Businesses are gradually becoming more and more technologically sophisticated, but nothing since the iPhone has been revolutionary. Many think AI is the future, but AI is already being implemented and there’s not enough evidence to suggest there will be a major breakthrough any time soon — if we take a look at the Gartner Hype Cycle, we can see AI is still far from offering the revolutionary change many are promising.

The truth is that 2018 isn’t going to be very different from 2017. Technology has yet to reach a point where we can expect something as significant as the iPhone each year. This is especially true for the business world. Business technology and software are constantly evolving and adapting to new business models, but not in groundbreaking ways.

A Shift in Trends

However, this does not mean that everything has remained stagnant. Business software providers are implementing newer technology like AI and virtual companions to turn the ordinary into something new. CRM software, for example, is more focused on improving predictability by using AI to automate much of the data it collects.

Businesses are finding that the more they work with the customer, understanding what they want, making conscientious efforts to provide them with excellent customer support, and treating them as if they’re human tends to lead to more sales. Instead of focusing on technology to connect with customers, businesses are using technology to enhance the customer’s view of the company.

Zendesk Relate’s Key Trends

We had the opportunity to attend Zendesk’s Relate Conference, where we learned what Zendesk sees as the biggest trends changing the way companies interact with their customers.

Zendesk is emphasizing transparency with their new Zendesk Relate software. They, rightly, believe that emphasis on the customer will lead to improved customer support and generate higher revenue. These are four trends businesses in 2018 should pay attention to:

1. A-Commerce

What It Means:

When we add in automation with AI, this combination further enhances the automation process by predicting and analyzing human behaviors we aren’t even aware of. If the trends continue down this same path, businesses will be using AI for more than collecting data. Entire jobs can be learned by AI software saving time and money.

Maxwell Luthy, Director of Trends & Insights, TrendWatching said at the conference, “In 2018, shoppers will look to handover almost every element of the sourcing, bargaining, purchasing, tailoring and picking up of products and services.”

Real World Examples:

  • Customer’s decision making can be outsourced with AI. Connected devices can, for example, reorder supplies, like on Amazon with their dash buttons, or smart fridges to detect when we’re running low on milk. In 2018, be prepared for your fridge to answer you back when you question out loud where the milk is.

The Take Away:

A-commerce is trending because its success depends entirely on understanding what the customer wants or needs. Instead of running to the store, or going online to order groceries, it will already be done for you. When applied to the business world, mundane tasks like data management, phone calls, and ordering office supplies. It shouldn’t be looked at as something that takes away jobs, but enhances them, allowing you the freedom to do yours.

2. Adaptive By Design

What It Means:

Customers needs are always changing. It’s important for businesses to be aware of these changes, in order to adapt the way they do business and remain up to date with trends and customer values. Businesses now are using technology to connect with potential clients on a personal level in real-time to seamlessly integrate with our lives.

Real-World Examples:

  • During the recent Hurricane Irma, Tesla heard from owners in affected areas that their range limitations might not be enough to evacuate the area. Tesla responded by extending the range of all vehicles within the region to allow owners to reach safety. This was a clear example of a company adapting its products and services to the needs of its customers — in this case, allowing them to reach safety.  
  • In another example, Curve is a credit card company that allows its customers to switch the card they used to purchase items with — even up to a month after the purchase happened. If you bought a new computer for the office with your personal card instead of the company card, Curve can help.
  • Another company, KLM, helps tourists get around whatever city they’re visiting by having the tourist attach a clip to their bag that gives them directions in real time. If users are stuck waiting on line for an attraction, KLM can offer insight on what other attractions are around, and can even direct users to their specific services, stealing away the competition.

The Take Away:

Each of these companies adapt to the customer’s needs in different ways. The technology they use is not new by any means, but the way they use it is what needs to be focused on.

Your business needs to be able to adapt and change its services and products to meet the changing needs of your customers. This can be as big as Tesla’s range extension, or as small as KLM offering better insight into what tourist attractions to visit based on current conditions.

3. Virtual Companions

What It Means:

Think Siri and Alexa. Siri is good at making our phones easier to use, but there’s no significant impact on our lives that make the technology revolutionary. Siri can open apps on your iPhone, look up directions, and set reminders, but the technology is limited in how it can improve your everyday life outside your phone.

Alexa is a step in the right direction, but still relies on our phones or other hardware devices to work. With Alexa, users can set reminders, play music on Spotify, and look up information like the weather, just like Siri. The next step isn’t going to wow anyone, but virtual companions are going to continue to evolve.

Real World Examples:

  • Virtual assistants can become the best friends of support agents as well, providing them with insight or automating the process of looking up information in the organization’s database. This can speed up the process of solving consumer’s issues, as well as enabling agents to respond in the best way possible.
  • Replika is a chatbox that acts like a friend throughout the day. This bot learns based on what users tell it, and the bot adapts to become your best friend, offering insight and suggestions. This form of companion will be much more interactive in 2018, superior to Siri and Alexa.

