The Future of Customer Engagement: 3 Key Trends to Watch

Published December 05, 2016 by Francisco Kattan

In the early 1980s, children at a school in Nicaragua did something remarkable: they spontaneously created a language. Brought together for the first time in a school for deaf children, they had no shared sign language and so they developed their own.

The result, ISN (Idioma de Señas de Nicaragua), is a grammatically complex, expressive language that speaks to our natural need to engage with others. Those children created a way to share, learn and converse with each other because that’s what humans do.

Remember the last time you chatted with a good friend: it’s likely that your conversation felt natural, easy. Now compare it with the last time you booked movie tickets or spoke to your bank over the phone. You probably felt frustrated by an unintuitive voice menu or by a voice recognition system that, you’d swear, was set up for a language other than your own.

This is the customer engagement paradox. Conversing with other humans is easy, but because human conversations rely on things that are hard to standardize or teach to computers – context, nuance, cognitive ability – our interactions with businesses and software are often underwhelming.

But that is changing. Cloud-based communications providers are innovating faster than traditional equipment manufacturers and artificial intelligence is finally at a place where we can have comfortable voice interactions with computers.  Both of those technologies are changing the way companies engage with their customers.

In the future, we see those advancements in communications and artificial intelligence fueling three key trends:

  • Contextual communication: contact between a customer and company is driven by the context in which it was initiated.
  • Omnichannel conversations: the interactions between a customer and a company become a continuous conversation regardless of which channel is used for each interaction.
  • Human plus: as AI becomes more useful, bots will support the conversations we have with humans.

At the heart of all of these is the idea that the way companies engage with customers is a defining part of the service itself. The relationship becomes a friendly, if business-like, conversation.

Why do conversations matter?

For most of us, spoken conversation lies at the heart of our relationships. It’s not just how we exchange information but it’s how we build bonds. The chatter at the water cooler about last night’s game won’t change the world but it builds bridges between coworkers.

Spoken conversation is also how we resolve important situations. Checking a bank balance is easier with an app but if there’s a suspicious transaction, there’s nothing we want more than to speak directly to the right person at the bank.

For those of us that care deeply about customer experience – whether as a start-up developer building an app or as a product manager in a large corporation – conversational engagement can help build lasting customer relationships.

Did you know that mobile apps lose 77% of their users within 72 hours of installation? Or have you found yourself frustrated that your relationship with customers is challenged by price comparison sites and other aggregators who insert themselves in the middle?

The promise of online commerce was that customers would interact directly with suppliers. For some, that has been true: think of the boutique Napa Valley wineries that can now sell nationwide. But for many industries the internet has served simply to change the names of the intermediaries. In the UK for example, the general insurance industry has gone full circle. First, brokers went out of business when insurers, such as Direct Line, started selling directly to consumers over the internet. Then price comparison sites swept in, taking the role previously held by the brokers, and now account for over $1.2 billion in annual revenue.

It’s only a matter of time before price comparison sites, and other automated intermediaries, become a factor in your industry, if they haven’t already. To have a lasting business, you want to be more than the cheapest entry in a price comparison table. Building an ongoing conversation with your customers can help you overcome the threat of middlemen. Let’s look at how.

Contextual communication

You’re waiting on a rainy roadside and your ride-share driver can’t find you. You can see the car on the map but traffic and bad weather mean you’re struggling to find the car on the street. You hit the Call button in the app and you’re connected to the driver. In moments, you find each other and you’re on your way.

There was no contact center, no voice menu, no call waiting. You didn’t need to know the driver’s number. In fact, the likelihood is that the number dialed by the app was automatically provisioned as you hit the Call button. And the call was actually a redirect to hide your number from the driver and offer the same privacy to the driver.

This is what we’re doing today. Almost any business can build this type of functionality into their service, thanks to cloud communications APIs.

Now let’s take it a step further and see how that journey might have developed.

You’re using the ride-share service because you have a meeting with your bank. As you travel along, your phone vibrates. You see a message from the ride-share app: “Accident ahead. No alternative route: 10-minute delay.” You open your banking app to find the number to call but it’s way ahead of you: the app knows that you have an appointment at your local branch. Not only that, it has used your phone’s mapping facility to see that traffic will make you late and it has already notified the person you’re meeting.

