As 2014 begins, predictions about the impact Cloud computing will have on enterprises worldwide fill the air. IDC, the market research giant, has an entire practice devoted to watching the skies to predict the future of the cloud. A recent IDC cloud research forecast estimated spending on public IT cloud services will reach $47.4 billion in 2013 and suggests it will rise to more than $107 billion in 2017. By then, IDC expects public IT cloud services will drive 17% of IT product spending and nearly half of all growth across five technology categories: applications, system infrastructure software, platform as a service (PaaS), servers, and basic services. The majority (59.7%) of revenues in 2017 will come from software as a service (SaaS). This is exciting stuff, and it's certainly a disruptive technology bringing new innovation and opportunities to the market.
The impact cloud technologies could have is significant, both in theory and in practice. Consider this future environment: any software service you could ever imagine will be virtual - virtual sales, virtual deployment, virtual supply chain, virtual support. Even now, thanks to the amazing cloud, I can connect into my PC from my phone and find, display and edit documents. I celebrate this mini-miracle every time I do it!
With everything happening on widely-accessible servers, companies can leverage distributed efficiencies, delivering more value to the end-customer. To keep costs down, and support this new philosophy, customer service policies are also changing. The days of in-person, human-to-human enterprise level support may be gone. Have you tried calling Google about an email problem? When was the last time an Amazon representative checked in with you by phone about your satisfaction? I thought so. Is this what we bargained for? Is it what we really want? The cold, distant, impersonal electronic touch? Or is there more?
I think there's a subtle difference in the way we view applications in the cloud, or remotely, and on our desktops. Virtual support for the apps in the cloud is, arguably, easier as the app environment is the same for all - network connectivity and user device/browser differences are the main variables. But those devices - they're ours! Because those devices are so personal, I think tech support will need to be more attuned to the nuances of individual support - more emphasis on the virtual bedside manner. Think about it. How comfortable are you with an unknown, faceless, possibly overseas, customer support person or 'bot poking around the insides of your phone? As enterprises migrate to cloud-based applications this issue of "bedside manner" and trust has to be addressed.
Highly personalized support for cloud apps may be worth a premium price - a virtual concierge service. The key is creating a personalized, individual response. Here's a recent example. Fidelity Investments, like many financial firms, has invested heavily in creating virtual services for its customers, accessible from any device, with very high levels of customer support, both online and by phone. A colleague trying out their mobile app found it a happy revelation. While trying to perform a complex transaction on a smartphone, the process got stuck. But there on the screen was the help button. In seconds a customer service person - a human with a full name and contact information - was explaining what happened and resolving the problem on the spot. This was both a virtual and extremely personalized, human-to-human encounter. Wow - top marks!
How can a cloud-based organization deliver on the promise of virtual customer service? The answer is simple: create an experience that closely aligns with the in-person hand-holding that we have all come to want and expect - delivered virtually. An online community could be an ideal solution. But a simple answer does not mean it will be easy to achieve a world-class service experience and bridge the virtual gap that often accompanies remote delivery. This experience should:
- Inform me not just about my products but also my support team.
- Connect me with other customers (preferably in my locale or region) so I could learn about their deployments and best practices with the product.
- Sponsor and encourage vibrant discussions on topics that matter to me.
- Have an educational component via videos or "learning moment" training sessions - even though Client Partner Bob won't be coming by the office to show me new products and services that could meet my business needs. I still need this information.
- Maintain a support ticket area and the familiar path and process of acknowledging the support tickets and keeping me abreast of its journey.
Cloud technology is the future. Most of us celebrate the speed and efficiencies it brings. But customer satisfaction will determine its ultimate success. To achieve that will require raising the bar on replicating the human touch using online community and social business techniques. I know it can be done, and the success stories will lead this transformation to new heights.