By Steven Van Belleghem. Keynote speaker & inspirator on customer centricity in a digital world. Author of When Digital becomes Human, Conversation Manager/Company.

A year is a long time in the digital world. The tech developments of today will have a significant impact on how customers interact with products and services tomorrow, so here are five trends to watch in 2017 to make sure your business doesn’t get left behind.

Augmented reality and virtual reality

For many years people have seen virtual reality (VR) as a fun idea. Facebook has recently demonstrated some really cool ideas, but generally people have struggled to find mainstream, practical applications for it. In 2017, however, I think that both VR and augmented reality (AR) will really take off, and AR’s impact could be most significant.

If you think back to the summer of 2016, Pokémon Go took over the world in a short space of time. That was the start of something big for augmented reality. But games are just the beginning – AR has real potential to become a powerful B2B and B2C tool.

In one recent demonstration I saw from Microsoft, a surgeon used AR to look at models and gather information during an operation, improving his efficiency and effectiveness. If the medical profession can do this, it’s a short step to thinking about the ways that other professionals will be able to utilise AR for their customers’ benefit.

AI versus IA

While artificial intelligence (AI) is on many companies’ radars, including the global players IBM, Google and Facebook, I think ‘intelligence augmented’ (IA) is set to have a bigger impact on more ‘ordinary’ businesses.

IA is when people use automated technologies to deliver a bigger or better service, and we’re going to see more and more customer service teams using it to help their reps make quicker, better decisions and therefore deliver a higher level of service. You can now buy software to analyse each customer interaction, question and outcome mathematically, which in turn allows it to predict the most likely recommended action.

While the end touchpoint for a customer is still a human agent who can change the outcome, the use of automated technologies means that they reach that endpoint a lot more quickly and with some smart data. KLM is already using this to great success.

Virtual personal assistants

The launch of Google Home and Amazon Echo last year was a hint that the battle of virtual personal assistants is likely to be one of the biggest tech stories of 2017. Along with Apple and Microsoft, these firms have made some great progress with virtual personal assistants, and it’s going to be interesting to see if any one of them gets ahead of the game and gains a majority share of users this year.

What’s also interesting in the development of virtual personal assistants is the potential for customer engagement. It’s easy to shop using these devices – you just tell them that you need razor blades, for example, they add it to a virtual shopping list and then place the order for you. But when your virtual personal assistant is linked to an e-commerce giant like Amazon, the questions is if they will they choose the best product for you, as a real personal assistant would, or one that benefits their company? These tech companies have a dilemma on their hands, and it’s going to be interesting to see how they deal with it.

Driverless technology

It’s now not just the likes of Tesla and Google who pop up regularly in the news with their latest driverless developments, but also the giants of traditional car manufacturing such as BMW and Mercedes. These behemoths have now recognised the need to keep up with the young upstarts and that the potential for driverless cars presents a huge opportunity.

While Elon Musk’s Tesla seems to be winning the race to market the first driverless car, these traditional manufacturers will create a more competitive market by using their experience of mass production to create their own versions, which will also aid in the development of the technology.

Smart contracts

Blockchain technology is a concept that’s been growing in significance over the last decade and is now set to come into the mainstream. The ability to create a distributed database of time-stamped, ordered records is increasingly being used to create a record of events that can’t be modified. This means a blockchain has huge potential for use in areas such as medical records or tracking the supply chain used in manufacturing a garment.

I predict that a new use for blockchain technology will be smart contracts – contracts that are set up and followed through using objective data and with no need for human interaction. For example, you could take out a micro-insurance policy on a business flight and have a smart contract that utilises the flight data. If it leaves on time you pay, but if the flight is delayed the insurer instantly pays out instead. Straightaway this creates a speedier, more reliable solution to a process that used to be admin-heavy. Its applications are endless.

Prof. Steven Van Belleghem is an expert in customer focus in the digital world. He is the author of the award-winning book When Digital Becomes Human, published by Kogan Page, priced £19.99. Follow him on twitter @StevenVBe, subscribe to his videos at www.youtube.com/stevenvanbelleghem  or visit www.stevenvanbelleghem.com


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