Should You Believe the Hype? 3 Customer Service Tech Trends SMBs Need to Know

By: on November 14, 2016

Small and midsize businesses (SMBs) often seek out the latest technology to compete with larger brands and improve their customer service. Providing customer service through mobile devices, for example, has helped many organizations communicate better with customers in order to resolve issues faster.

But not all new technology is worth investing in. So, how do SMBs know what trends to buy into and which to pass up?

To answer this, we’ll take a look at three key trends identified in Gartner’s Hype Cycle for CRM Customer Service and Customer Engagement, 2016 (content available to Gartner clients):

  • Customer self-service suites
  • Social media engagement applications
  • Customer-best-next action

In this article, we’ll explain each of these trends in detail. We will also look into what customer issues they solve and whether or not you should take advantage of them.

Trend 1: Customer Self-Service Suites

What is it?
Customer self-service suites are a combination of customer-facing technologies. Together, they help customers take greater ownership of their issues, so they can solve them with minimal help from agents. These technologies can be offered via phone, web and mobile device.

There are two types of self-service suites that enable interaction with customers:

  • Assisted channels. These include communication channels, such as email, web and mobile chat, social engagement and collaborative browsing or co-browsing (when a customer service agent uses the customer’s web browser to aid them in issue resolution).
  • Unassisted channels. These include knowledge resources that are publicly available or shared with customers (such as websites), multimodal communication (the simultaneous use of two services, such as self-service and chat or videos and images), virtual personal assistants (web-based software that can understand, and respond to, human conversations) and prerecorded video.

What issues does it address?

  • Customer dissatisfaction. Contact centers often experience issues such as language barriers, lack of 24/7 support, lengthy resolution time, low probability of first-time resolution, long call waits and restrictions on sharing info over more than one medium (i.e., only phone or chat). Most legacy contact center technologies also lack an intuitive knowledge base that understands customer needs and offers solutions.
  • Need for quick and easy self-resolution. To save time, most customers prefer to do their own research before contacting the support team. A knowledge base on a website or mobile app can help them solve issues without agent assistance.
  • High cost of contact centers. Operating a contact center can be expensive for small businesses. The Gartner report mentioned above expects mobile-based customer support to reach 35 percent by 2017—a 300 percent increase from 2015. SMBs can cut costs by investing in self-service suites with mobile support instead of managing a call center.

Should you believe the hype?
Yes. Here’s why:

  • Customer self-service suites can serve as a one-stop resolution point. Customers have full ownership of resolving their issues. They can get help from YouTube videos, 24/7 chat support, an online knowledge base, mobile app etc.
  • Video tutorials are proving to be highly effective in teaching customers to self-resolve issues. Gartner expects the adoption of this technology to grow 20 percent by 2017, which means agents can direct customers to video links rather than guide them over the phone.
  • Self-service suites can increase the quality of interactions via agent-assisted channels while reducing escalations. Customers get greater flexibility and satisfaction from multichannel support over social media, 24/7 web self-service, instant chat etc. In one example, premium VPN provider SaferVPN implemented web self-service and lowered escalations by resolving 80 percent of queries.

What are the risks?

  • Certain tech may become obsolete. Technology is always evolving, which means that there may be new and better tech by the time SMBs upgrade. In that case, SMBs would require another upgrade, or a complete tech overhaul, which may be too expensive.
  • Phase-by-phase implementation is needed for success. SMBs should shore up their resources and operations before offering multichannel support. For instance, SMBs should create a knowledge base for agents and customers along with 24/7 chat support. One channel at a time should be rolled out—and perfected—to maximize customer satisfaction levels.

What are the benefits?

  • Save costs and still provide the best support. Companies that are investing in a customer support solution for the first time can opt for a customer self-service suite. These solutions are easier to implement and lower-cost compared with traditional modes of customer support.
  • Reduce excess costs. SMBs that offer customer support can use these suites to lower staffing costs by only retaining agents for complex queries. This can lower expenses, such as physical infrastructure (office rent, phones etc.) and employee costs (salaries and benefits). For example, email marketing solution ConvertKit lacks a call center, but has an average support request response time of one hour. In addition, its customer satisfaction (or happiness score, as they call it) has a five-star rating (out of five). ConvertKit’s support includes a knowledge base for customers.
  • Improve customer satisfaction: SMBs can retain and gain customers by giving them more autonomy and increasing the number of successful interactions.

What action should you take?
SMBs should adopt this technology by 2021, as the trend is expected to become mainstream by then. They should choose a solution that has multichannel support and integrates with their existing system.

SMBs should build up their offerings gradually, one channel at a time, and develop both mobile and web support. Mobile support should be on par with or better than traditional support channels (web and phone), as mobile devices become more popular among customers.

Example: An example of a solution that offers multichannel support, including mobile and social media, is Freshdesk. The solution also has multilanguage and multiple time zone capabilities, in addition to having the ability to manage multiple groups, workflows and escalation procedures.

