Which came first, the chicken or the egg? Are ever-heavier and more complex consumers demanding spurring technological advancement at a rapidly quickening pace? Or did the tsunami of technological progress create a new breed of consumers with higher expectations?
One thing is for sure – technology and customer experience are inextricably linked. If you focus resources on either one in isolation, you do so at your peril.
Customer experience is the overarching term to describe the way your organisation interacts with individuals during your “relationship” – from first contact, to product purchase, to creating a loyal customer, then hopefully progressing to stimulating advocacy. Or, conversely, losing them as a customer at some point. It’s the lifeblood of business and commerce. Attracting customers through clever marketing is the jam but the bread and butter is a positive customer experience. That is what underpins profitable growth. You don’t just keep them – you keep them coming back for more.
Today, how customers respond throughout the relationship cycle largely hinges on how much of your communication and processes are in a digital format. One in four of the UK population are classed as millennials – usually defined as being born between 1982 and 2004. This is the demographic who have come to rely heavily on the internet as a source of research, comparison, purchase, lifestyle support and even personal affirmation. According to AdAge, the average UK millennial spends around 25 hours per week online. As 91% of the UK population now own a mobile phone, clearly most of that online activity rests within the devices that are never far from their hands.
Customer experience for the millennials doesn’t just hinge on digital interaction. There is also a growing expectation that it will include more connectivity, convenience and shareability. There is an irony in this. People are cautious and sometimes deeply perturbed by the way in which big data and new analytical science measures and predicts their buying patterns. The insidious nature of modern advertising techniques – enabling companies to measure browsing patterns and even social media activity as well as purchases – means relevant advertising can appear throughout your online time, including gaming. It's common to hear people complaining about this, yet in some respects they expect to see the same connectivity and responsiveness ingrained into other forms of customer experience. They want companies to use software technology to make their lives more convenient, and their buying experiences more individual. Software certainly makes online shopping exponentially easier and more convenient. When placing a grocery order, if you get a reminder that you haven’t ordered your usual milk or that you missed a special offer, the tendency is to be grateful for the personal intrusion.
So how far do consumers want this individualisation of “predictions and recommendations” to be applied to their online experiences? Do they really want your company's software to start to anticipate their every move? There is a move towards making personal data far harder to share and to use for additional purposes – embedded in the EU General Data Protection Regulation. This is partly as consumers don’t mind companies using personal information to add to their customer experience, as long as it is within pre-agreed parameters.
Current consumers are far more willing and able to shop around. The combination of scepticism and fingertip research, dovetails with their love of imagery. Social media now enables people to post, share and comment on imagery of even their most mundane daily experiences. They can even tell the “story” of their day. The internet has made the world a smaller place – and consumers want in depth information and detail. It’s the “don’t just tell me, show me” effect. To keep pace with this desire to “see” things as part of customer experiences, 3D printing and 3D scanning technologies are developing fast. They enable you to explore products and locations anywhere in the world, and even reproduce them as a 3D model.
Another way in which customer experience requirements have changed, is that they want to do more remotely. You can order your shopping and your food from a restaurant remotely. You can pay using your phone at increasing numbers of outlets. Developments such as Amazon Go take this to the next step – walk in, grab what you want, and walk out. The sensors on the shelves collect data on what you took, and the automated payment that identified you when you walked into the outlet takes the total from your account. Starbucks too has technology that enables in-store visits that don’t necessitate going to the till to pay.
There are hotels where you can check in, receive a room number and unlock your room door all from your phone. There are now 3D body scanners so you can try on clothes without the hassle of a real changing room. As artificial intelligence develops, the possibilities for making customer experiences even more “remote” will grow. It's all part of the global drive towards automation and the ultimate in convenience.
This is where the balancing act comes in. Today’s consumers have been rocked by political, social and financial instability. Screen fatigue is setting in and a huge dose of scepticism is colouring customer experiences. So, while on one hand they want automation in customer experience, they also search out and engage with authenticity, human interaction and warmth. They don’t want to feel like they are on a conveyor belt, or herded into handy subcategories. For example, they don’t want automated phone answering systems. Over 50% of people questioned in one survey found it irritating if calls weren’t answered immediately by a human voice. And 75% of people in the survey still believed that making a 1-2-1 call is easier and better than using any other form of communication. Today’s consumers want to be treated as individuals. They want companies to show genuine interest and responsiveness to individual preferences and needs. They want to deal with humans and demand inclusive, diverse customer interaction.
Customer experience these days revolves around being given opportunities to “have their say” to a real person. They also expect to be able to give feedback and evaluate your product or service. Some 84% of millennials admit that their buying behaviour is influenced by user-generated content. If your company isn’t facilitating and supporting this process by software development tied to your product or service, it’s missing a tremendous source of influence in purchasing decisions. Worse still, by not channelling and containing customers' feedback via your own software, you are even more exposed to consumers commenting and reviewing on third party sites and via social media. Ask any business in the hospitality and leisure sector about TripAdvisor – whether you love or hate this aggregator and review site, it is a huge source of influence.
Consumers are increasingly demanding more flexible and intuitive product development and delivery. “Off the shelf” is often not acceptable. To carve a competitive edge firms are having to be more responsive to individual customer demands. Having production and delivery processes that are divorced from external influences is no longer an option. Integration is the key to success – and fortunately something made possible by the Internet of Things and big data. Current estimates suggest that internet connectivity is possible in 0.6% of equipment. The prediction is that by 2020 it will be possible to add internet connectivity to 50bn different devices. Advances in automation and artificial intelligence will also drive this streamlining of all processes. Customer interaction, logistics, production – right through to ordering of basic components and raw ingredients – could one day be a continuous, streamlined flow of information. It means that customer experience will increasingly include influencing and controlling product and services to a far greater degree.
Felicia is an entrepreneurial startup enthusiast and content contributor towards software engineering and all things technical. Anything related to jobs, career, leadership or talent - chances are that she already covered it.