Customer Experience In The 2020s

A new decade heralds new tech trends

The ‘easy’ years of customer experience are behind us. Yes, we’ve seen truly spectacular changes in service levels in the past two decades, but I foresee even bigger challenges in the next ten years. Just think of how developing a LinkedIn communication strategy is a whole lot easier than developing an AI-driven one in order to offer near real time and highly personalised services.

A rise in expectations in 3 domains

All of these new digital and logistic possibilities increase the complexity for companies, but at the same time, they also create an unprecedented level of customer service. And this, of course, leads to a significant rise in expectations. Remember when we only needed one USP (unique selling proposition) to survive: great location, the lowest price or friendliest service? These days, though, I’m finding that consumers expect both a good service and a competitive price. And the internet has made location a lot less relevant.

I like to group these continuously rising customer expectations into three distinct domains: time, hopes and fears:

  1. TIME: These days, time has evolved into a scarce commodity (we all wish we had more time to spend with our family, dine with friends or enjoy a forest walk) and customers expect companies to help save them their precious time.
  2. HOPES: Our customers all have different personal dreams and ambitions – saving for a home, travelling to the Andes, or even paying off their college debts – and they expect more and more that companies help them achieve these.
  3. FEARS: Global warming, the new ‘cold war’ between the United States and China, the volatile situation in the Middle East, the refugee problem, Brexit and many other macro-economic conflicts. More and more customers expect companies to tackle these issues.

The challenge

Companies are standing on the brink of an enormous challenge to rise to these huge expectations. That may be scary, but it’s above all very exciting, because trying to do so will multiply your company’s impact by 10X: it’s no longer just about selling great goods and services. Or even about offering an ultrapersonal and spectacular customer experience. These have just evolved into the new minimum. In the coming years, it will be about helping consumers become who they want to be, on a planet and in a society that they want to save and cherish.

The way I see it, there are three well-defined strategies you can use to answer to the modern customer’s expectations:

  1. Offer Time (by saving time) – Fully automate transactions so that they become invisible and frictionless
  2. Answer Hopes – Become a true partner in the life of your customers
  3. Solve Fears – Change the world together

1) Automate transactions so that they become invisible and frictionless

Time is the customer’s scarcest commodity and the big technological unicorns understand this like no one else. Take Amazon, for instance, freeing up customer time with its ‘one click order’, ‘dash button’ and the automated ‘Amazon Go stores’.

Technology frees up the most time when it’s ‘invisible’, working in the background without customers noticing it, or even having to consciously interact. So I believe that as the years tick by, customer interfaces will slowly disappear and blend into the background.

The next phase will consist of automatic and invisible interfaces, which will take decisions and execute commands without actual input from the consumer. It’s all done automatically. If you look carefully, there is already evidence of such ‘invisible interfaces’, like in the case of the app of my Belgian bank KBC: my favourite part is that it allows me to drive in and out of certain car parks without doing anything. I don’t need a ticket, and don’t need to pay for it at the pay terminal, the app does everything for me.

So I believe that every organisation should be asking itself these questions:

  • Which customer interactions can we render invisible?
  • Which aspects of the process still require a relatively big effort by the consumer?
  • And how can we use his or her time more efficiently?

2) Become a true partner in the life of your customers

Simon Sinek’s Start with Why has become standard terminology in the global world of business. Every self-respecting company has regular discussions about their ‘why’, and so they should. But the deeply flawed limitation of this why exercise is that it emanates from within the company itself. It asks, what are WE going to do? Filling in the ‘why of the customer’, on the other hand, is largely virgin territory.

With the rising expectations of customers, we will have to think about this emotional aspect. Consumers are not just commercial creatures, needing us to save them time. We’ll need to address their entire persona to stay successful in the coming years, and their emotional needs, aspirations, worries and dreams are a huge part of them.

Organising yourself—as a company— to help realise those dreams or challenges is, perhaps, the biggest opportunity of the current era. The more you understand their context – data playing a crucial role here – the better you can see things, from their perspective. The key question will be: how can you become a true partner in the life of consumers?

3) Save the world

This said, being a true life partner will not suffice. Consumers expect brands to take away their most primal fears (global warming, flooding, water shortage…) and (help) solve world problems, too. They are fed up with the trade off: they don’t want to choose between convenience, privacy, saving time, and their dreams of doing what’s good for the planet. They want it all.

Many companies have already started projects aimed at making the world a better place. It’s encouraging to see how investments in sustainability and social projects, among others, have risen sharply over the past decade.

Organisations that manage to get consumers to join a movement to save the world (in some small way), will add an extra layer to their customer relationship and make themselves more unforgettable in the process. Time to start thinking how you can join that movement.

Work your way up from the basics

That’s quite a challenge, right? Moving beyond convenience and great customer experience towards saving time, becoming a life partner and saving the world? It could be enough to numb you into paralysis. But it really shouldn’t.

The advice that I tend to give to incumbents is that they have to work step by step, starting at the very basics:

  1. First, make sure that you have a great offering. That’s the essence of everything, obviously.
  2. Then, there’s that digital layer that offers convenience and personalisation. Where that once was a differentiator, it now only means that you’re behind if you’re not tech-driven.
  3. Then, think about how you can automate your services into ‘invisibility’ so you can help your customer save one of the most precious goods of today: Time.
  4. If you have these right, start by figuring out how you can partner up with customers to become this indispensable facilitator in their life: how you can help them reach their hopes and dreams.
  5. Then, and only then, think about your impact on society, and the environment.

My feeling is, if you don’t work in that direction, but the other way around – starting with saving the world – you’ll probably remain niche.

The offer you can’t refuse

Companies that manage to combine these three strategies in a balanced way, will be the ones to create a product (or services) offering that the customer will love. In fact, it will become “an offer you can’t refuse…” (to quote the well-known line from The Godfather).

And I believe that this combination of transactional perfection, helping realise people’s dreams and personal ambitions and, meanwhile, helping solve a global problem will become the norm in the next decade.

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