The Take Away:

No one enjoys talking to a computer when it feels like they’re talking to a computer. Here’s an interesting statistic to back me up: “72 percent of regular voice technology users say ‘brands should have unique voices and personalities for their apps/skills and not just use the assistant on my phone.’” This is important because customers are constantly looking for connections between themselves and the companies they do business with. 

Having a personal assistant that works for business owners and even employees will help automate daily tasks in ways that CRM cannot. Combine these companions with Emotional Intelligence, and we will have actual, helpful bots that can tell agents the best way to respond to a customer that is frustrated, or look up a solution to the problem before an agent even has a chance to open up their database. People still need to plug that data in, but with a chatbox like Replika, we can have powerful assistants at our hands, like Iron Man’s Jarvis.

4. Moments of Truth

What It Means:

This essentially boils down to businesses realizing that people have their own unique values and standards of living their lives. Shocking right? Along with transparency, businesses are emphasizing giving customers options that coincide with their personal beliefs.

Real World Examples:

  • American Apparel realized there is a significant percentage of people only interested in purchasing American-made products. Having “America” in its name should imply their products are made in America, but that wasn’t the case. Now, they offer the same products that are made in America and globally made to please everyone.
  • A billboard company has also acknowledged that many billboards come off as being sexist, and being sexist, thankfully, is looked down upon in business. People can call this company asking to change the billboards to more appropriate ads, which will help the original company stay in business.

The Take Away:

This transparency allows clients and customers to abide by their social values and principles, or at least understand better what they are supporting with their purchases. The whole idea is giving customers the choices they want. By doing so, this company is providing customers moments of truth to stand by and share their values. Don’t be preachy about values, just give customers the choices they’re looking for to support those values.

5. Glass Box Brands

What It Means:

Businesses that have an active role on social media allow themselves to tap into endless leads. The reason social media is so useful is because it offers businesses the gift of transparency. The best businesses will use this “glass box,” this level of transparency, to share with their customers the values they hold dear. It can be used to create intimate relationships that might lead to more customers, and of course to higher revenue.

Real World Examples:

  • Zendesk outlined a truly unique example of how businesses can showcase their personal beliefs in a clear, professional way: Two female Taiwanese workers wanted to get married but their families didn’t approve of gay marriage and refused to walk the two down the aisle.The CEO of the company they worked for jumped in, and offered to walk them down the aisle. This was a monumental step in sharing the company’s values. This simple action told people the company is in support of gay marriage and at the same time that they care about the wellbeing of their employees entirely through their actions.

The Take Away:

It’s already known that businesses use social media to connect with their customers, but this statistic needs to be emphasized: There has been a “394 percent increase in social media use” recently while “half the global population has access to a smartphone.”

We live in a society where we can see everything about a company’s values. Just look at how Google had its internal manifesto leaked out, which had a major hit to the level of trust consumers feel towards the search engine giant.

Businesses need to utilize this “glass box” theory to their advantage. Be proactive in sharing values, ideas, and culture: but again don’t be preachy. Businesses shouldn’t aim to ostracize groups, but explain the values they do hold in hopes to build a stronger level of trust with potential clients and customers.

Evolving Business Models

Businesses and customers both want each other to see themselves as actual human beings. Customers appreciate intimate looks inside their favorite companies, which makes social media such a powerful tool. On the other hand, businesses want their customers to see that they’re not only after money, that they have their own beliefs outside of generating revenue.

The old way of doing business was that companies were offering customers a product or service that they had complete control over. The customer didn’t have a say on what kind of products they wanted. Although the customers that bought products were clearly committed to buying their products, this left a lot of potential customers feel unwelcome.

2017 is being deemed as the Year of the Scandal because companies that are becoming more transparent are finding out that when things go wrong, everyone is going to know about it. The old way of handling problems by sweeping them under the rug and hoping consumers forget about them no longer works.

What companies are starting to do is giving more power to its customers. They’re being open about their beliefs and making a conscientious effort to connect to their base. Doing this while actively listening to what customers want is giving the customer a new sense of power that businesses can take advantage of.

In short: businesses and customers are going to work together so everyone benefits. “78 percent of US consumers say they retract loyalty faster today than they did three years ago.” This is a huge percentage of people and the number will only continue to rise if businesses don’t do anything to prevent alienating their customers.

The Bottom Line

Businesses need to be able to adapt to what customers need and want, and as we see these major trends do just that. Virtual companions allow agents to adapt to those in need of support on the fly; meanwhile, automated a-commerce and adaptive by design businesses are truly changing the way customers interact with products and services. But beyond interacting with just the products, there is also a need for businesses to be aware of their social footprint, and allow customers the choices to stick with their values and principles.

Trends aren’t necessarily always about new technology, and in this case we see a combination of new technology and viewing the responsibilities of an organization in a new light. We can use technology to significantly improve customer support, and we can use technology to express our values and provide back to community, so customers are finally starting to be given a new, and much more important role in business.