The five top trends in customer experience management in 2018 and beyond
In 2018, digital disruption will continue unabated, unsettling organizations that have already started down a digital transformation path. Why? Because recasting enterprises into a truly customer-driven culture is a very complex, challenging and slow process—requiring lots of executive time and resources, a deep insight into customer journeys, and a strong focus on organizational change management. But that is only a glimpse of what organizations will wrestle with in 2018—in addition, new technologies and emerging business models will drive more disruption, propelling an increased focus on digital transformation. For example, artificial intelligence, machine learning, virtual and augmented reality, and cybersecurity already impact businesses and government agencies around the world as they develop business plans, strategic plans and technology plans, and this will only increase in 2018.
In PwC’s 20th annual CEO global survey, when asked “To what extent do CEOs think technology will change competition in their industry over the next 5 years?” seventy-five percent of more than 1,300 chief executives said that technology will either significantly or completely reshape their industry, and of those, 23% believe that technology will completely reshape their industry. Uncertainty is becoming the new normal, mandating that organizations embrace foundational changes in a compacted amount of time.
This uncertainty also makes it imperative to surface the top five customer experience management trends for 2018 and beyond so that organizations can either set, readjust or tear up their strategic and technology plans. According to McKinsey, “Leading companies understand that they are in the customer-experience business, and they understand that how an organization delivers for customers is beginning to be as important as what it delivers.” To gain insights on customer experience trends, one must first understand the digital disruption, business pressures, and technology changes that are driving trends in customer experience management:
- Driver 1: Enterprises have a ton of data but no insight. Many executives are ready to launch predictive analytics projects so they can better understand and anticipate what customers will do. But that is a tall order because most organizations don’t have the data sets to fuel predictive analytics. Despite all the massive data collection spurred on by big data efforts, John Naisbitt’s famous observation that “We are drowning in information but starved for knowledge” still holds true. Several organizations already working on their customer journey strategies have told Digital Clarity Group it will take at least two years to build the necessary data sets for predictive analytics at their firms. Often, what’s required are big investments in data technologies, such as data quality tools, master data management, data warehousing, data integration, product information management . . . the list goes on. So, a big driver for customer experience management in 2018 is the need for and focus upon building large data sets for predictive analytics that deliver the insights that executives crave.
- Driver 2: Organizations are trying hard to connect all the customer experiences. Digital transformation takes a long time, in large part because there are so many channels to navigate seamlessly and effortlessly from the customer’s point of view. This goal dictates persistent data and frictionless handovers, as customers swiftly move from, say, a mobile app to social media to the organization’s website to its contact center and back again. A mobile app may be great for the customer but once he moves to social media and the website, the experience may be awful, jolting, or disappointing. Voice response technologies and customer contact reps may ask repeatedly for his name, phone number– can’t they get that data at the beginning of the call when the customer first punches the number in ?– mailing address, and so forth. Or, take a situation where the customer is in a store and jumps on the phone with the retailer while also at a kiosk accessing the web site, and there is no connection between the three isolated experiences or the information is conflictual. Sometimes there isn’t even a connection between customer service reps when a call is handed to someone within the same channel. Or sometimes when the customer must call back in an hour, the organization has no corporate memory of the prior transaction. This, sadly, is not digital transformation.
- Driver 3: The company lacks a 360-degree view of the customer. The “total view of the customer” problem, which occurs all too often, is a variation on driver #2 described above. In this situation, the company has lots of data about the customer, but can’t navigate the data silos associated with specific channels to harvest information about the customer. Call center reps are sometimes on the phone with customers without knowing about service calls the customer has previously placed, or bills the customer has already paid. It’s impossible to deliver great customer experiences if the organization is unable to glean information about the customer that resides in different silos and repositories across the organization. In these cases, the firms and government agencies suffer from a data insight drought.
- Driver 4: Friction occurs between all the technologies and processes in use. Sometimes companies have poor or no connectedness between different information or automation silos, making it hard to service customers quickly and smoothly. It may be that islands of automation—which work well on their own within a department—are unintegrated with other systems that need access to the information stored in its data bases, document repositories, business software or process engines. Or the problem may be with the data because there are no metadata standards and/or no master data management, leading to poor data uniformity from different sets of data. Typically, poor integration, lack of data standards, and far too many unnecessary manual steps are the source of friction between different systems that serve the customer.
- Driver 5: It’s hard to achieve personalization at scale. For at least fifteen years, business leaders, marketers, and technologists have talked about personalization—which usually refers to tailoring a website to the user’s preferences. Personalization is often called “one-to-one” marketing. Sometimes misunderstood as customization, which is merely changing the screen appearance (e.g., font size, color), personalization demands that the software tracks the user’s behavior from interaction to interaction, and responds accordingly. Personalization is crucially important to marketers, sales, and other involved in pitching products on websites. Why? According to Harvard Business Review, “personalization can deliver five to eight times the ROI on marketing spend, and can lift sales by 10% or more.” While personalization is possible on websites, problems quickly surface with personalization at scale. Not only does it require scaling to a large user audience, but also personalization needs large amounts of data across product lines, operational systems, and unstructured content. Most organizations lack the metadata, customer data warehouse, and advanced analytics models to drive personalization at scale.
