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 personalized services.
I love to give this example of ‘love brand’ Starbucks in my keynotes: it has been striving to give its customers access to their favorite drinks, anywhere and at any time. Let that sink in for a moment. We’re talking about hot drinks (or ice-cold drinks that will melt in summertime). Waiting for an hour won’t do here. But if you think that Starbuck’s dream of near real-time delivery is ridiculous, just know that the Chinese logistics company Meituan-Dianping, the world’s most advanced, according to FastCompany – is very close to it today. It is able to deliver orders in less than 30 minutes to the consumer’s current location through efficient collaboration with both the end consumer and with their various B2B partners. No surprise that Starbucks is eagerly looking eastwards for inspiration. This is exactly the type of tour de force that you’ll be up against in the coming years.
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:
- 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 help save them their precious time.
- HOPES: Our customers all have different personal dreams and ambitions – saving for a home, travel to the Andes, or even pay off their college debts – and they expect more and more that companies help them achieve these.
- FEARS: But are concerned, too: 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. I talked about this with my long-time friend, ‘purposeful business and marketing’ advocate and FLRISH co-founder Herman Toch in one of my latest podcast conversations. You can check it here.
So companies are standing on the brink of an enormous challenge to answer 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:
- Offer Time (by saving time) – Fully automate transactions so that they become invisible and frictionless;
- Answer Hopes – Become a true partner in the life of your customers;
- Solve Fears – Change the world together
- 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.
In the very near future, these interfaces will switch to a perfectly working ‘digital butler’. Amazon’s Alexa and Google Assistant, for instance, are early signs of this. For now, they are far from perfect, but with a little imagination, we can all see how the next generation of these AI-assistants will become a common aid in the daily life of the consumer. Theses digital butlers are the dishwashers of the 21st century. They ensure that people invest less time in the things that have to get done, so that they have more time for the things close to their hearts.
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 favorite part is that it allows me to drive in an 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 organization 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?
- 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. 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’ part – or this systems I thinking as Daniel Kahneman called it (as opposed to systems II thinking, which is our rational part) – too. 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. Organizing yourself—as a company— to help realize 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.
And the better you can see things from their perspective, the more you’ll need to become involved in their lives. We have been seeing several early signs of this and this trend will only gain in importance. Being healthy, for instance, has become an important aspiration in these times of fast food, obesity and lack of movement. And a lot of players from other industries are starting to tackle this crucial customer need. Take Chinese insurance company Ping An, for instance, which launched affordable Ping An Good Doctor services. Amazon is developing its AI-assistant Alexa as an in-home health concierge. Apple is actively turning its consumer products into patient health hubs. All of them are jumping on this evolution as we speak, but the key question will be: how can you become a true partner in the life of consumers?
- Save the world
But 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 tradeoff: they don’t want to choose between convenience, privacy, saving time, their dreams or 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. Their efforts often need more work though: I see that often their projects are not part of the core business, and lack involvement from and collaboration with the customer. That has to change. But there are already great examples, like the success story of Tony Chocolonely, which has honesty and sustainability at its very core. The ‘doing good’ part does not just happen at the peripheries, it’s an intrinsic part of their product, their brand and their marketing.
Organizations 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.