5 Realistic Customer Service Trends for 2018

While the pace of technological progress seems to reach new heights on a monthly basis, consumer behavior shifts a tad slower. Which allows us to make reasonable predictions about where both will meet in 2018.

We filtered out innovations and technologies that we believe could greatly affect how businesses serve their customers this year and for years to come. Catch these trends and stay ahead of the curve.

Try before you buy service

In 2016, 14 percent of the global turnover from apparel and footwear sales was generated online. Undoubtedly, every transregional retailer also has to compete on this field if they want to compete at all.

But ever since buying clothes on order is a thing it had one major inherent flaw. No matter if via catalogue or online, they can’t be certain the piece of choice will finally fit or look good on them.

The apparel industry came up with a number of solution approaches to fix this in their online shops. First they implemented size charts, then body height and item size indications below model images, then user reviews on how the piece tends to fit, and, at last, postage-free returns.

But as we know all too well, the new convenience did not only enable customers to get the right size and look on their first order, it also incentivized ordering and trying out more (causing an explosion of parcel services’ workload).

Of course there’s room for even more convenience since ordering a ton of clothes temporarily rips a hole into the customer’s bank account, even if half the ton is sent back. So why not let customers pay afterwards?

This is exactly what Amazon and ASOS thought before they both started offering a try before you buy option. The concept is not entirely novel. While unknown in the US, it has for years been silently existing in the form of payment on account in a good few online shops like H&M's and Zalando’s in the UK, Germany, and a few other European countries. Amazon, however, was the first to embed it with free choice in payment type.

Also, the US retail giant has already tweaked the policy of their so-called Prime Wardrobe service , lowering the maximum number of items per order from 15 to 10, probably to keep customers from ordering items they’re unlikely to keep. Nevertheless, there’s little doubt that this practice will be adopted by many online shops of various industries in 2018 and eventually become the norm.

Complete order management via messenger

In recent years, conversational commerce was on everyone’s lips, including ours . The growing importance of messengers in our private lives suggested a growing importance of messengers in how we communicate with businesses.

2018 will redeem some more of that promise. For instance, Facebook just opened Messenger for website integration , allowing businesses to offer their customers a way to reach out without switching to facebook.com.

Taking the same line, WhatsApp announced their own business app . Before, they had already rolled out conversation-start-buttons to integrate in Facebook ads, further fusing both apps’ data pool despite previous controversy .

Now, with order status management via messenger, the next big iteration is looming large. It moves communication, transaction history and order details like delivery status into the chat window, allowing customers to handle every aspect of their purchase from one place.

All they need to do is click the messenger button and connect their account, then they’ll receive order updates right there as part of the conversation. And if needed, they can directly reach out without a channel switch while support reps have the complete customer history at their fingertips to deliver quick solutions for emerging issues.

Screenshot of Shopify order status manager in Facebook Messenger.
All in one window: Shopify’s order status manager deployed in Facebook Messenger.

In theory, this feature is applicable to all messengers. Magento and Shopify already support versions of it for Messenger, KLM merges orders, customer contact and flight status updates on WhatsApp.

Order status management via messenger is the most recent (and logical) evolutionary step of messenger support. But even more so, it’s finally one that’s truly ‘conversational’ because it unifies communication and machine-generated context information at one spot, massively reducing friction along the customer journey.

Natural language processing advance in customer service

The delusional capabilities chatbots were often imputed with slowly but surely recede. Even the most concerned future skeptics are beginning to believe that chatbots won’t make conversation like humans anytime soon. This new objectivity sharpens the bots’ actual job profile in customer service.

Consequently, innovators in the field are starting to embrace technology that is tailored to the needs of concierge-style bots. These aren’t supposed to be good at everything but very good at helping customers quickly with simple issues.

This new, narrower skill-set both is surely propelled by the current boom of virtual assistants, but it also suits bots within messengers on about any device.

A concierge’s first essential skill is that to listen well. Analogously, a service bot’s quality depends on its ability to make meaning of human language in written and spoken form – the quality of its natural language processing (NLP) technology.

Any question a chatbot can answer is monotonous work for a support professional.

Nick Francis , Help Scout

And as the Internet’s Big Four have been pushing their virtual assistants hard in recent days, major money went and will continue to go into NLP development.