Top five customer experience management trends for 2018 and beyond
The top customer experience trends for businesses and government agencies in 2018 are:
- Trend 1: Customer experience will remain a top initiative for digital transformation initiatives. Whether the organization is a government agency or in the private sector; a large enterprise or a small business; headquartered in the U.S. and Germany, or targeting Brazil and China—customer experience matters and will continue to matter for many years. The scope of all customer experiences is exceedingly broad and consumer expectations are sky-high, so customer experience will continue to take a long time and be a perennial pick. According to McKinsey, customer experience is “a holistic, cross-functional transformation of a company’s core, including its culture, enabled by digitization offers a significant opportunity for differentiation and competitive advantage, especially as new competitors fluent in digital tools move into the B2B space.” Consumer empowerment is crucial and must be addressed; it doesn’t matter to customers if your organization is already battered by digital disruptors or experiencing difficulties throughout its global supply chain. After all, customers want everything done on their phone, no matter where the information, applications or services reside within the enterprise or beyond—customers are so tired of disconnected experiences. Even giving customers a choice of whether they want the app or information formatted for the iPhone or iPad annoys them because consumers want everything to work the same way, no matter what device they are on at any given moment. Companies will both tackle and continue to struggle with customer experience in 2018.
- Trend 2: Executives will focus on gaining insight from massive amounts of data. Business executives must sometimes look across the enterprise and feel like the thirst-crazed ancient mariner, who looked at the sea and cried, “Water, water, every where, Nor any drop to drink.” Business people could easily exclaim, “data, data everywhere, and no insight we seek.” The reality is that digitally transformed companies must use insight to serve customers and make decisions, and insight is derived from data. Increasingly, insight will come from artificial intelligence, personalization and predictive analytics, but without integrated data sets, new data sources (possibly externally sourced), and data scientists, those tools won’t work. The reliance on data and data experts will be a gating factor for delivering great customer experiences.
- Trend 3: Analytics will be everywhere. Not only are standalone predictive analytics products (e.g., Google Analytics, Adobe Analytics, Tableau, etc.) getting snapped up by businesses, analytics are also built into many other technologies, such as products from Sitecore, Bloomreach, and Hubspot. In surveys, top executives repeatedly focus on two imperatives: 1) get greater ROI while 2) doing more with less—which drives the push for analytics as a business measuring stick and barometer. Essentially, it’s as if the movie, Moneyball, and Obama’s 2008 analytics-driven election strategy joined forces and hit businesses full force. The executive leader’s mantra? 1) Use analytics to do more with less, 2) gain greater customer insight through analytics, and 3) drive great customer experiences using that insight. In IBM’s Global C-suite study of more than 5,000 executive leaders, more than a third of CxOs see cognitive as key to creating a panoramic view of the business. However, in most companies, marketers use analytics tools; stand-alone analytics tools are not often widely available to everyone. And within marketing departments, BI teams and/or designated individuals have access to analytics, making it organizationally difficult for others to steer corporate decisions.
- Trend 4: Ecommerce will impact traditional channels as Asia-Pacific drives growth, m-commerce takes hold, firms embrace B2B, and direct to consumer (D2C) makes a big splash. Ecommerce has been such an evergreen trend for so many years that it’s hard to justify putting it on the top five trends list for 2018. But here it is, yet again. Ecommerce continues to fuel the global economy, particularly in Asia. According to Forrester Research, ecommerce will account for 17.0% of retail sales by 2022. One important driver—direct-to-consumer—reflects changing business models in several industries, such as consumer packaged goods, the pharmaceutical industry and manufacturing. For example, a well-established B2B supplier to the building industry recently bought a firm that sells complementary products directly to consumers. The manufacturer now hopes that D2C will pull sales for its other B2B products that have historically sold only to the building trade. Or, take pharmaceutical companies and insurance firms—both roiled by new business models that center on the patient. Now, in competition with pharmacies, many insurance companies have their own mail-order operations for prescription drugs. Patients can choose which type of firm they would rather shop with—one with retail stores, or one with contact centers, websites and mailrooms? However, that isn’t all. Pharma companies are also getting into the act. For example, patients who take Orencia (a rheumatoid arthritis drug) not only get to choose whether to buy from the pharmacy or insurance firm, but Bristol-Myers Squibb, Orencia’s manufacturer, also routinely contacts the patient to make sure she is using the drug properly, has other necessary equipment (such as a sharps container) or has any questions about the drug’s usage. For these reasons, ecommerce remains on the top five trends list for customer experience.
