Customer Service Trends 2017: A Forrester Perspective

Customers today decide how customer-centric a company is. Good customer service should capture the fundamentals of a great experience: ease, effectiveness, and emotion. For many companies, this level of service is a cornerstone of their customer experience strategy. And while good customer experiences can help control costs, it's the potential for sustainable top-line growth in which company executives are more interested.

Looking ahead, here are some top trends for 2017 that customer service operations should take into account as they move the needle on the quality of the service they deliver.

Phone Operations Shrink As Customers Digitally Engage

Customer service organizations address a smaller volume of simple voice-based customer contacts as they mature their self-service, automated engagement and digital operations.

Trend 1: Companies extend and enhance self service. Customers of all ages are increasingly using self-service, INCLUDING web and mobile self-service, communities, virtual agents, automated chat dialogs, or chatbots, as their first point of contact with companies. In 2017, we forsee that organizations will continue to invest in knowledge management and communities to extend the reach of curated content. Service will become more ubiquitous via speech interfaces, devices with embedded knowledge, and wearables for service technicians.

Trend 2: Companies sustain automated customer conversations. Customers need to ask questions in natural language. But they also want to sustain conversations, too. Close to half of U.S. consumers use introductory versions of intelligent agents, like Siri and Alexa, to do this, with varying success. Emerging intelligent agents for customer service span a range of capabilities, from single-purpose chatbots like what KLM uses to communicate booking confirmations, to virtual agents that embed deep learning to make them smarter over time. In 2017, organizations will continue to explore the power of intelligent agents to add conversational interfaces to static self-service content.

Customer Service Operations Become Smarter

Customer service need to get smarter, by delivering the right service experience—either self-service or agent-assisted—to the right user at the right time and within the cost constraints and customer experience goals of the company. We see the following trends in this area:

Trend 3: Robotic process automation guidance will standardize service delivery. RPA software robots perform routine business processes and make simple decisions by mimicking the way agents interact with applications through a user interface. Organizations can automate entire end-to-end processes, such as account onboarding or insurance claims awards, with humans typically only managing exceptions. In 2017, we expect to see continued focus on RPA for automating repetitive and rules-based tasks. Organizations will also explore the nascent world of cognitive RPA to address non-routine tasks requiring judgment. They include natural language processing and build active learning into RPA trigger points where the bot can reprogram itself based on feedback.

Trend 4: Prescriptive advice powers offers, decisions, and connections. Decisioning—automatically deciding a customer's or system's next action—is starting to be heavily leveraged in customer service. In 2017, organizations will use analytics in a much more prescriptive manner, such as to prescribe the right set of steps for agents to more effectively service customers, to correlate online behavior with requests for service, and to prescribe changes to agent schedules and forecasts. Analytics will be used to better route customers to agents who can most effectively answer specific types of questions based on skills and behavior data, or to better understand customer call patterns and preempt future calls.

Trend 5: Field service becomes the face of your company. These customer interactions are by far the most personal channel for customer engagement, and they can make or break a relationship. If done well, field service technologies empower customers to control the service experience by engaging with technicians on their timetables and terms. They can fuel differentiated customer experiences by equipping technicians with the right customer information, parts, and knowledge to get the job done in one visit. In 2017, expect to see continued focus on using field service technologies outside of traditional industries.

Trend 6: IoT insights transform business models. Today, organizations use support automation to preemptively diagnose and fix issues from connected devices. Preemptive service wins on all fronts: faster resolution at lower costs, better planning, and anticipation of future customer needs. We predict that in 2017, IoT will be used to unlock new services-based revenue streams. Yet, to make the business model of IoT work, companies must keep a close eye on emerging IoT ecosystem components, networking protocols, security, data models, and analytics to connect with contact centers.

Kate Leggett is a vice president and principal analyst at Forrester Research.