Freshdesk’s dashboard

Trend 2: Social Media Engagement Applications

What is it?
Social media engagement applications are tools that monitor activity on social media sites and enable customer interactions. Like self-service suites, they provide an alternative channel for offering customer support.

Advanced applications can analyze social media data to provide insights into the types of content customers use in their posts, the types of customers who submit posts, the quality of customer-employee interactions and more. Companies can increase brand awareness and provide tailored service using these metrics.

What issues does it address?

  • Only using social media for reactive support. Social media is typically the top marketing channel for SMBs that cannot afford to market themselves on more expensive, traditional channels such as TV and radio. However, social media interactions are typically reactive in nature, with agents addressing customer questions and complaints. Social media engagement applications can help SMBs switch from a reactive approach to a proactive one. This can lead to more positive interactions and increase overall customer satisfaction.
  • Manually identifying key interactions. Without a dedicated solution in place, SMBs must manually sift through each post they receive to identify which ones they need to reply to and which ones they don’t. Social media engagement applications can eliminate this manual work. For example, Domino’s used a social media management tool to weed out irrelevant mentions and address only the crucial posts, which were just 3 percent of the total volume of posts received. As a result, they increased the number of customer interactions handled over social media by 128 percent.

Should you believe the hype?
Maybe. Here’s why:

  • Social data boosts CRM efforts. Engaging with customers via their preferred communication channels can help companies advance their CRM and customer experience strategies. They can see when and what customers post on their social media channels, and then use this data to gauge preferences, purchase tendencies etc. This helps build customer profiles for more targeted marketing.
  • Offers customers an additional channel for support. Gartner’s report states that 75 percent of agents who solve issues shared on social media will become a part of the core customer support team by 2018. This implies that social media will become a viable channel of customer service in addition to traditional channels. Therefore, companies can no longer ignore or delay their social media engagement strategies.
  • However, adoption is scarce among SMBs. The added costs of investing in social media engagement applications and hiring social-only agents means mostly enterprises are adopting this trend. It is tough for SMBs to invest a large amount of money on something that may or may not give them results. However, many small business CRM vendors, such as SproutSocial, offer comparable applications within their systems, which means SMBs may not have to purchase an entirely new system.
  • SMBs are unsure whether it will increase ROI. The cost benefits of adopting social data for CRM have yet to be proven. A Gartner report on use cases and benefits of this trend (available to Gartner clients) notes that through 2018, 50 percent of firms employing social media programs will be unable to show any business impact. Companies have primarily used social media to increase their fan base and engagement, while the use of social data to improve customer service is not prevalent enough to make a sufficient case.

What are the risks?

  • High market penetration, but low value addition. Gartner’s Hype Cycle report notes that social media engagement applications will have high market penetration (20-50 percent), but only 5-10 percent of companies will gain any business value from them. This is because businesses will still be engaged in only listening and monitoring their social media activities, which does not directly add to revenue.
  • Difficulty in measuring customer satisfaction levels. Measuring customer experience is a science that has yet to be perfected. Customized posts may work if they are used effectively, but fail if they overcrowd customers’ social media feeds. Companies should not measure satisfaction solely based on social media performance, which will continually fluctuate.
  • Increased costs of social-only customer support: There is also the added cost of hiring social-only agents. SMBs should not eliminate traditional engagement channels, such as telephone or email. Instead, they should integrate social media engagement tools with the existing channels.

What are the benefits?

  • Social is more important than ever. It is widely accepted that social media analytics is integral to customer engagement and should be a part of the core business strategy. Globally, companies have already increased their social network-based marketing initiatives, since they are less expensive.
  • Increased engagement with better marketing. It is important for businesses to analyze incoming customer posts as well as track their responses. This increased level of engagement can reduce complaint resolution time. Social data and analytics can also be used to help with communication, HR, branding, sales and other functions.

What action should you take?
According to the Hype Cycle report, this trend is expected to see mainstream adoption by 2018. Companies should start by integrating these tools with their existing systems and expand their engagement strategy by training agents to use social data to engage customers.

Integrating social media engagement applications with a CRM system will help to create a more holistic understanding of customers.

Example: Conversocial Software is a tool for small businesses to manage their social media interactions. It prioritizes tickets and issues so that important ones aren’t overlooked or delayed. One way it engages customers is through Google Play Store reviews. The solution allows companies address complaints found in reviews and create a dialogue, so the service provided can lead to more five-star reviews. This paves the way for further app downloads and an increased popularity rating.

Messages on Conversocial

Trend 3: Customer-Best-Next Action

What is it?
Customer-best-next action technology combines real-time decisions with predictive analytics and decision capabilities. It prescribes actions based on customer needs and organizational strategy.

It is a direct marketing technique that aims for cross-selling opportunities instead of new business propositions. Companies can use this technology to choose best-next actions (from many possible actions) during customer interactions. These actions are based on product affinities, customer demographic profiles, transaction histories and other factors.

These actions can be:

  • Best-next offer: For example, a new complementary data plan to add to an existing voice plan.
  • Best-next action: For example, reminding a customer about an abandoned item in their e-shopping cart.

What issues does it address?

