The future of customer experience will be an expression of our deepest instinctive human behaviors — at warp speed and exponential scale — pushed on by advances in technology. And while technologies such as artificial intelligence (AI), big data and machine learning (ML) are indeed making strides, there’s one aspect that will really determine the ultimate customer experience: meaning.
What’s the Point of Meaning?
Almost everything from Facebook to yoga classes to self-help books is training an exploding global middle class to seek more meaning from their daily lives, something that people yearn for instinctively.
Of course, companies must still fulfill the old usual customer expectations — quality products and services, delivered with efficiency and good customer service — but they must now also focus on what customers wish their lives to be.
Any portion of the customer experience that doesn't deliver an emotionally fulfilling sense of value will move to the background, where set-it-and-forget-it algorithms will take over and deliver a humdrum automated background customer experience. However, the good news is that technologies also open new possibilities for companies to make different parts of the experience more meaningful than they are today.
What Do Customers Regard as Meaningful?
In shopping centers across the U.K., consumers have donned virtual reality (VR) headsets and wandered through a custom-made, haptic technology-enabled space designed to give them the sensation of being in a Star Wars movie.
These experiences get great reviews from customers, whether a sale was made or not. As we head into the future, the lines separating consumer brands, retailers, and entertainment will continue to blur, as evidenced by the success of movies and YouTube features that are basically extensions of commercials or video games.
In small towns, people used to go to the butcher or general store not just to stock up on essentials, but also to fill up on gossip about their neighbors. Big-box retailers have made those connective experiences inefficient. But as ML and online retailing grab the reins of efficiency away, retailers could counter by creating new ways for people to connect with other consumers and with their communities. Using technologies such as VR, augmented reality (AR), and AI, high-end retailers could become 21st century nightclubs, for example, while a sports arena could become a new shopping center.
Businesses must take advantage of our fascination with understanding how things work to create or extend a meaningful relationship with customers. Improving customers’ mastery of a product makes it more meaningful to them. For mobile phone makers now competing on the quality of their cameras, that means offering photography classes both in stores and at home through technologies like VR and AR, for example.
The alignment of selling with a core human aspiration could explain why the number of mindfulness and fitness centers in shopping malls have grown so much. It also explains why health and fitness tracking apps have become so popular, as customers seek ways to monitor progress and share their aspirations with a larger community.
How Can You Deliver All the Meaning?
Businesses that don’t already offer a meaningful element to the experience will be pushed to the background by customers or by efficiency-seeking AI tools acting on their behalf. If an element of meaning is there, businesses need to double down on increasing it to protect themselves from competitors. They can use emerging technologies to expand the boundaries of the experience or go completely beyond those boundaries to take their products or services into another space where meaningful experiences already exist.
Once the core meaning proposition has been identified, automate away everything that distracts customers from the most meaningful elements of the experience. Then, provide a platform to create meaning. In fact, companies can produce technology platforms that enable meaning for relatively little cost. In the fitness realm, for example, companies are providing platforms for developers to create apps that let users feel connected through data such as personal bests, crowdsourced routes, and “king of the hill” competitions.
Ultimately, any customer experience that doesn't carry meaning or emotional value risks being handled by AI bots that are driven only by their interpretation of a human proxy. This has the potential to seriously hinder companies ability to emotionally connect with customers. Businesses can’t allow technologies to take over and offer mundane experiences. Instead, use technology to deliver unforgettable experiences, with meaning.
Jason Rose is chief marketing officer of SAP Customer Experience, the market leader in enterprise application software.
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