7 Realistic Customer Service Trends for 2016

"In the old world, you devoted 30% of your time to building a great service and 70% of your time to shouting about it. In the new world, that inverts." – Jeff Bezos

The way people communicate is changing at a staggering pace, becoming easier, faster, and more frequent. Customer service needs to adjust to these new forms of communications, and it does.

Some recent innovations are close to science fiction coming true. We’ve compiled 7 customer service trends that are becoming most real in 2016.

Also check out: "8 Realistic Customer Service Trends for 2017".

1. Customer experience is 2016’s competitive battleground

Looking for future trends, Gartner found that 89 percent of companies expected to be competing mostly on the basis of customer experience in 2016. A stunning figure, even more so since it has jolted up from 36 percent within just four years.

We can better grasp the the long way CX has come by looking at mcorpcx’s observation that “just 10 years ago, the phrase Customer Experience Management (CEM) didn’t even register according to Google Trends.”

keyword customer service on google trends 2005 to 2016
The development of ‘customer service’ on Google Trends in the last 10 years

The term ‘customer service’ did rank as a trend at that time, though low and stagnant. This is what happened then:

keyword customer experience on google trends 2005 to 2016
The development of ‘customer experience' on Google Trends in the last 10 years

‘Customer experience’ shows up on Google Trends as a typical buzzword-graph. It’s steadily growing in importance, going through a stark rise at the beginning of each year, then declines towards the end. In 2016, its rise is stronger than ever:

The Gartner research shows that this time it’s more than empty augury. It claims that “50% of consumer product investments will be redirected to customer experience innovations” before the end of 2016. Companies have not only sensed the importance of CX, they are willing to invest.

2. 2016 will be the year of conversational commerce

Most B2C communication still happens via email and phone, with customer-centric companies using live chat for website support as well. In this respect customer service is a step behind private communication, which increasingly takes place via messengers and social networks.

But customer service will have caught up before the end of 2016. It’ll be normal for consumers to be chatting with businesses over their WhatsApp and Facebook Messenger. In fact, it will likely become the dominant mode of communication, because messaging offers benefits to both customers and businesses.

It’s instant. You see when the other side is present and you can have a live conversation. It’s also non-instant, since you can answer whenever you read a message. Knowing that a question has been read relieves pressure on both sides. Customers know the answer will reach them everywhere, right on their phone. That’s a big advantage to the comparably clumsy email process.

Compared to phone, instant messaging takes away a whole number of steps: dial 1 for this; dial 2 for that; waiting line jingles; referrals between employees and repeating an issue all over. Live chat does solve a lot of those issues, but the problem so far was that it was the difficulty for small teams to be online.

Facebook announced ‘Messenger for Business’ where live chat providers like Userlike can connect to the platform. Actually, we already did the same with WhatsApp, which recently dropped its $1 yearly fee. The interesting part is that for 2016 they are planning to capitalize from a move towards B2C communication.

In WhatsApp’s statement, the provider dispelled user concerns about ads to refinance the app. Instead, the model would be to allow consumers to communicate with businesses and organizations that they “want to hear from”, with businesses being the ones paying WhatsApp for their service.

Asia’s biggest messaging provider WeChat hasn’t made a similar statement yet, but it's been open to third party apps from the start.

David Marcus, Vice President of Messaging Products at Facebook, called chat threads “the new apps”, signaling social networks’ focus on offering new services and following the trend. No wonder businesses want to be on the spot. The users are ready, the businesses are ready. Only the platforms didn’t lend themselves to it yet. But in 2016, they will.

3. Users demand intelligent self-service options

Consumers become savvier every year. They’re informed by own research, reviews, forums, and their peers. This means they have a strong desire to stay in control of the purchase process. But it also means that they enter customer service territory with a variety of possible context, knowledge and skill.

These autonomous users are frustrated by the rigid conversation guidelines for the ‘average customer’. In the future, we’ll see less of that and more of service that hooks into the individuality of consumers.

Five years ago, Gartner boldly predicted that by 2020 “customers will manage 85% of their relationship with the enterprise without interacting with a human”. Self-service is a substantial part of that trend — and in 2016, it’s inevitable.

Microsoft asked 4,000 consumers what they expected from companies’ customer service. 90 percent stressed self-service options. As Forrester Research found, self-service pages outperform phone agents in user preference.

For the time, that is. Because businesses will intensify their efforts to have helpful information in place on their own sites for consumers with different states of knowledge.

Does that mean a relentless replacement of human service employees by learning machines, AI-powered agents like Stanley Kubrick’s opinionated HAL9000? No, (luckily) we’re not quite there yet. More likely, we’ll see a shift from static FAQs to a more dynamic form that offers suggestions based on your questions (like OMQ does it). Which is pretty exciting and futuristic already.

For more complex questions and sales support, however, real persons will still be indispensable. The more complex a question, the better a proficient human dealing with it. Kate Leggett: “Agents who field the more complex questions that cannot be easily answered via self-service must be able to access knowledge base content to reliably answer customer questions.”