  • Spamming customers with unwanted or irrelevant offers. By gathering information on customer behavior, businesses can tailor their best-next-action recommendations instead of spamming every customer with the same offer. This can help improve the customer experience by adding value to each interaction.For example, Salesforce’s new artificial intelligence tool, Einstein, is intended to help agents identify buying patterns and recommend next steps to increase the likelihood of closing a sale.Another example is Australian company Westpac, which uses big data and analytics to predict buying behaviors across the customer life cycle. That company targeted a customer group that had a 90 percent chance of buying a third product if propositioned at the right time and trained branch agents to inform customers about next-best offers at the opportune moment. This strategy resulted in an over 40 percent conversion rate for the third product.
  • Asking for information multiple times. Using these analytics, agents can interact with customers in a more informed manner. Solutions match customer data with their preferences so agents don’t always have to ask customers for basic information. For example, it can be bothersome if customers are often asked about their voice/data plan preferences while interacting with their network provider. Instead, agents can use the time and available customer data to cross- or upsell customers during interactions.
  • High-risk situations. It is not easy to manage high-risk interactions, such as those involving fraud, risk assessment or customer churn. These issues affect the brand and increase costs. In such situations, agents should take quick actions and help customers, who may feel overwhelmed. For example, in case of fraud, the solution should help agents alert the authorities, prevent unauthorized financial activity, generate new account passwords and secure customer data.

Should you believe the hype?
Yes, but only for a select group of SMBs. Here’s why:

  • Real-time data can impact customer interactions. Based on the Hype Cycle report, real-time analytics is expected to influence 50 percent of interactions by 2018. Agents can use best-next-action technology to predict customer behavior and make recommendations.
  • Customers increasingly prefer inbound over outbound marketing. The volume of interactions via inbound communication channels is rising, while outbound marketing is seeing lower acceptance due to limitations on spam. Here’s how the two methods differ:
    • Inbound marketing is when customers are attracted to a brand through content-based marketing (e.g., blog posts, white papers).
    • Outbound marketing is when ads are pushed out to customers en masse (e.g. cold calling, TV ads).

    Best-next actions help agents deliver the most targeted marketing techniques and avoid anything that could be perceived as spam. This can be effectively achieved through inbound communication channels.

  • Adoption across the industry is varied. Telecommunication carriers and financial services providers were early adopters of this trend. Late adopters include insurance, retail and hospitality. In addition, deployments are mostly cloud-based and in contact centers.
  • Market penetration is very low. The Hype Cycle report notes that the trend’s current market penetration is low at 5-20 percent. This may be because the solution is not relevant to all businesses or industries. Benefits are also expected to be moderate, though mainstream adoption is expected to be achieved by 2018.

What are the risks?

  • Justification of additional costs. The additional cost of this technology can be hard to justify; however it may be achieved through increased opportunities for cross-selling that arise when issues are quickly resolved. However, SMBs should resolve high-risk issues first and only cross-sell after they satisfy customers.
  • Immature metrics for analysis. This approach uses big data analytics, such as social media commentary and location identification. However, these metrics can be immature as they do not give a complete picture of the customer. They’re also not fully reliable, as they vary depending on customers’ moods, making them hard to anticipate.

What are the benefits?

  • Better customer interactions. Personalized communication based on customer data enables businesses to improve customer experience and add value to each interaction.
  • Improve customer loyalty. When agents successfully handle high-risk interactions, customer loyalty increases. Companies can stand out among their competitors by consistently addressing issues successfully. This can prevent customer abandonment or damage to the company’s reputation.
  • Additional business benefits. SMBs can also experience higher levels of offer acceptance, increased rates for customer acquisition, cross-selling and retention and better alignment of customer experience with their organizational strategy.

What action should you take?
First, SMBs should analyze employees’ skill sets, planned communication and changes in market trends. This will help them assess whether the trend will improve their current capabilities. They should initially invest in best-next action technology for only high-risk interactions.

Next, SMBs should move away from using customer CRM profiles as the primary metrics used to target customers. Instead, businesses should use predictive (determining future trends) and prescriptive analytics (figuring out the best way to deal with a situation) and consider things such as big data metrics (e.g., purchase history, trends) and customer social media profiles.

This data can help them anticipate customer reactions during and after each interaction so SMBs can provide cross-selling opportunities, customized issue resolution and brand-building opportunities.

Example: SAS Analytics Pro suits individuals, small, midsize and enterprise-level businesses and academic and government institutions. Indian telecom provider Idea Cellular uses big data gathered by the tool to categorize its more than 150 million customers into microsegments. The tool analyzes customer behavior and predicts best-suited promotions to offer highly targeted marketing for each microsegment.


Built-in mapping capabilities on SAS Analytics Pro


Next Steps

Now that you have a good understanding of these important customer service technology trends, you can start exploring software solutions that allow you to take full advantage of these trends in order to improve your company’s service and support. Here are a few next steps you can take:

  • Give one of our CRM advisors a call at (844) 689-4876. In just 15 minutes, they can help you identify a customer service solution that best fits your organization’s unique needs—for free!

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