- Trend 5: Artificial intelligence and machine learning hype will flourish while companies make real progress in customer service. Just about every vendor has its flagship AI product, whether it’s Amazon’s Alexa, Google’s Brain, IBM’s Watson, or Salesforce.com’s Einstein. Over the next five years there will be a major arms race to dominate various business segments of the AI/machine learning market. But in the meantime, businesses are chipping away at different parts of the organization to apply AI/machine learning to real business problems. A good example is customer service. Leading banks and insurance companies are combining multiple technologies, including AI, to push customer experience to a higher level. Some of the technology combinations include business process management software (BPM), business rules, CRM, omnichannel, natural language processing, predictive analytics, and robotic process automation. Another advanced use of AI/machine learning is the programmatic creation of content, used to drive ecommerce and marketing on websites. These are two examples of how companies are using AI without the ensuing hype. In the meantime, the arms race between major IT and consumer technology vendors will continue, gallons of digital ink will be spilled while handicapping the race, and vendors will fall over themselves to become first in the market. Business and technology leaders must follow the evolution of AI/machine learning, but try to focus more specifically on practical implementations that can deliver business results now.
Some important trends that didn’t make the top five list
Whenever you make a list of trends, something invariably doesn’t make the cut. That is especially true when the trends is only five bullet points long. Some very important trends that didn’t make the list are:
- Virtual reality will be a growth technology in 2018. Most of the applications will be in electronic games, live or recorded entertainment, sports, and anything else focused on having fun. One area to watch is in entertainment/sporting where ticket sellers can add to the ticketholder’s experience (and cost) by extending the event with virtual reality. Real estate is another prime target.
- Augmented reality will make inroads in 2018. Pokemon Go has unleashed a plethora of business opportunities that capitalize upon augmented reality. While not as fully digital as virtual reality, augmented reality hooks the viewer by overlaying displays of the real world with graphics, sound, motion, simulations and so forth. Some markets are a natural fit for augmented reality, including sports and entertainment, television, and gamification. But other markets are emerging, such as cosmetic companies putting a new shade on the customer’s digital face; displaying how clothing would look on a customer’s digital image; and, showing how home accessories would look in the customer’s home.
- Chatbots will be everywhere, multiplying quickly. Chatbots are software applications which hold “conversations” with a person through either textual communications or auditory programming. The goal is to simulate how a human communicates with another person. Chatbots have many purposes, including companionship, customer service, diagnostics, entertainment, lead generation, personal assistant, polling, and many other applications. Companies that develop realistic, “humanistic” chatbots can extend their customer experience reach without the expense of adding more personnel to drive discussions.
- Digital trust will be critically important to the customer (and the customer experience). Customer trust doesn’t spring up overnight and it can’t be bought by money alone. Instead, trust builds, layer upon layer, each time a customer engages favorably with her supplier, and deepens each time a genuine corporate commitment to customer care surfaces during interactions. In an era of huge data breaches, the potential threat to customer intimacy, privacy and trust must compel CMOs and customer experience leaders to pay attention to cybersecurity measures beforethey happen. The amount of private, personal, confidential data about customers–gathered painstakingly through years of website interactions–must be protected. Hopefully, customer experience leaders will make this a high priority item in 2018 and beyond.
- Customer experience and operational excellence teams will join forces for digital transformation. A funny thing happened in 2016 and 2017. At a few large organizations, the operational excellence team working on improving the business through continuous improvement (using Lean and Six Sigma) discovered the existence of a customer experience team working on customer journey strategies for the same processes. After getting over their shock, these teams found ways to work together, particularly since both were trying to improve experiences for customers. While not yet a groundswell, operational excellence practitioners are getting the message. Building a cross-disciplinary approach is an important trend to drive home with customer experience practitioners because it is impossible to transform end-to-end process without inputs from both types of practitioners. (For more information, see “Customer Experience and Operational Excellence join forces for digital transformation.”)
 “The CEO Agenda,” 1,379 respondents, https://www.pwc.com/gx/en/ceo-agenda.html
 “The CEO Guide to Customer Experience,” Executive Briefing, McKinsey Quarterly, August 2016, https://www.mckinsey.com/business-functions/operations/our-insights/the-ceo-guide-to-customer-experience
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 For information on how organizations are implementing end-to-end-processes, see “Top 10 Trends in BPM for 2018 and beyond,” http://www.digitalclaritygroup.com/top-10-trends-bpm-2018-beyond/
 “Make Technology–and the World—Frictionless,” Scientific American, https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/technologys-friction-problem/
 How Marketers Can Personalize at Scale, Harvard Business Review, https://hbr.org/2015/11/how-marketers-can-personalize-at-scale
 Customer experience: New capabilities, new audiences, new opportunities,” McKinsey & Company, Number 2, June 2017,
 “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner,” https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poems/43997/the-rime-of-the-ancient-mariner-text-of-1834
 “Forrester Data: Online Retail Forecast, 2017 to 2022,” Forrester Research, https://www.forrester.com/report/Forrester+Data+Online+Retail+Forecast+2017+To+2022+US/-/E-RES139271