This is increasingly how we’ll connect with people and businesses: at the moment of need and with enough context baked-in that our message not only gets straight to the most appropriate place but in the form most suited to us at that time.

Three technological advancements have made this possible.

First, our customers increasingly serve themselves through a web or mobile app. That means contact centers no longer need to employ large numbers of people to provide the basic service.  We can cut the phone queues and direct people more appropriately.

Next, we can have a more detailed view of customer behavior. In our ride-share example, the driver and rider are connected directly because that’s the best outcome in that context. Later, the banking app uses the knowledge of upcoming the appointment combined with the context of the journey to help the bank staff make better use of their time and to make the customer feel less stressed about being late.

Lastly, but perhaps most importantly, the way that we deliver telecom services has changed. Expensive and inflexible on-premises phone systems are making way for cloud communications APIs that let developers rapidly embed voice calling, SMS and other services into their applications. This new approach accelerates innovation and enables companies to more rapidly respond to customer needs.

Context-aware customer engagement is the first step to building that ongoing conversation with customers.

Omnichannel conversations

In the 1960s Marshall McLuhan said “the medium is the message.” The idea is that the restrictions and possibilities of each medium shapes the message we’re communicating; just think about the 140 character limit of a tweet.

Our customers want to engage using the medium that suits them and without having to think about how that shapes what they’re communicating. Whether it’s a voice call, Twitter, SMS or even chat apps like WhatsApp.

So here’s the problem: from your customer’s perspective, you’re having a single ongoing conversation throughout the lifetime of their relationship with you. To them, the medium is irrelevant. From your perspective, you have multiple unconnected conversations ongoing across different channels, some that are integrated with your CRM and others that aren’t.

In the omnichannel future, voice becomes just another channel. We’re seeing the beginnings of it today: you can text your bank for an automated balance update but you can’t have a freer flowing conversation with most companies by SMS.

What’s missing is the plumbing: the one service that ties all of these disparate communication methods together. Once we have that, it will be effortless for us to build services that let our customers text us a question, receive the reply and then send a follow-up using a chat app. The channel used by the customer will be transparent: it will be a single conversation no matter what method is used.

So, step one is to use the customer’s context to help enrich the conversation they have with us. Step two is to turn what could be multiple conversations into a single ongoing conversation.

What about more traditional conversations? How do we make the most of the immediacy and familiarity of voice?

Human plus conversations

Voice conversation is fundamental to how most of us work as humans. That doesn’t mean that our voice communication always has to be with other humans, though.

Perhaps you’re skeptical. You’ve tried your smartphone’s voice assistant and quickly hit its limitations. Okay, you think, it’s a smart trick but not all that useful in real life. The thing is, we’re in a time when all those limited experiments are coming together to make something that’s awesomely useful.

Take a look at Amazon’s Echo. It’s early days but its fans describe how Alexa, the Echo’s AI assistant, has integrated seamlessly into their lives. They can ask it to play their favorite radio station, set a timer when cooking, tell them the capital of Peru. And it learns as they go along.

Now imagine that in a business setting. Your customer calls and speaks to one of your contact center teams. She wants to know if her colleague paid their most recent invoice. With an AI bot listening to the conversation, it could bring the answer straight up onto your agent’s screen. If it isn’t too jarring, the AI could even answer the question directly in the call. This way, your customers get the flow of a human conversation but with rapid answers to their questions.

Taking it a step further, you could use such AI bots to transcribe conference calls. No one ever again gets the short straw of taking meeting minutes. Any query you have about what happened in previous calls is just a question away.

This technology is becoming available now. IBM’s Watson will soon be available as a virtual assistant for voice calls thanks to a partnership with us. With this partnership we are helping democratize artificial intelligence by extending its reach to anyone with access to telephone. The idea is less about replacing human interactions and more about augmenting them.

Engagement is about making your business human

Thanks to cloud communication APIs, developers can now bring to life voice, chat and SMS-based customer interactions that previously would have been unthinkable.

The world where IBM’s Watson assists your contact center team, where every customer can reach you seamlessly using their method of choice, where queuing is replaced by context-specific direct communication: that is the world of customer engagement in the not-too-distant future.