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Customer service in 2011 driven by adoption of cloud, communities and mobility

John Ragsdale offers up his predictions for the customer service technology market in 2011 -- and the driving forces behind them.

John RagsdaleJohn Ragsdale, vice president of research TSIA

As 2010 draws to a close, the customer support technology industry is breathing a sigh of relief --spending is back, requests for proposals are circulating and most large enterprises are gearing up for big technology projects in 2011. Like Cinderella dressing for the ball, vendors across CRM, knowledge management, support automation, Web collaboration, multichannel management and online communities have spent the last two-plus years of down spending beefing up -- and sometimes overhauling -- products. Companies evaluating products today will find new infrastructures, new user interfaces, new deployment options and stronger integration stories than ever before.

Before I make some predictions for 2011, let’s start with the key drivers in the industry:

•         The move to the cloud. What we heard loud and clear from technology support executives at the Technology Services Industry Association (TSIA) Fall Technology Services World Conference is that formerly on-premises vendors moving to on-demand offerings have their work cut out for them. With no more clear annual maintenance fee earmarked for support, service teams in the on-demand world are fighting for funding from the slush fund of monthly user fees. And support burdens are increasing, as no IT system administrators are resident at the customer site, meaning enterprise support techs are now receiving procedural questions from end users for the first time.

•         Mass adoption of/demand for communities. According to the Technology Services Industry Association (TSIA)’s October Social Media survey, by 2011, 85% of technology companies will have an online discussion forum for customers, and customer traffic is rapidly increasing. Unlike traditional self-service, for which we have been trying to find creative ways to encourage customer adoption for a decade, customers are quick to join online communities for products they use regularly, and they are eager to join in conversations about product features, bugs and needed enhancements. While the experts thought older demographics would be slow to adopt Web 2.0 tools, today’s online support communities have heavy involvement by customers of all age groups, including many seasoned professionals.

•         It’s a mobile world. You’ve all read the numbers: More people will access the Internet via mobile devices in 2011 than using laptop or desktop computers. And this doesn’t apply to just online shopping. Both employees and customers will be pushing the boundaries of your existing applications and knowledge bases trying to get access to information 24 hours a day. My 2010 spending report showed huge planned spending for tools to mobile field service teams, and there are innovative approaches being introduced -- from digital pens to virtual reality knowledge -- that will easily revolutionize the way we support customers.

With these drivers as a backdrop, here are some thoughts on what the new year will bring.

Prediction 1:  Standalone community vendors will be absorbed.

There is a constant cycle in the support technology industry: Innovative products are introduced, they reach mass adoption, then the functionality is absorbed into the “stack.” Customer service became a slice of CRM. Email response became just another part of multichannel management. And in 2011, we will see standalone community vendors acquired by CRM, multichannel or web collaboration vendors … they just can’t make it on their own anymore for several reasons:

•         Standalone communities have questionable ROI. Simply put, the best online communities are well integrated into the corporate website, including federated search, ties to CRM and performance reporting. To accomplish this you have two options: buy a standalone community platform and integrate it to every single technology you have, or buy an online community from an existing search, CRM or knowledge management vendor and it is preintegrated to at least half your platform “out of the box.” Which would you choose?

•         Open source communities offer a viable option. Not only have the number of freeware/open source communities exploded, they are becoming more feature rich and easy to customize, and they offer a compelling, low-cost option for companies that do want a standalone community tool.

•         Multichannel/CRM vendors offering strong community tools. In 2010 we saw several vendors expand their own community capabilities, and there are several players in the CRM, knowledge base and multichannel world with fully integrated communities, such as Parature, eGain, Moxie and Consona.

Prediction 2: Online communities will solve more customer problems than traditional self-service in 2011.

OK, maybe this isn’t an earthshaking prediction, considering some consumer companies can claim this today already. But according to TSIA data, the number of issues resolved via communities has been growing rapidly compared with self-service sites, even for enterprise hardware and software firms. In many cases the answer found in the forum could have also been found in the knowledge base, but as I’ve already pointed out, customers are adopting online communities for support more rapidly than anticipated.

If you are curious why, look no further than self-service success rates, which we track in the TSIA Benchmark. Self-service success, or the percentage of customers who attempt self-service and successfully solve their problem, has been in steady decline, from 48% in 2003 to only 40% today. Since more than half the time customers can’t find what they need via traditional self-service, you can understand why they are quick to adopt an alternative -- customer-assisted support in a forum.

Prediction 3: Web self-service overhauled to more closely resemble smartphone media sites

Perhaps this is a wish, disguised as a prediction. We know traditional self-service sites are not working, we know both customers and employees are demanding streamlined access to content for smartphone consumption, and we know that younger demographics learn and process information differently than baby boomers and Gen X. It is my sincere hope that with all the 2011 planned spending in the areas of knowledge bases, search and self-service, we will finally see companies not just add more bells and whistles to existing self-service sites, but completely overhaul them to be not only smartphone friendly, but also so that they present information in ways that make it easier to consume.

Examples include links to YouTube videos for training and performing diagnostics, federated search tools with granular filtering options, and easy links to launch assisted support via phone or chat. Here’s our chance to develop the next generation of self-service tools. I hope we get it right this time.

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