In 2011 consumers took to mobile and social to communicate with brands at increasing rates. This movement clearly represents an evolution in customer engagement fueled by the shift in power from the company to the customer.
The increase in customers' control of their experiences will continue to challenge the processes, organizational structures, and systems that companies have put in place to communicate with customers, and will require a change in corporate mind-sets, as well. Companies must adapt to the new ways in which customers want brands to serve them.
Consequently, experts predict that trends such as social customer communities, multichannel knowledge management, virtual agents in mobile and social, and natural language processing will have the biggest impact on the customer service experience in 2012. Brands that don't innovate around these trends—and that fail to serve customers where, when, and how they want to be served—may not be around long enough to worry about trends in 2013.
Here, several industry insiders offer their predictions on key customer service trends and how companies can harness them in 2012:
On embedding customer service into mobile:
The real opportunity [with mobile] is in controlling that human interface, and that's what Apple's Siri started with…having natural language to tell your phone what to do. I think we'll have more users of smart phones and fewer users of websites. And, I think human emulation technology is really going to launch in a big way next year. There seems to be a lot of pent-up demand for a way to automate human-to-human chat. – Fred Brown, CEO of NextIT
The proliferation of smart phones and mobile devices will continue to change how customers choose to interact with companies. Businesses must be prepared to both support and improve the communications channels that their customers prefer. In order to do this, we can expect to see an increase in the number of companies that deploy analytics throughout 2012. The challenge is to transform the vast amount of data into actionable information to make smarter decisions throughout an organization. The companies that master the evolving complexities of customer preferences will earn their enduring loyalty. – Tim Moynihan, vice president of marketing, Empirix
In today's social environment you should try to offer as much customer support as you can. In the mobile world, speech interaction becomes an important consideration that we recommend people think about first. It's really about understanding what a user is doing when they're interacting with a company from a mobile perspective. – Pam Kostka, the CMO of VirtuOz.
With smart phone adoption nearing 50 percent in the U.S. and many other countries, the smart phone will start to replace the traditional call center as the primary interaction channel. This will encourage customers to look to the smart phone as the primary portal for services and the main method of communication. Service providers will look to it, too, as it allows them to provide services at a lower cost per interaction and deliver tailored offerings to users. – Scott Kolman, senior vice president, marketing, at SpeechCycle
Smart phones, tablets, and call center applications will all improve. With the introduction of the iPhone, Apple changed the way business happens by creating software development kits and useful Web browsers for smart phones and tablets. This allows businesses to create mobile applications for call centers. These applications can be cloud-based applications so agents can access and update their CRM solutions or customer records from any computer with Internet access. – Angie Reed, product marketing manager, Digium
We are an increasingly mobile society, and it opens the door for additional ways to lower service costs, drive revenue, and increase loyalty through automation. Companies can send notifications, such as low-balance alerts or payment reminders, via text and can offer mobile Web applications for convenience and fast access to information. Personalization, outbound IVR, SMS, and mobile Web applications are also enabling companies to take advantage of opportunities to deliver targeted offers and promotions. Also, location-based services and technologies will make mobile become much more than a reactive service channel; [mobile will be] more of a proactive way to interact with customers and increase their lifetime value to the business. – Kim Martin, director of marketing for Voxeo
On the evolution of service via social:
More companies will proactively identify customer issues that arise in social media. While many will reach out to individual customers, the smart ones will use the information to identify emerging issues that cut across many customers. This insight will help companies address problems quickly, minimizing the impact that they have on their broader customer base. Rather than trying to respond to a handful of customer problems, leading companies will help many customers avoid issues in the first place. This early warning system will also be used to drive local inventory and merchandising strategies. WalmartLabs, for instance, plans to analyze local Twitter feeds to identify the types of products that people are talking about near each store. – Bruce Temkin, managing partner, Temkin Group