4. Data drives 2016’s customer experience

The various points of the journey in which customers turn to the support desk pose a real challenge. For a good service approach, being aware of the customer’s level of knowledge is crucial. That’s why data to support the real-time personal customer service and dynamic self-service options will become more important in 2016.

Behavioral data could for example be used to assess the customer’s skills and context. This then allows them to be directed to the right page, service channel, or agent, more effectively. Sophisticated data will make businesses perform in an increasingly surgical manner.

For less personal service needs, consumers will see a former sci-fi-vision become reality in 2016: Cognitive learning technologies combine AI and data analysis to assist human operators in real-time support — allowing them to serve more customers more effectively.

As the Internet of Things is looming large, it could boost the meaning of data for customer service even more. Machine-to-machine communication through devices and sensors will be an important source of the data needed for customized support.

In consumer electronics, for example, this can help to predict, recognize or even fix issues before they occur to the owners. Or to assist them in getting the increasingly complex machines running in the first place.

5. Multichannel to omnichannel

‘Omnichannel’ — isn’t that the latest buzzword made up by #custserv-scenesters to have something to tweet about? Not this time. There really is a difference between multi- and omnichannel, and it’ll be quite an important trend in 2016.

In the last decade, users grew to take a variety of service channels for granted. Among them famously chat, phone, email, social media. The channels’ connectivity remained low though. Restating an issue after switching to another channel is tiringly familiar to all of us.

keyword multichannel  omnichannel on google trends 2005 to 2016
Decline of ‘multichannel’ and rise of ‘omnichannel’ on Google Trends in the last 10 years

‘Omnichannel’ has been around as a definition for some years, too. But not before recently we saw it realized on greater scale. In omnichannel, all channels are interconnected, barriers for users are removed, creating a seamless experience.

Integrative software solutions meeting the requirements for this approach needed time to be perfected. By now, the are growing in numbers and they’re getting bigger. Providers like Segment join communication channels and unify their data in one system. The resulting synergies will set new standards of user experience for years to come.

The meaning of user data also applies to the omnichannel approach. It mainly takes place in the collaborative use across different departments, as Mazin Gilbert from AT&T; told Forbes:
“Think of it like a jigsaw puzzle. We’re putting all the data together, anonymize them to strip out personal information, and developing an omni-channel view to experience the journey of our customers.”

6. Consumers will gain control over field service

The lines between online- and real-life have become blurred. Especially mobile applications, like Runtastic for our morning run, are designed to fasten onto those things that don’t necessarily require an connection to the online world - but that suddenly become much more fun once that connection is made. What drives this trend is the promise to gain control over even the tiniest of details in our lives.

In most fields, people can still choose how much they want to connect to their online life in order to have more control. They can analyze their morning’s run via Runtastic or hit the asphalt without an account. They can save time having a doctor’s house call via Skype or traditionally visit the office. They can consult DIY-websites to fix that clogged drain or call a plumber.

Nevertheless, there will always be some issues that ask for personal care. I, for one, wouldn’t dare to replace a car’s engine with the help of online support or a good manual. Here, and in many other cases, I’ll need to schedule an appointment with a professional. Which is tantamount to giving up a good bit of control.

That’s why in such cases companies will use online support to move everything else possible within their customer’s control. This includes the option for customers to schedule appointments online, and to have simple to complex issue-diagnosis tools in place on their websites or in mobile apps.

Data will be used to prevent a relapse into ‘old’ customer service with repetitive issue descriptions and little knowledge about the customer’s knowledge level or history. Apart from giving back control, the ultimate objective will be to reduce the time until an issue is resolved.

7. Social media’s relevance declines

It sounds unlikely that social media’s meaning for customer service dwindles while the global number of social users has risen by 10% in 2015 alone — now reaching more than one third of the world’s population. In fact, social media use for service purposes doubled between 2011 to 2013.

Surprisingly, however, between 2013 and 2016 these numbers rolled back significantly from 36 to 29 percent.

In a NICE Systems and the Boston Consulting Group survey, 30 percent of the surveyed stated that social media “takes too long to address issues”. They also reported limited functionality, and said it wasn’t “feasible for complex tasks”. Also, out of all service channels it was plagued by the highest rate of abandonments in both 2013 and 2015, rising from 32 to 42 percent.

Contact-centres.com concluded even more dramatically that social networks are “one of the last places consumers want to go for customer service”.

In addition to the obvious numbers, it seems that the rise of conversational commerce — through for example Facebook’s Messenger — has widely been mistaken for a rise of social media’s relevance in customer service. What we get from this is that Facebook might have opened up Messenger to businesses not to surf the alleged wave but to get a foot back in the door.

In social media’s defense, when it’s used for customer service, consumers mostly use it to complain, as an escalation channel.

Twitter presumably is the network most used for service. It’s a matter of interpretation if dealing with a shitstorm on Twitter, with thousands of questions directed at a company, actually counts as customer service or as PR. Either way, Twitter is trying to tackle service applicability with a recently published playbook.

It does stay important to keep an eye on the matter, but social media’s relevance for effectively helping customers sinks. It’s the most notable declining number in the customer service trends in 2016.