WeChat and Viber) equaled the amount of users as the top four social networks, with 2.125 billion monthly active users globally. Significantly, all of those were mobile users, while the social network users included computer use, and crucially there is another difference between the two platforms – social is (mostly) public while messaging apps are private.

It was only a matter of time before the service implications of this trend were realised, and sure enough this was borne out, helped largely by Facebook’s decision in April to open up Facebook Messenger to the public and developers.

“I think the move from public social customer service on Facebook to private messaging is interesting,” says Martin Hill-Wilson, founder of Brainfood Consulting. “It’s a canny move by Facebook in the sense that many brands who were nervous about being in the public eye can now use a channel with the same visibility as traditional text channels.

“Of course, it's no silver bullet but the rise in use of messaging platforms at the expense of social and traditional mobile apps is a hugely significant computing trend that impacts much more broadly than the customer service use case. Meanwhile, Twitter has matched Facebook in terms of launching new functionality to enrich the platform for customer service and indeed mirror Facebook in making private messaging an easier option. But Twitter does remain the go to platform for public based customer service.”

2. Chatbots

When Facebook opened up Messenger, it paved the way for developers to build bots for the platform. And this played a large part in driving chatbots to prominence in 2016.

Within three months of Facebook’s move, the number of chatbots on the platform had soared to over 30,000, and it has continued to climb. Not to be outdone, tech giants including Google, Microsoft and Apple subsequently outlined their chatbot strategies.

In November, Twitter joined the party, offering chatbot capabilities via automated welcome messages and quick replies through its Direct Message function. Brands that piloted the service with versions of the bots included Pizza Hut, Airbnb and Spotify.

Mike Johnson, improvement manager for product at Tesco, another brand developing a DM tool, explained the appeal:  “Our team currently spends 14% of DM replies asking for additional customer information. This new functionality allows us to seamlessly gather more customer context prior to responding, so we can serve them in the most helpful, relevant, and efficient way.”

Scott Horn, chief marketing officer of [24]7 has highlighted a number of ways that chatbots are being deployed across multiple sectors:

  • Retail: A large US retail chain is preparing to roll out a system to let consumers receive order notifications, receipts and shipping updates, all through a single messaging platform.
  • Travel: A major airline is preparing to roll out a system for handling the entire flight booking life cycle including booking confirmations, reminders when check-in opens, getting a boarding pass and receiving flight status updates.
  • Entertainment: An online entertainment service will soon offer service updates, outage notifications and alerts to update credit card information before it expires.

3. Self-service

Martin Hill-Wilson believes that the rise of this latest wave of self-service, driven by AI-fuelled intelligent assistance, is symptomatic of a wider service trend.

He explains: “Assuming customer journeys are sufficiently simplified so that they  do not require live assistance as compensation, then the natural  level of demand for live assistance will drop from current levels to around 20% of service interactions based on the unique capabilities people bring to situation that are emotional, complex or require relationship development. All the rest are candidates for either self-service or proactive service.

“The transformational impact on cost-to-serve will generate an accelerated adoption over the next few years as decision-makers witness the impact of early-adopters and start to realise that they are over using their human capital when customer would prefer the speed and availability of some form of intelligent assistance.”

4. Video

While there may be a growing trend away from assisted service, that’s not to say that it’s disappearing altogether. Social channels continue to attract growing service investment and attention from organisations, for instance.

Claire Boscq, founder of The Busy Queen Bee, notes:  “I think social media has had the biggest impact this year, the way businesses engaged with their customers prior social media was completely different, larger organisations have completely embraced the concept and are constantly monitoring and measure their services and engaging with their customers through social media platform.”

Elsewhere, organisations that have been exploring how to improve the convenience and effectiveness of agent-assisted service have been exploring improvements in video technology.

Personalised video, for example using the customer's own data in a video template, has been increasingly popular this year.

“Video has definitely been another customer service trend that has characterised 2016,” says Dr Nicola Millard, head of customer insight and futurology at BT.

“After a few years of video appearing on various trends lists, there is evidence of it being successfully deployed in a number of organisations. Its real advantage is the ability for customers to get instant access to experts without needing to make an appointment. Financial services are using it successfully for mortgage advice. It is also being used in healthcare, technical help and in retail.

“Where it hasn't worked so well is in situations where there is no need for a personal touch or where customers (and agents) are uncomfortable with the presence of a camera. Personalised video, for example using the customer's own data in a video template, has also been increasingly popular this year and will continue to develop in 2017.”

5. Easy customer experience

Whether chatbots, video or messaging apps, the deployment of these channels represents part of a wider push from organisations to reduce customer effort in their interactions. Dr. Millard says 2016 has been the “year of the ‘easy customer experience’”.

“We’ve finally seen the recognition that making things easy for customers (and employees) can improve loyalty and retention and cut costs while simultaneously improving the customer experience,” she says. “Scores such as the customer effort score or net easy have started to take their seat at the top table of measures such as CSAT (customer satisfaction), RFT (right first time) and NPS (Net Promoter Score).

“They have also become the missing bridging link between operational and customer measures - as customers who are finding things difficult are unlikely to recommend and have often had to make contact multiple times. Changing the design of a website, or developing more sophisticated agent training can also have a more instant impact on the easy customer experience than on scores like NPS, so it is a great measure for operational people.”

6. Technical challenges

However, with the likes of video, chatbots and messaging apps adding to an already busy mix of service channels, businesses have also experienced greater technical challenges.

“The drive towards a digital, mobile, social world has been the key focus for our market this year,” says Anne Marie Forsyth, CEO of the Contact Centre Organisation (CCA). “Organisations are feeling the combined pressure to keep up with changing customer demands and fatigue with constant transitioning. They have to keep pace with change whilst overcoming legacy infrastructure and technology.”

Organisations are feeling the combined pressure to keep up with changing customer demands and fatigue with constant transitioning.

Dimension Data's 2016 Global Contact Centre Benchmarking report forecasts that as we move into 2017, most contact centres will support an average of nine channels. But, at the same time, at the moment just 36% of businesses questioned by Dimension Data said they could track a customer journey that spans across those multiples channels.

Indeed, the research revealed that connected customer journeys (or lack thereof) represent the number one factor affecting customer experience capability, reported by over 40% of respondents.

The biggest technology obstacles preventing an integrated seamless experience across channels were:

  • Integrating multiple tech systems (reported by 61% of respondents).
  • Legacy systems inhibiting flexibility and progress but can’t be replaced (46%).
  • Stretch on resources - too many competing priorities (37%).
  • Securing budget and cost burdens (37%).
  • No common strategy - solutions created in silos (26%).
  • Lack of required technology (27%).
  • Speed of change - technology can’t keep up with requirements (27%).
  • Maintaining a Big Data view across the organisation (15%).

So with the drive to improve customer service through the support of new channels only serving to create other customer experience problems elsewhere, businesses in 2016 may have felt that customer service had become their wicked problem.

But with 2017 just around the corner, fresh thinking and innovation awaits. If customer service really does represent a key battleground, then fortune will almost certainly favour the brave. Who knows how many of today’s obstacles can be overcome in the ensuing 12 months (but let’s hope they don’t create too many other challenges). 

About Neil Davey

ND

Neil Davey is the managing editor of MyCustomer. An experienced business journalist and editor, Neil has worked on a variety of newspapers, magazines and websites over the past 15 years, including Internet Works, CXO magazine and Business Management. He joined Sift Media in 2007.

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