The customer support field has undergone a renaissance during the last five years. A flood of technological innovation has improved support experiences to bolster renewal rates and customer loyalty. As such, there’s been a perfect storm of market forces driving growth in self-service support.

Five primary trends are turning customer self-service into a multi-billion dollar market opportunity.

1. Human Preference

The most striking evidence of the self-service trend is consumer preferences. This obvious indicator somehow gets less attention than it should.

Think about when you need help. Do you prefer to call a contact center? File a support ticket? Speak to a support agent via chat? If you’re contacting support, aren’t you already aggravated that you couldn’t find a resolution yourself through your favorite search engine or on the vendor’s website?

According to major industry research firms (Gartner, Forrester, etc.), self-service has been the fastest growing channel for the last five years and was already the most preferred channel during the previous three years. I’d like to know who the 21% is who don’t prefer self-serve support because I have yet to meet one of these people.

Customer Self Service79% of consumers prefer customer self-service, making it the most demanded channel for customer support.

2. Indirect Engagement Models

Companies that thrive tend to engage with their customers directly. Most businesses have built distributed sales networks that were once their greatest strength but have become a major weakness. Today, these distributed sales networks prevent companies from connecting directly with own customers.

What do disruptive brands like Amazon, Tesla, TUI Travel, Apple, and Core Power Yoga all have in common? These category killers all own the customer relationship. More importantly, they’ve developed models for learning from their customers to improve their offerings. Software-as-a-Service (SaaS) companies are valued much higher than their on-premise software peers for this reason. SaaS vendors own the customer relationship and drive direct engagement, which results in opportunities to learn and improve their services further.

Winning Companies Engage Customers Directly and ListenIf you’re a manufacturer with an indirect distribution network, which is almost every manufacturer, the moment your product is offered on Amazon.com is the day you cease to be relevant in the market. Companies that own their customer experience are those that succeed and thrive in their markets. We see a growing number of businesses engaging directly with their clients as this new reality sinks in.

3. Customer Success is Eating Support

The Customer Support function is increasingly being overtaken by the executive running Customer Success. What metrics matter to a well-run support team? If you answered cost and then customer satisfaction, you’ve echoed the most commonly tracked performance metrics, but you’re not keeping up with business trends. Renewals and upsells matter more. Companies are increasingly adopting subscription-based business models so customer renewals and upsell metrics beat any cost-saving KPI. Companies that do not adopt a subscription business and create a customer success practice in the next three years will be out of business in the next five to eight.

4. Changing Interfaces and Channels

Mobile is already the predominant channel of engagement accounting for most searches on Google. However, most companies have yet to upgrade their customer self-service to a responsive experience that works across devices. One of the most troublesome examples is how many businesses still rely on PDF documents, a format intended for printing, to publish help content for online self-service.

Beyond mobile, there is a proliferation of new channels with novel interfaces. New conversational user interfaces are appearing such as voice agents Alexa, Siri, and Cortana, plus a variety of chat interfaces. There are small form devices powered by the Internet of Things like Internet-connected thermostats or kitchen appliances. Even our environment will have useful information overlayed by augmented reality. All of these experiences demand self-service content that is atomized (broken into small chunks), well structured, and delivered via micro-services in milliseconds.

5. Artificial Intelligence and Machine Learning

The likeliest target for business automation is Customer Support. Why Customer Support? It is the lowest-risk, highest-reward opportunity for machine learning and artificial intelligence. Technology will automate the Customer Support Representative out of a job. In fact, IBM cites that 85% of customer support interactions will be automated by 2020. Don’t worry though; these positions will become proactive Customer Success jobs.

The race to automate customer support is already underway. Technology vendors are building intelligent automation for human-powered support channels. These agent-assisted channels of phone, email, and chat are already the least preferred channel and count for less than 3% of customer interactions.

The most effective content is being identified based on what support agents are offering. Self-service is a goldmine for automation with AI and machine learning because it affords a larger sample to algorithmically optimize the support experience. Furthermore, both self-service and agent-assisted channels require content to operate.

Converting a company’s support and product documentation into “smart content” creates a virtuous cycle of optimization. The resulting self-service experience will ultimately result in customer support that delivers exceptional automated outcomes and yields a wealth of actionable insights about a company’s clients and buyers.

The Third Wave of Customer Support Innovation

The first wave of customer support technology innovation happened twenty years ago with the advent of software for business process automation. It made the support representative’s job less repetitive and monotonous. The second wave moved this to the cloud so it was no longer necessary to buy hardware and or maintain software on-premise. This third wave of innovation is different.

The third wave of customer support innovation is creating learning systems that allow customers to self-educate without even being aware of the process because the right information becomes seamless with the customer experience. We’re already seeing this today. Micro-moments of learning are injected in-product and throughout a customer journey that’s optimized and personalized with machine learning.

This fully automated support experience improves customer outcomes and allows companies to create a deep understanding of their customers with analytics about the precise micro-moments they achieve success, renewal, and upsell. Self-service will be everywhere and become the primary driver for how companies engage their clients and learn how to improve products and increase market share.

Additional categories: Customer Experience, Customer Support, Industry Trends