looking forward
Customer experience should get interesting in the year ahead. Expectations are at an all time high while customer trust is at an all time low PHOTO: Florian Pérennès

It’s the time of year where customer experience (CX) professionals and pundits dust off their crystal balls as the industry looks toward another year of uncertain opportunities and challenges. Last year raised the bar, as breakout technologies, such as artificial intelligence (AI), intelligent assistants and robotic automation, began to take hold and shift the CX paradigm as we know it.

At the same time, CX quality has largely stalled. According to a Forrester Research report, multiple data sources show that customer confidence and spending are up, and expectations are rising as consumers interact with brands more than ever before. But the data also shows that trust in companies has dropped precipitously, which means brands are missing the mark in delivering on their customers’ expectations.

Customer Experience Questions and Changes

Heading into 2018, businesses must respond to a sea of change and find answers to a several looming questions. How will new regulations impact the “age of engagement” with customers? How transparent should companies be about their use of AI? What role will chatbots and other technologies play in CX efforts?

In the year ahead, the answers to those questions may emerge as the following six CX trends take shape:

1. Brands will fight for bigger pieces of the customer ecosystem pie

As technology further commoditizes services that are core to many organizations’ business models, brands will expand their ecosystems to own more parts of the customer journey — and move into areas way outside their usual comfort zones. For example, any bank can process a loan today. But what if a bank could also connect customers to reputable real estate agents and home inspectors to deliver an all-encompassing and superior home-buying experience? Whoever can connect the complete ecosystem will deliver the most value to the customer and maintain a competitive advantage.

2. All employees will become customer engagement agents

In 2018, customers will no longer be at the mercy of disconnected enterprise systems and employees with specialized skill sets. Advances in artificial intelligence and robotic automation will blur the lines between service agents, salespeople and marketers — and will continue to erode the line between the front and back offices. All customer-facing employees will be able to service, sell or do anything the customer needs in the moment. And back-office employees will need to view their jobs in the context of delivering outcomes for customers. The organization will move with the customer, as opposed the customer having to move across different departments in the organization.

3. Companies will open the “black box” and be more transparent about AI

A recent Pegasystems survey shows that the more people are knowingly exposed to AI, the more comfortable they become with businesses using it to engage with them. In 2018, organizations will catch on to this and reveal what’s behind the AI curtain to expose how they make recommendations. The key is being transparent about when AI is being used — and how it is making decisions — even when a system is designed to perform in a way designed to make consumers think they are interacting with people. Ultimately, this transparency will build more trust between companies and their customers while also dispelling common fears about AI.

4. New regulations will raise the CX stakes

In May, the EU’s new General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) will give European citizens the right to ask businesses to delete their personal information. How can businesses avoid this fate? By not giving customers a reason to request deletion in the first place. 

Touchpoints that aren’t relevant, timely, contextual and consistent will increase the odds that people will want their data deleted. Every brand interaction will become an opportunity for consumers to question whether they really want a particular company to have their information. Any business with EU customers (i.e., practically every business) will be impacted, and other countries may follow suit with similar regulations. This will force businesses to put even greater emphasis on CX, because poor experiences could not only cost them sales, but also lead to requests that they give up their data.

5. Customer empathy will become the new customer personalization

Companies are collecting new data signals in real time from all kinds of digital inputs. This data gives businesses the ability to demonstrate new levels of empathy toward their customers on a broad scale. It gives them the power to assess a customer’s state of mind in the moment — including emotional, motivational, behavioral, situational and environmental factors affecting their moods. How do they feel? What are they trying to achieve? What outside challenges are they facing that may affect their decision-making? 

Armed with this information through advanced AI, businesses can relate to customers on a whole new level to provide the best possible service. At the same time, the ability to understand empathy becomes a vital job skill for CX leaders — and data scientists — to cultivate.

6. Robotic assistants will be available to just about everyone

Robotic software, including chatbots and robotic automation tools, will come of age in 2018 and become commonplace across sales, service and marketing desktops. They will be easier to use and deploy than ever before, and they will eliminate the pain of mundane tasks that slow companies down. 

Additionally, we’ll even start to see robots interact with other robots to drive efficiency. Devices and systems powered by Siri and Alexa will talk to business-created bots to solve customer issues — and that will ultimately improve employee productivity and customer satisfaction.

The coming year promises to bring a flurry of opportunities for brands to deliver more targeted, personalized and relevant customer experiences. Businesses that can effectively navigate the forces of change will be the ones to lead the pack and win the hearts (and wallets) of increasingly fickle and empowered customers.