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Looking ahead at trends in CRM in 2018

More AI capabilities, intelligent security and augmented reality should gain prominence for CRM users in 2018.

With AI infiltrating the market this past year, what trends in CRM should vendors, users and third-party application providers expect? More AI, it seems.

The CRM industry saw some exciting developments in 2017, as many of the industry leaders began implementing AI functionality into their platforms, enabling deeper insights and better automation for users.

"The big algorithm everyone had to get right this year was the next-best algorithm, and a lot of companies did that," said Denis Pombriant, founder and managing principal of Beagle Research Group. "The question becomes what other algorithms are solved next. That's something that can go a lot of different ways, and I expect it to go in multiple directions."

AI to get more intelligent

One of the 2017 trends in CRM was to figure out how to provide users with that next-best lead, up-sell opportunity or marketing prospect. Those insights were achievable due to the implementation of AI, which analysts expect will continue into other aspects of sales, marketing and service.

"You're starting to see more logical use cases across the CRM spectrum with AI," said Michael Fauscette, principal analyst at G2 Crowd. "You'll start seeing more intelligent assistants to take things off your plate, like scheduling meetings or finding the right PowerPoint -- those types of things will keep getting better."

AI assistants have already found their way into the consumer space, but analysts see business users also benefitting from an algorithmic assistant automating the monotonous parts of the sales or marketing cycle.

While 2017 saw companies dipping their toes into the chatbot space, 2018 should see more of the market adopting AI chatbots. Intelligent bots will continue to grow in popularity as businesses and consumers become more comfortable with a chatbot being the first line of interaction with a company.

"A combination of [technology] stack ranking with bots could yield increasingly powerful automation of business processes," Pombriant said. "There are especially interesting use cases in service, support and retail."

Intelligent security

Another area that is ripe for AI implementation is security, and several analysts see 2018 -- and especially the European Union's General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) -- as an impetus to start implementing AI within security applications.

GDPR is the European Commission's regulation strengthening data protection for all individuals within the EU. It's expected to be implemented on May 25.

"I think companies will begin looking into AI functionality to help marketers manage this regulatory compliance," said Cindy Zhou, principal analyst for Constellation Research. "AI can help alert you of notices of consent that are expiring and [for which] you need to take action. Or you might have some exposure because a group of customers moved to another country with different regulations. Giving automated compliance checking capabilities is something I'd love to see in 2018.

GDPR is a catalyst to how AI can help with [regulation] and security.
Cindy Zhouprincipal analyst, Constellation Research

"A lot of marketers are still very confused about what [GDPR] means for them," Zhou added. "They think their CRM company will take care of it -- and they will on the technology side -- but there are business process changes that will come because of GDPR. GDPR is a catalyst to how AI can help with [regulation] and security."

Adding intelligent security -- one of the new trends in CRM -- is also needed to combat data breaches and other hacks.

"We're in an arms war already," Fauscette said. "Hackers are getting bigger and better all the time. To keep up, you're not going to have a choice but to use intelligent security technology."

Experimenting with AR

AI is expected to add deeper functionality for employees and potentially keep data safer, but another trend that saw growth in the consumer space in 2017 could make its way to the business world in 2018, as augmented reality gains sophistication and more use cases arise from the technology.

"This year it was a lot of education and experimentation with AR," Zhou said. "There are use cases on sales, marketing and service for AR. It's just a matter of time before companies start using it more."

Sales departments can use AR to more accurately sell large, cumbersome items, like furniture or home redesign, by using AR to preview designs or layouts before a purchase is made. Marketers can use AR to create interactive marketing campaigns and overlay advertisements within the virtual reality. Service departments are already using AR to help with maintenance training, but as the technology matures, so will its capabilities.

Market consolidation

In addition to the CRM technology and capabilities themselves, trends in CRM could be market-wide in 2018, as industry leaders continue to toggle for control, while niche vendors fill vertical-specific processes and third-party applications plug in to CRMs to provide more capabilities -- all while a cloud war between CRM companies continues to pick up steam.

"As time goes on, markets constrict, and you whittle out some competitors until there are a small handful of vendors who lead," Pombriant said. "Countering that, you have companies like Oracle and Microsoft getting into the infrastructure business."

Instead of offering a platform-wide business application product, Pombriant sees that market as too mature for more players, and he expects more growth in the third-party vendor space as more companies build products and applications on exchanges like Salesforce's AppExchange.

"I think that's a major growth opportunity in the years ahead," Pombriant said. "The day is over where you can be a startup and build something starting with your own platform."

While it's unknown exactly what trends in CRM will shake out in 2018, users should expect more AI capabilities and potentially some new AR and security offerings as vendors work to differentiate themselves from the competitive market. 

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