8 Realistic Customer Service Trends for 2017

Predictions of customer service trends are best based on trends in consumer behavior: What platforms and technology are they adopting? Where customers go, service follows.

With that and insights from various customer service experts, we built our predictions for the customer service trends in 2017. Understanding these trends will allow you to stay ahead of the curve.

1
Messaging support

The user growth of messaging apps like WhatsApp, WeChat, Facebook Messenger, and Kik has been marching on throughout 2016. At the same time, innovator companies like KLM and Rogers started exploring these platforms for customer support.

KLM, for example, allows you to manage your booking via Facebook Messenger. Download your boarding pass, get updates about delays, and get in touch with a human support rep for any questions.

Based on positive feedback from customers and companies alike, 2017 will likely be the year that messenger support reaches the early adopter stage. Professional tools are popping up to support this trend, like our own Messenger Channels.

infographic of messaging support in the adoption curve, a major customer service trend
In 2017, messaging support will reach the early adopter stage.

The main advantage of messaging support is its convenience for the customer. She receives it through an app she already knows and opens dozens of times per day. But it also offers unique benefits for the business:

  • Clear context. Messaging keeps the context of one customer within one chat flow. With the right tools, this will lead to higher quality service.
  • Permanent connection. Unlike phone or live chat, messaging creates a permanent link to the customer.
  • Spreading out service peaks. The fact that they receive an answer through an app they use so frequently means that customers have less problems waiting. With phone, a peak in incoming requests either means taking on extra manpower (higher costs), or queueing up your customers (lower service quality). With messaging, these peaks can be spread out.

The opening up of the platforms and positive experiences of companies and customers alike will likely result in a strong trend towards the adoption of messaging support.

2
Chatbot support

cartoon of R2D2

The abovementioned messaging platforms are investing heavily in chatbots. Chatbots have received plenty of limelight in 2016. The big question of 2017 is whether they'll be able to live up to their promises for customer service.

That promise is one-on-one support at scale, taking over large chunks of customer interactions. A great example, used by Mr. Zuckerberg himself in April's F8 conference, is 1-800 Flowers.

screenshot of 1-800 flowers chatbot in action
The 1-800 Flowers Chatbot allows you to order via Facebook Messenger.

Through the chatbot you can make your flower choice and order them directly to your home. For other questions you can get in touch with human support — transitioning to messaging support.

If you start a business in China today, you will create a WeChat public account bot well before you have a website.

Michael Yuan, Chatbotsmagazine

The doubts about chatbots focus on user adoption, and on whether they'll fall short of their expectations. As Toshi Yamamoto points out in VB, chatbots still have a long way to go to replace human support entirely.

For now, talking to a bot is like talking to, well, a machine. That makes conversational commerce feel like a false promise. But maybe the problem isn’t the tech. Maybe it’s the promise.

Cade Metz, WIRED

Chatbots are definitely still at an earlier stage than messaging support, in technology as well as user adoption. But with examples like 1-800 Flowers and with easy tools for setting up own chatbots, we can expect many companies to experiment with support bots in 2017.

3
Cyborg support

Matt Mullenweg, the father of Wordpress, mentioned that the current bot mania could be a bubble. But he did argue that machines have a role to play in customer service, one in which they support instead of replace the human employees.

We came up with the term “cyborg service” in our post on how messaging will change customer service. A support cyborg is a collaboration between man and machine to deliver next level customer service.

cartoon of cyborg service agent

Imagine you’re delivering messaging support and a customer question comes in. Your robot sidekick runs it through the database of questions, responses, and service ratings. Based on this, it offers a set of possible responses, which you can choose and edit to your liking.

This will make the service faster and easier, without losing its human touch. The robot does most of the heavy lifting, while the human serves as the final check and editor.

The technology is there. Our friends at OMQ offer such a tool for intelligent FAQ's. Hook it onto live chat, email, or messaging support, and you've got cyborg service.

There have been some well-funded doubts on whether chatbots can live up to their promises. Cyborg service is a step in between that is more realistic for 2017, and may buy autonomous bots enough time to catch up.

4
The end of omnichannel?

Matt Dixon, Group Leader at CEB and co-author of The Effortless Experience, replied on our question about 2017's service trends:

Channel choice is an idea companies invented. Customers don't want choice, they want channel guidance.

Matt Dixon

Matt is part of the group that challenged the accepted truth of 'delighting the customer' in favor of reducing customer effort. So when he challenges an accepted truth or trend like omnichannel service, I'm all ears.

Everyone takes the trend of omnichannel service as a given — including us in our 2016 predictions.

Of course there's value in omnichannel — in tightly integrated channels that offer a coherent customer experience. If you send a company an email, and give them a call at a later time, you'd rather not explain yourself twice.

