Well, 2016 will be a tough act to follow. With all the twists and turns of a Hollywood blockbuster, it was a year no one is going to forget in a hurry. But let's not dwell on the past. At this time of year it's de rigueur to roll out the dusty crystal ball and predict what the coming weeks and months will bring. What's going to change? What will remain the same? Who will be the heroes? Who will be the villains?
I work in Silicon Valley, so please excuse my bias, but what I'm most excited about this year is seeing how the tech industry will change and continue to enhance the customer experience. The last few years have seen the rise of the Empowered Customer, and 2016 continued to blaze a trail for the informed, powerful customer with endless choice at their fingertips.
Prioritizing the customer experience has moved from a 'nice to have' to an essential component of business' strategy. When research by Gartner reveals that 89% of organizations now expect to compete solely on this, you know you need to take it seriously.
The robots are coming (or not)
So, looking ahead, what's going to be new this year? Whatever you may have heard, 2017 is not going to be the year when AI (Artificial Intelligence) completely revolutionizes customer experience and management. There. I've said it.
While some tech companies have been loudly talking up the AI capabilities within their Customer Relationship Management (CRM) platforms, there's a danger that people are getting ahead of themselves. That's not to say that AI isn't coming; it is and soon, maybe even as a little as a year down the line, AI within CRM is going to be something to get very excited about.
And that's the reason why AI grabs the headlines: it's an exciting area. But tech is nothing if it has no purpose. At the heart of all customer-facing businesses is (or should be) the customer. The question should always be asked: how can we use technology to make people's everyday lives quicker, more efficient, and streamlined?
At SugarCRM, we're investing big in AI technology and you can bet that when we launch this new offering we're going to be shouting as loudly as anybody about the huge leap forward that it will be.
Innovation is undoubtedly fantastic and it's really quite amazing what has been achieved in the last decade alone, but the bottom line is people still like to talk to people. For all the talk of AI, it's still going to be the case that people are the most important part of any customer management experience. This will be true in 2017 and I am convinced it will be true in 2067.
Predicting and pre-empting
Predictive analytics is another area which we'll see increasingly come to the forefront this year. It will give sophistication to systems that will feel both innovative and entirely logical. CRM will no longer be about data entry and simple deal tracking; instead companies will be able to anticipate customer trends with increased accuracy by finding patterns in the vast sea of customer data they are now collecting. As a result, this will in turn give a huge opportunity for businesses to give better service. And that's what it's all about.
Imagine a system that tracks communication patterns between a company and its customers, segmenting those customers by personality types, and suggests the time of day and the tone of message to send to each individual customer. Even better, imagine a customer sending a complaint to your company's billing department and the system alerts the appropriate sales rep with the right email already written and staged for sending out. This level of highly personalized service is what predictive analytics will bring to the customer experience in the future.
The rise of mobile
What we can predict with certainty is that this year mobile will continue to assert its place as an entirely feasible alternative to office-based working. The modern work environment has broken free of desks, buildings and commutes. The flexibility that smart phones, tablets, laptops and, of course, ubiquitous connectivity offer means employees can now work anywhere, at any time.
I'd expect that most business professionals will be dividing more of their time over a wider range of multiple locations; a flexibility that, deployed intelligently and supported by their employer's technology, could have significant benefits for the customers they serve.
The image of empty offices as remote workers sit in cafes with their laptops, matched with intelligent software that learns and decides without the need for intervention, could suggest that this will be the year in which the human dimension of business becomes extinct.
Nothing could be further from the truth. Human to human interaction will never be completely replaced by machines. Yes, machines will help automate repetitive or low value tasks. But overall they will increase human productivity and increase the value of personal interaction.
Take the case of the Automatic Teller Machine (ATM) in banking. The first ATMs were introduced in 1969. Since then, the number of (human) bank tellers has grown, and continues to grow. Research by James Bessen, Lecturer in Law at the Boston University School of Law, shows that the number of ATMs in the US stood at just over 400,000 in 2010, compared to nearly 600,000 bank assistants.
As it did with bank tellers, automation will enable more businesses to provide higher levels of personal touch instead of decreasing the need for human interaction.
I hope this year businesses remember that customers are human, and technology should enhance the experience they offer, not replace it. Hold tight - it's going to be a big year.