I see more [change] occurring, like treating Twitter as a service channel, similar to how we use the phone or email channel to engage with a brand. That to me is what we'll really see over the next 12 to 24 months. – David Vap, chief solutions officer, RightNow Technologies
We see building communities for your own customer base as an increasing trend. Getting insights and feedback from communities is one of the characteristics and benefits of having one. That's ultimately where companies can go to for a source of new ways to improve their business. – Duke Chung, chairman and co-founder, Parature
This year social has turned a corner. It is another way of doing business. But social…can't be a back-door entryway into customer service organizations. If you're not getting good service from your bank, you shouldn't have to tweet to get service. We need the same processes [and] service level agreements… across all channels. If Twitter is being used as a back door, it points to the fact that something in the normal service processes is broken. – Kate Leggett, senior analyst, Forrester Research
Right now there is the ability to vent in a social way, but customers…are going to expect more action [in response to service inquiries] than what they're getting. Corporations…will have to get more interactive with social. – Fred Brown, CEO of NextIT
On the role of the contact center:
We're living in a fantasy that the ringing of the PBX is starting a process in which a company engages with a customer. The contact center has to wake up and realize that it is becoming the second or third point in the journey of the customer. The other thing they have to realize is that the role of the contact center will have to change. Companies also must start to realize that customers usually call the contact center because something is wrong and they need to get it resolved. The contact center will become the emotional side of the business. – Eric Tamblyn, vice president, product marketing, Alcatel-Lucent Genesys
The contact center has always housed a large percentage of important interactions with customers, but companies learn very little from these key touchpoints. That's changing. Newer technologies will allow companies to extract deep insights from unstructured content like recorded calls, emails, and chat sessions. Leading companies will learn what drives satisfaction and loyalty and use the information to change the products they sell, how they market their offerings, and how they service customers. – Bruce Temkin, managing partner, The Temkin Group
There will be more jobs coming back offshore versus onshore. Customers don't want to talk to somebody who can't really help them. A lot of cheaper avenues aren't delivering the satisfaction that consumers are demanding in this flat world. – Fred Brown, CEO of NextIT
Companies are focusing on giving agents an understanding of all prior interactions that the customers had so an agent can personalize and contexualize communications with the customer. There is also a need to be able to associate a social profile with a customer's identity. – Kate Leggett, senior analyst, Forrester Research
Intelligent phone systems will integrate with mobile, and unified communications will allow agents to receive their office calls on their mobile devices, whether they are on a Wi-Fi network or a traditional cellular network. – Angie Reed, product marketing manager, Digium
On delivering a contextual service experience:
Rather than designing experiences that just exist online, companies will more frequently build experiences that integrate digital experiences with non-digital experiences. Look for more retailers, for instance, to follow Apple's lead in scheduling in-store appointments online. The key to more advanced digital/physical connections is context, the ability to understand where the digital device exists in the physical world. QR codes will continue to serve as a rudimentary form of context, but companies will increasingly tap into GPS coordinates and other mechanisms. For example, if a customer indicates on their own Apple Store iPhone app that they'll be coming in for service, the employee's iPod Touch tracks the customer around the store when he enters. – Bruce Temkin, managing partner, The Temkin Group
There is continued refinement where [systems are] gathering information about the consumer, analyzing that information, and predicting the information for the answer that an agent might need, versus having the agent dig that up by themselves. – David Vap, chief solutions officer, RightNow Technologies
Knowledge management has been around for a long time, but we've seen a real resurgence. It has to be deeply integrated into CRM to personalize the knowledge that gets presented to the agent. Case in point is there are few stand-alone knowledge management solutions anymore. – Kate Leggett, senior analyst, Forrester Research
We will see increased requests for enhanced knowledge capabilities. Over the past 10 years, knowledge management was made public on websites. I think now, companies are pushing that information out to other touchpoints, whether it's in social or mobile, and we're seeing a lot of opportunity to do that. – Duke Chung, chairman and co-founder, Parature