But Matt argues that while the pursuit of omnichannel is right, its costs are high. And even when you have all your channels neatly integrated, your customers' setups won't be as sophisticated. Their documentation will be spread all over the place — email, messaging, social media.

Then there's also the issue of decision fatigue. While a certain spectrum of contact options is desirable (e.g. email, phone, live chat), it's not necessarily the more the better. As you increase the choice, mental effort rises.

infographic of the payoff of adding extra contact channels
While it's important to offer some choice to cover customer preferences, the payoff drops after a certain point.

Instead of offering more channels and integrating them, the customer experience could benefit from clear guidance to fewer channels — and doing those few channels very well.

So we could see a trend in 2017 of companies actually reducing the number of contact options, clearly favoring the channels that work best — like live chat and messaging.

5
Silver Surfers embrace real-time service

When we talk about real-time online communication, we tend to think of the generations that grew up with it.

We assume that the older generations struggle with things like apps and messaging. But according to a recent study, the generation 50+ is actually embracing real-time service. 57% of these so-called "silver surfers" used live chat, call back, or video chat.

infographic of the silver surfers adopting real-time support
57% of Silver Surfers has used real-time support.

This trend of the 50+ generation embracing real-time service reinforces the larger trend of messaging support.

6
Interactive email support

We already noted the growth potential of messaging. Does this mean the decline of email as a customer service channel? Maybe not.

David Bailey argues that email is actually in a much better position to compete than most people realize, and hails it as a dark horse in the race for channel hegemony.

He refers to the innovation of interactive emails. Few people are aware of it, but CSS3 allows for basic interactions, like switching tabs — without any JavaScript.

gif of interactive email

The emails most of us know are limited to static text and images. Interactive emails, however, allow users to check options, e.g. by drop-down menus, and make decisions within the email.

Which means emails can jump aboard the conversational commerce train, after all.

He also points to one major advantage over all messaging apps: the money is in the list. And with email, that list stays with the company, not with the platform that monetizes.

So interactive email support might well be a strong trend in 2017.

7
Personalization 2.0

The trend of personalization will continue in 2017. Shep Hyken, customer service and experience expert, shared his view with us:

One of the most powerful trends in customer service is personalization. While personalization has been around (and trending) for a number years, today’s organizations have the ability to capture even more usable data on individual customers; their likes, dislikes, preferences, buying patterns and more. The companies that can use that data to properly and ethically connect with the customer and give them a better – more personalized – experience will have a powerful competitive advantage.

The words "properly" and "ethically" are crucial here. Shanelle Mullin points out in her article that most companies get personalization wrong, creeping customers out.

This is backed up by a CEB research, which shows that companies and customers perceive personalization quite differently.

infographic of the different ways cmopanies and customers see personalization.
Image source: CEB

A concrete example for customer support would be the location function in our live chat tool. It allows you to see the city of the web visitor you're chatting with. This can be a powerful feature, for example for the service rep to know whether they deliver to the customer's area.

But it can also be used the wrong way.

A chat opening like, "Hi John, how's the weather in Boston?", would likely result in John feeling spied on by Big Brother.

As with chatbots, 2017 will be the year in which this trend finds its true form — in a way that provides value to customers, instead of freaking them out.

8
Cross-functional collaboration 2.0

Tightly knit system integrations are the basis of omnichannel. Roy Atkinson, writer on customer service and experience, predicts major developments in this field for 2017:

We already know that one of the things customers like least about customer service is when front line representatives cannot answer their questions, or resolve their problems. Better collaboration allows businesses to move at the speed of conversation. Customer service, product development, order fulfillment, and marketing should be working together to improve the customer experience.

So even while we might see fewer channels in 2017, the integration between those channels will likely be knit together ever more tightly. As advanced IT and analytical tools become more accessible for SME's, frontend reps will be more empowered with the right information.


In summary, the customer service trends for 2017:

  1. Messaging support. More companies will serve their customers via messaging apps.
  2. Chatbot support. Companies will experiment with chatbots to answer simple customer queries.
  3. Cyborg support. Natural language processing and machine learning will find its way into our support tools, and support employees in providing better and faster answers.
  4. Personalization 2.0. Currently an area we don't fully 'get' yet, 2017 will see the development of standards, best practices, and tools in personalization.
  5. The end of omnichannel. Companies will switch from offering a wide array of contact options to guiding customers to the fewer, best channels.
  6. Silver surfers embrace real-time support. Messaging and live chat have become accepted by the older generations, reinforcing the way for messaging support.
  7. Interactive email support. Tech developments in email allow it to jump aboard the train of conversation commerce.
  8. Cross-functional collaboration 2.0. Tech and analytics tools will allow companies large and small to collaborate more effectively, empowering the frontend employees with the right information.