Though small business owners might be hesitant to change their ways, the world is changing quickly – and so are the expectations of customers. From customer service to data-driven advertising, consumers have new expectations about the companies they support with their hard-earned cash.
According to Forbes, consumers want to work with brands that are more accessible, easier to navigate, and customizable. Essentially, they want brick-and-mortar brands that mimic the smooth, targeted experience of online shopping.
In 2017, technology will make adapting to these new consumer expectations easier – but only if you’re ready to change the way you think about work. Here are 13 disruptive technologies that will impact small businesses this year – and how you can use them to improve the customer experience for your company.
1. Chatbots – “Hi, my name is Steve. How can I help you today?”
Sound familiar? 24/7 customer service chatbots allow companies to give their customers full-time support – without the expense associated with maintaining a full-time staff.
According to Business Insider, “More than 85% of customer interactions will be managed without a human by 2020,” which means chatbots will become an expected – and acceptable – form of customer service in the next five years. Plus, the results of an Aspect Software Research study indicate that people enjoy using bots to solve their problems – instantly.
Services like Zoho and LiveChat can help you deliver automated customer service across multiple channels, track and respond to inquiries as needed, and learn from the data your customers give you.
Before settling on a new service, consider how to-
a. Integrate bot customer service with human touchpoints.
b. Train existing customer service representatives to pick up the thread of a bot interaction or monitor for accuracy.
c. Work closely with your software reps to program Artificial Intelligence that can handle common customer requests.
d. Engage with, learn from, and qualify customer leads, driving customers to make purchases.
As with introducing any new technology, you want to make sure you’re following live chat best practices , and that your entire staff is on board – especially if that staff member only speaks in 0s and 1s.
2. Wearable Tech – Whether you’re looking for a strategy to make employees more productive, or another channel for reaching your customers, wearable tech like the Apple Watch or FitBit will change how you communicate in your day-to-day business.
Companies like Amazon already use GPS trackers in their warehouses to improve the efficiency of their workers. In 2014, the CRM pros at Salesforce made their software compatible with wearable tech brands, so companies can increase the productivity of their reps on the go. And if your customers are wearing these same devices, it stands to reason you’ll have an opportunity to expand your marketing channels, too.
But the most common piece of wearable tech to impact your business might not be Google Glass or an Apple Watch. Wellness programs that use fitness trackers “are often strongly linked to companies negotiating lower rates on collective insurance policies,” Chris Brauer , the director of innovations at Goldsmiths, University of London, told Bloomberg. Not a bad expense for small businesses to minimize in 2017.
With more data comes the need for increased information security, so be prepared to make an investment here,too. And if you’re going to require employees to use your tech, you should have a good reason for the data collection laid out in your contract – or expect them to opt out.
3. Internet of Things – In 2016 alone, customers spent 157 billion dollars on devices that connected, in some way, to the internet. Think wired (or wireless) cars, thermostats, security systems, and more.
And while a gadget that connected to the internet may once have been a novelty, more consumers are demanding devices that upload and receive data. Market experts are even predicting 24% annual growth in connected devices over the next five years .
Unsurprisingly, security experts are already fielding cybercriminal abuses of these new gadgets, like this vulnerable baby monitor or this hackable car. If you’re in manufacturing and trade, you’ll have to get out in front of these security concerns to make a product your customers can count on without getting their identity stolen – that doesn’t exactly promote customer loyalty.
4. Connection-as-a-Service – Big name brands like Amazon, Uber, and Airbnb have built online empires simply by providing a way for buyers and sellers to connect with one another. In Silicon Valley jargon, that’s called “people commerce,” or connection-as-a-service, and it’s how startups are now receiving handsome 25% fees for their trouble.
Take the parking app Park Circa , for example. Park Circa’s users are primarily frustrated city drivers who want to access unused private parking spots, negotiate with their owners, and pay to park. The service provided by the app cuts down on the cost of parking for the driver, nets the parking spot owner income they wouldn’t otherwise have, and gives the creators of Park Circa a nice little bump, too.
Chances are, you’re not about to go out there and create an app – you already have a business model that works. According to Xero , you don’t have to be a startup to leverage the mechanisms that make “people commerce” work. Small businesses can [partner] with connection services [and] make their products more accessible via the gig economy and the delivery economy.
Maybe that means making your menu available online at GrubHub, or posting your real estate listings with Zillow or ReValu8. Whatever connection you decide to make, the aim is to increase your visibility and maximize the number of low-barrier opportunities your customers have to connect with you. That’s just good business.
5. 3-D Printing – Yesterday’s cool gadget is today’s disruptive technology. 3-D printers offer companies the ability to turn around affordable prototypes in a single day, which means everyone from tech startups to biomedical engineers will be working at a faster clip.
Take the company Spuni , which produces an easy-to-handle spoon for toddlers learning how to eat solid foods. Without a 3-D printer to decrease the time between prototype and product, Spuni might have taken years to launch a successful design. Instead, it took a fraction of the time – and money.
3-D technology also makes personalization and customization easier and more affordable for companies to offer their customers. The advisory firm Gartner, Inc . predicts that “By year-end 2017, at least seven of the world’s top 10 multichannel retailers will use 3-D printing technologies to generate custom stock orders.” According to Recode.net , that could mean anything from printing your own mug or iPhone case to customizing an orthotic for your running shoes.
What does all this mean for small businesses? According to AJ Agrawal, CEO of Alumnify, it will even the playing field , especially in manufacturing and trade. Where once small businesses lacked funding or space to produce goods at the same rate as larger companies, 3-D printers offer an affordable way to scale.
Although 3-D printers are still fairly expensive, make an investment in tech and training now, so you don’t wind up eating your competitors’ dust.