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2010's hottest customer service technology trends

In his debut column for SearchCRM.com, the TSIA's John Ragsdale outlines the top four trends in customer service technology he's seeing from TSIA members.

This marks the inaugural article for a new monthly column I will be writing for SearchCRM.com about the technology that drives and enables customer service and support operations: the hottest trends, the biggest challenges and bleeding-edge tools that are on the horizon. Are you thinking, “Oh great, one more person pontificating about the industry?” If so, let me assure you that I have a pretty unique perspective on the customer service and call center market, having been on all sides of support for almost 25 years.

John Ragsdale, vice president of research TSIA John Ragsdale, vice president of technology research, TSIA

I started my career working for JCPenney’s point-of-sale support team back in the '80s, later managing various retail support groups. In 1995, I moved to Silicon Valley to work for the very first -- and now long-defunct -- vendor making knowledge base tools for call centers. After two years implementing those tools, I moved to Clarify, one of the early CRM vendors, where I created and managed the company’s very first product management group. In 2000, I made the move to the analyst side, first covering CRM and customer service tools for Giga Information Group; then, after the acquisition of Giga by Forrester Research, I became research director for Forrester’s enterprise applications team.

In 2006, I made another career move in an attempt to be closer to business users in support and make a more significant impact. I joined the Service and Support Professionals Association (SSPA), a 20-year-old organization dedicated to helping high tech hardware and software firms improve their service operations, becoming the first dedicated research person in the company. Last October, the SSPA merged with its sister associations to form the Technology Services Industry Association (TSIA), and my current role is vice president of technology research for the TSIA, covering tools used by support services, professional services, field services and, most recently, education services.

Writing research for the TSIA is a bit like being a kid in a candy store. Our 300-plus corporate members contribute hundreds of operational, financial and satisfaction metrics to our benchmark database, as well as a dozen other surveys we conduct annually. These cover service policies and pricing, including my Member Technology Survey, which tracks what tools companies are using across 24 functional areas, how satisfied they are with those tools, and in what areas they have approved budget for additional technology in the coming year. I will be mining all of these data sources to provide monthly columns for you that are fact-based, not just pontification. Well, maybe just a little pontification.

Everyone asks me what hot emerging trends I'm tracking, and this month I’m going to highlight the top four technology trends I’m researching this year. Over the next few months, I’ll drill down into each of these trends to provide more information. Based on member data and conversations with support execs, I have identified the following four trends most impacting service and support in 2010 through 2011:

Technology spending is hot. After the wretched economy put a kibosh on corporate technology spending in 2008 and 2009, I am seeing huge spending plans for 2010 and on into 2011. More than half of the technology categories in my 2010 Member Technology Survey are being invested in by more than 20% of members, with categories such as intelligent search and social media receiving surprisingly high intent-to-purchase numbers, with more than 30% of members reporting approved budget for new tools. Why the big surge in spending? There are lots of reasons, but aging legacy tools and new lower-cost on-demand options certainly are key drivers.

Make it social. Clearly social media, social service, social CRM, whatever moniker you prefer, is the hottest topic in support today. In fact, 31% of members have budget for social service this year, and adoption is surprisingly high already: 73% of TSIA members now have an online customer discussion forum, up from only 35% in 2006. What we’ve found in our annual Social Media Survey is that companies were quick to adopt new social channels like Twitter and Facebook, and social communities, but few have done the integration work to make these interactions and new content sources universally available.

Focus shifts from knowledge base to search. I’ve been on the verge of declaring the traditional knowledge base (KB) a dead technology -- much to the chagrin of many KB vendors. But definitely the role of the KB is less strategic than in the past, for several reasons. A single KB is not realistic for large global corporations, and call center agents and support techs have a growing number of content resources, inside and outside the firewall. The challenge is not to force everything into one repository, but to have sophisticated enough search technology that can locate the needed content wherever it is stored, and even allow you to interact with the data to find the one right answer -- not a list of 3,000 possible hits.

Mobile devices and applications proliferate. 34% of TSIA field service members have budget for mobile technology this year -- the highest spending for any category in the survey. Though mobile access to enterprise content has been available for a decade or more, early versions, such as wireless access protocol interfaces, saw little adoption. Today, with smartphone adoption skyrocketing, and iPad, iPhone and Blackberry users demanding native applications, we are seeing a new breed of mobile devices and applications that can have huge impacts for both employees (increased productivity) and customers (increased self-service success).

I look forward to bringing you additional information on these trends and other topics in the months ahead. If you have particular questions or issues you would like to see addressed in a future column, please shoot me an email (john.ragsdale@tsia.com). Thanks for reading, and I’ll see you again next month.

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