The Future of Customer Experience — And Where Leaders Can Focus Today

by Jeannie Walters

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Let’s talk about the future of customer experience. I’m often asked about it, and I’ll tell you this universal truth:

Customers will expect more than we can give them.

You heard that right. We are reaching a point when expectations will become so high that it will be challenging for us to keep up with them.

What can we do? Just build a bunker and wait it out, I suppose.

Or instead… We can start looking for ways to build a better business today that will serve our customers tomorrow.

Three future focus areas every business leader should be addressing today:

 

1. Harmonizing automation and humanity.

If there’s one topic we all can agree is important for the future, it’s the rise of automation, machine learning and artificial intelligence. But to what end, exactly?

In today’s world and the world we’re building, there is a willingness to accept the powerful ways bots and machines, in general, can help us. We can understand customers better by leveraging the knowledge of their history and analyzing behaviors at lightning speed.

But we still need humanity, and lots of it.

A surgeon may rely on a robotic arm for more accurate surgery, but the empathy of a caring nurse is what makes us feel connected and cared for. We simply cannot lose sight of this.

Today, 95% of customer service decision-makers believe understanding customer history is important for chatbot success. Yet only 55% think we are capable of delivering on that.

Chatbot Sentiment
Data via Forrester.

That’s a big gap. So we need to look for ways to bridge those technology gaps with human experiences.

One way to do so may be to reconsider what a customer experience team should look like.

47% of leaders from that same study say they can’t improve the personalization or change the bot without the help of their IT team. But many IT departments simply aren’t equipped to address the urgency of this need.

Customer experience teams are often seen as “nice to have” instead of “must have” for businesses. This means IT is likely to prioritize these needs lower than other needs of the business.

In many cases, this is simply a resource issue. If a customer-facing app or vital system isn’t performing, that requires a “top of list” priority that can’t be denied. If a chatbot is not providing the personalized experience we wish it did, that is clearly a less urgent need.

The future requires CX Teams who are not just focused on gathering feedback and prioritizing next step activities to deliver for the customer. The future requires leaders to set up CX success by building a team of experts who can turn the technology into part of the human experience. That is no small task.

 

2. Customer emotions are nuanced, not just happy or not.

We talk a good game on understanding customers’ emotions, but we don’t always understand the nuance of those underlying emotions we experience ourselves. That is very human.

We simply can’t always name an emotion or say exactly what’s causing it.

And yet we keep asking for individuals to do exactly that on surveys and feedback kiosks.

The future of customer experience -- emotion
Hairstylists will usually just ask us, “does that look good to you?” But we all know the range of emotions we can experience when sitting in that chair go far beyond “happy” or “sad.”

The future may hold some keys to unlocking these mysteries, like using facial recognition technology to understand what someone is really feeling. A smile is not always a smile, for example. Wouldn’t it be powerful to be able to read someone’s emotions in ways they might not be able to articulate?

Some of you are thinking, yes, that would be powerful. Maybe too powerful.

Amazon, the all-knowing consumer leader to which we provide lots of personal information, is reported to have a patent on a voice-activated wearable designed to read human emotions, including “joy, anger, sorrow, sadness, fear, disgust, boredom, stress, or other emotional states,” according to Bloomberg.

And while this may seem straight out of science fiction, what requires our attention is the positive way this could help our experiences as customers.

Consider how important it is to recognize another person’s stress level in order to respond with empathy and understanding. It’s one thing to understand a customer who is having an issue with our product; it’s another to understand this particular customer is starting from a place of extremely high stress.

Apply this same idea to patient experience and consider how discerning the stress level of a patient could help us identify pain, loneliness, and other critical health issues before they become a bigger issue.

It can be scary, but if customers are given the proper amount of information to consent, it could be a way to really share valuable information that goes way beyond eye-tracking or survey results. This would lead to more relevant experiences for customers in return.

The jury is out on how this could be used, but I think it’s worth considering how we can work harder to really understand our customer’s emotions, beyond happy or sad.

 

3. Micro-communities and connecting with what makes us human.

It used to be about telling everyone everything. We all got the same customer communications, delivered by snail mail or email. We all saw the same advertisements.

As the last decade has nurtured our social media addictions, we’ve seen the Fear-of-Missing-Out (FOMO) syndrome blossom into entire industries of Instagram influencers and YouTube celebrities.

As customers (aka all of us) become more discerning about where we put our attention, we are less likely to care about what people in general do. We don’t need to be in the generic It Crowd. We create our own, specialized experiences with our own group of influencers and friends.

Future of CX micro-communities

This is being played out now in universities and other next-generation communities. Harvard Divinity School recently studied how there are deep connections around these micro-communities. Music is one of the biggest drivers of a community like this, but it can also happen around anything we connect with emotionally.

When applied to customer experience, micro-communities may be a challenge. How can we continue to get the word out or breakthrough the attention cycle when our customers aren’t all spending time in the same spaces? This is where we need to look to our customers and understand the micro-communities they are already building.

Right now, this idea is applied almost exclusively to marketing. Micro-communities are seen as a way to tap into influencers and sometimes defined as “niche marketing.”

I’d encourage those of us in the CX space to consider micro-communities beyond the sale.

What are your customers doing with your products? How are they using what you offer? The next generation will not necessarily identify with being part of a vertical like “banking.” Instead, they will want to connect with those financial leaders who are dedicated to the same causes, uses, and goals as they have. It’s getting even more personal.

 

What This All Means For You

The future of customer experience is the story of our own evolution. We want more, for less, that’s more personalized and relevant to us. The tools we have at hand need to evolve as we do. Right now we may be excited about the future, but not always preparing for it.

One of the things I love about the work I do is it forces me to learn constantly. The minute we proclaim “customers want this” they shift and evolve and demand something different.

What are you seeing for the future? What are you most excited about? Let me know.

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Jeannie Walters

Jeannie Walters is the CEO/Founder of Experience Investigators™ by 360Connext, a global Customer Experience consulting firm. She has 20 years of experience helping companies improve loyalty and retention, employee engagement, and overall customer experience. Jeannie is a Certified Customer Experience Professional (CCXP,) a charter member of the Customer Experience Professionals Association (CXPA,) a Professional Member of the National Speakers Association, a Forbes Coaches Council Member, a C-Suite Network Advisor, a LinkedIn Learning and Lynda.com instructor, and a TEDx speaker. Learn more here.

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