From their vendors’ perspective, the purpose of Siri (Apple devices), Alexa (Amazon Echo), Google Assistant (Google Home), and Cortana (Windows devices) is to listen to you, learn at it, and link you up with the online world (online retail, that is).

NLP will be one of the key drivers of customer experience in the next decade, especially for bigger companies with large support traffic, as an analysis from NLP AI experts SmartAssist in this Help Scout post by Nick Francis shows. According to them, it needs a minimum of 5,000 support conversations per month for the AI to become sufficiently accurate for handling first level support via chat and email mostly autonomously. As with any AI, however, the more data it’s fed, the better it gets.

Another interesting application of NLP lies in analyzing customer feedback to draw conclusions about service quality and service impact. Keatext provides an NLP-powered solution that scans through user reviews on dedicated pages and social media, and spits out information based on which businesses can tweak their service.

Stricter data protection requirements

With the European General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR), new data protection rules will come into effect at the end of May 2018. The joint paper obliges businesses in the EU, but effectively also in the UK and Switzerland, to comply with a new set of rules that will change how businesses deal with their customers’ personal data.

The law makes EU citizens eligible to request access to and deletion of any data that can be used to identify them. Early in 2018, European companies that are either ‘controllers’ or ‘processors’ of personal data will have to prepare their service departments to deal with such customer requests.

The GDPR will also require website owners to ask their visitors for a clear, unambiguous, affirmative act of consent to the proposed use and/or storage of their personal data, either oral or written. This means that pre-checked boxes and “x-ed” notifications will no longer do.

Since customers are used to simply ignore pop ups like the one asking us about cookies on basically every site we surf, being forced to actively opt-in and make a decision about giving up their data will likely raise some questions in them. To answer these, customer support agents have to know how their businesses processes personal data.

Overall, the GDPR poses a threefold challenge to European businesses in their service setup. They have to...

  1. train their supports agents to tell admissible from permissible requests by making them familiar with the new rules and the way their business handles personal data.
  2. update and improve self-service options like FAQs and become more transparent to inform users early on and keep them from sending unnecessary requests.
  3. set up a process to dig up, hand out, and delete data that doesn’t slow down the machine as a whole.

But apart from the gratifying increase of citizen’s control over their personal data, there also is a silver lining for businesses. As Richard Beaumont points out in this post , the new rules could lead to an overall more customer-centric user experience. Which will help service-savvy companies to expand on that selling point.

For more info about the GDPR, read this comprehensive article by Wired’s Matt Burgess, which includes everything you’d want to know. Also, here you’ll find the official 12-step guide for businesses to prepare for the new data law.

Blockchain-based supply chain transparency

So far, the disclosure of supply chains has largely depended on the seller’s willingness to open up to consumers. Which empirically happens to be rather scant unless there’s public pressure or a marketing campaign promises better sales.

It is, however, beyond question that consumers are becoming more and more aware and concerned with the history of the products they buy. For businesses, that’s a potential USP. Unfortunately, those willing to be more transparent often find it difficult to trace back the origins of their products’ components or submit the information to their customers in a feasible manner.

Blockchain technology could make this much easier in the near future by allowing suppliers to record their contributions securely and conveniently. As Deloitte pointed out , “a blockchain supply chain can help participants record price, date, location, quality, certification, and other relevant information to more effectively manage the supply chain."

Provenance , a provider of such technology, claims that it will allow businesses “to make themselves, their products and supply chains more transparent and traceable.” Which is of great interest for any company that would like to offer its customers a deeper look into how and what their item of choice is made of.

In summary, the customer service trends for 2018:

  1. Try before you buy service. More retailers will allow their customers to try out products and only pay for what they want to keep.
  2. Complete order management via messenger. Communication, transaction history and order details are moved into the chat window, allowing customers to handle their purchase from one place.
  3. NLP’s advanced meaning for customer service. Big tech’s investments in NLP technology benefit customer service bots.
  4. Stricter data protection requirements. Europe’s new data law empowers users and calls for data-savvy service departments.
  5. Blockchain-based supply chain transparency. Blockchain technology facilitates tracking back a product’s origins, encouraging transparency and sustainability.

Here are our previous predictions: