Customer management in 2017: How better data could make us more human

Customer management in 2017: How better data could make us more human
Clint helped found SugarCRM in 2004. Today, he leads corporate development strategy and the alliances teams. Clint was one of the original architects and developers of the Sugar application and has focused on building out the product, company, partners and community in a variety of executive roles. Prior to co-founding SugarCRM, Clint held senior roles in the development, professional services and product management organizations at Epiphany, Octane Software and Hewlett Packard. He has 15 years’ experience in the enterprise software industry and over 10 years designing and building award-winning CRM software solutions.

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For several years there’s been a lot of chat in the marketing world about how technology has brought us to the age of the ‘empowered customer’.  A quick Google search for the phrase shows that some observers were making claims for this label to apply to the year 2014, only then to append the same to 2015 and then again to 2016. As we stand on the eve of yet another new year, I think we can work a little smarter in our predictions for trends in customer experience management in 2017.

That’s not to say that the customer in 2017 will be less empowered than in recent years; on the contrary, the average customer, whether it be in the B2C or B2B space, will continue to enjoy a greater range of tools to give them leverage over service and price than ever before. However, I’m suggesting that 2017 will be the year in which technology will enable businesses to manage their customers in increasingly intelligent and flexible ways and spread the sense of “empowerment” wider than just the customer. In 2017, empowerment will flow both ways: customer power will be matched by a business’ ability to give them what they need.

(Not) the year of AI

Maybe unusually for a blog predicting the future, I’m going to kick off with something I’m sure is not going to happen. Whatever you may have heard, 2017 is not going to be the year when artificial intelligence (AI) completely revolutionises customer experience and management. There I’ve said it.

While some tech companies have been loudly talking up the AI capabilities within their 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. At Sugar, 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.

I do wonder though that in the rush to adopt new technologies, some companies are in danger of forgetting an important truth: these things are tools. Clever tools yes, potentially game-changing yes, but still only a tool. As everyone knows, tools are only as good as the people using them 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.

The rise and rise of predictive analytics

Companies looking better to know their customers and provide truly proactive service and delivery will be the first to take up predictive analytics.  It will give a 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 preferences with increased accuracy and this will in turn give a huge opportunity for businesses to give better service.

Imagine a CRM 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.  These are some of the very practical examples of predictive analytics coming in CRM in the future.

Machine learning and customer journey mapping

Another exciting aspect of AI that may arrive a little sooner than full-blown automation is machine learning with its potential to transform our understanding of customer journeys. Traditional models have always expressed these journeys as linear, with a series of decisions made at predetermined points along the way; however, we’ve always known that this model doesn’t reflect the nuances, contradictions and variables that actually combine to form the average decision-making process. Machine learning gives a chance to map and interpret a customer’s journey more accurately than ever before; its ability to process, respond and predict based on vast amount of heterogeneous data will allow for a level of personalisation that really could be transformative. Later in 2017 we could see previously unreachable levels of insight into such buying contexts as mood, habit and social sentiment begin to influence a company’s response and provision.

The mobile office

What we can predict with certainty is that next year mobile will continue to assert its place as an entirely feasible alternative to office-based working. Certainly from a technological point of view the tools exist to mean that you could spend your entire working day on the road visiting clients or meeting up with other remote members of your team. Whether this is preferable is a question that individual companies will have to answer for themselves but 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, could have significant benefits for the customers they serve.

Mobile in the CRM space is of course nothing new, but in 2017 organisations will need to employ full mobile platforms that are linked to the core system, rather than relying on offline access or ‘lite’ versions of software.

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 next year will be the year in which the human dimension of business becomes extinct. However, I’d make the point that at a time when business methods and processes are changing beyond recognition, then the personal touch is more necessary than ever.

So if 2017 is going to be the year of anything in the business world, then let it be the year of the human. 

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