The 10 hottest Customer Experience (CX) trends for 2024

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At the end of each year, I like to take some time to think about what I believe will be the most significant Customer Experience trends in the coming months. Amidst all the hot technology trends of the moment (yes, I will take some time to write about generative AI, of course), I believe that humans will not be replaced by them but greatly augmented when it comes to helping our customers. Human characteristics will evolve towards managing complex (emotional) situations. Tech, and AI in particular, will help companies personalize and solve problems at scale, but your human CX ambassadors and your human CX culture will remain your beating heart. Choose them wisely.

So these are my top 10 customer experience trends for the coming year. Enjoy!:

  1. The Era Of Search 3.0
  2. Personalization At Scale
  3. High Value Customer Service Agents
  4. Effective Empathy
  5. Augmented Reality’s Big Breakthrough?
  6. When HR meets CX
  7. CX for Life
  8. CX for the World
  9. Preloved is hot
  10. Friction-hunter CEOs

The Era Of Search 3.0

One of the most important evolutions of today and tomorrow has certainly been that of search. Search 1.0 – with search engines like Yahoo and AltaVista – consisted of simple human-edited directories of websites, like some sort of “yellow pages”. They offered information but it was up to users to find and filter what they needed and scan through all the links and websites. In the next phase, Search 2.0, Google offered relevant information and links, through an algorithm called PageRank. Now, since the launch of ChatGPT in November 2023, we have arrived at the fascinating Search 3.0 phase. Where the former phase would show you relevant websites where you could go and look up what you wanted, you now get a relevant text, tailored to your question.

If you want a simple metaphor: if Yahoo gave you a library (where you had to find the right books) and Google selected the right books for you in that library, ChatGPT and other conversational bots write a text especially for you – based on all those relevant books – offering only the exact information you need. Yes, for the moment they still hallucinate from time to time, but the implications for the users are huge. This is ultra-personalized search, that is created based on a simple conversation between human and machine. Just think how this could change the game for all your customer facing teams if they are augmented with this technology. Just think of how much better and faster they could react to customer wants and needs, and in the language of the customer.  In my opinion, every search box on the internet will be GenAI based in a few years. The era of Search 3.0 is just around the corner.

 

Personalization At Scale

And that brings me to my second trend, which is all about personalization. Social media and the Big Tech ecommerce giants have been personalizing their content and communications for years now, but most other sectors have been found wanting in that area. Generative AI for enterprises now basically allows every type of company to personalize their content (marketing) and customer interactions, fast, in a relevant manner and at very large scale.

Khan Academy, for instance, recently introduced Khanmigo, an AI-powered learning companion that helps student with personalized tutoring, lesson planning, and more. The new ‘Recipe Scanner’ of the Albert Heijn app allows users to snap a photo of any recipe, and its generative AI technology translates the ingredients into Albert Heijn products, automatically adding them to the shopping list. Samsung Food, too, uses generative AI to create meal plans and build grocery lists. Mengniu Diary, China’s leading dairy maker, announced MENGNIU.GPT, which can help consumers develop personalized meal and workout plans. There may not be a lot of examples yet, but the true pioneers are out there and this will become a significant trend.

High Value Customer Service Agents

As emerging technologies like OpenAI’s ChatGPT are becoming increasingly skilled at adding a “human touch” to the conversation with customers, empathetic humans with high EQ (emotional intelligence) will become increasingly valuable to solve those customer problems, questions and frustrations that are still too complex for the smart systems to solve.

If you still think that empathy is the sole domain of humans, just remember that a recent study uncovered that ChatGPT scored higher than actual doctors on both quality and empathy in answering patient questions. On average, ChatGPT’s responses scored a 4 on quality and a 4.67 on empathy. In comparison, the physician responses scored a 3.33 on quality and 2.33 on empathy. In total, ChatGPT had 3.6 times more high-quality responses and 9.8 times more empathetic responses than physicians.

But I believe that sensitive and compassionate human problem solvers will always remain essential to solve the emotional, complex and unique questions and needs of customers. The approach of the Atlantis The Palm in Dubai is one of my favorite examples in the matter. The day before we were due to travel home, Lufthansa let us know that our youngest son did need to be Covid tested after all to be allowed to transit in Germany. This was on December 31st at 3pm, and we were very worried about finding a place to test him just a few hours before New Year’s Eve. However, when I called the front desk to explain my situation, a super-friendly lady took all of my worries away. Even though the official testing hours at the hotel had passed, she told me that they would send over a doctor to our room at 6.15pm so that we could still participate in the grand feast at 7pm. And at exactly 6:15pm, our son was tested and we were able to enjoy New Year’s Eve without any worries. This is problem solving at its best and there’s not a bot in the world – no matter how empathic – that could have helped us in that situation.

Effective empathy

Every company in the world receives unexpected questions and feedback from their customers. What separates today’s mediocre (or bad) companies from the great ones, is how fast they turn these data or ideas into action. I call that effective empathy: where companies understand and act on what their customers say, and in a timely manner.

The only way to excel at effective empathy, is by installing processes to turn feedback into action. I’m going to briefly return to the Atlantis The Palm to make my point. Every morning, they organize customer experience meetings to report new questions and situations. The latter are divided into two categories: (1) questions they do not have an existing process for, but which could apply to many customers, (2) questions they do not have a process for but are so specific that they have no value for other customers. My COVID query above fell under the first category of queries. When a category 1 query is received, employees implement a new process to respond to the query and solve any associated problem. As I was not the first person who needed help with arranging an unexpected COVID test, they already had installed a process for that: a group of about 30 doctors were available to perform COVID tests any time of day.

Lego, too, is well known for integrating customer feedback in a fast manner. Though it’s approach is very different from that of the Atlantis De Palm, it’s important to note that it uses fixed processes as well. I believe these are an essential part of turning feedback into fast action. This is not something that works well under ad hoc circumstances.

Lego launched a crowdsourcing pilot in 2008, which later evolved into Lego Ideas, a community of more than 2.8 million customers that has shared and debated more than 135,000 ideas for Lego sets and generated significant revenues for the company. Obviously, it hasn’t commercialized all of these ideas. But those who have been – like the top-selling medieval blacksmith set – receive 1% of the product’s top-line revenue which can be a life-changing sum. At the same time, the popular ideas that are not selected as Lego products can get a second chance through a crowdfunding program on BrickLink, a consumer-led channel that Lego acquired in 2019. Two companies, two different approaches, same result: feedback that becomes action, and fast, thanks to fixed processes.

Augmented Reality’s Big Breakthrough?

One of the most exciting events of early 2024 will without any doubt be the launch of Apple’s Vision Pro, a mixed reality (Apple calls it “spatial reality”) device capable of both virtual and augmented reality experiences. It will be pretty expensive – with a price tag of almost 3500 dollars – and therefore not a product for everyone. But that’s the usual strategy for Apple: first build great hi-tech products, with excellent UX – and thus at high prices – and allow third parties to create great services for these devices. Then make it more affordable (but never really cheap, as we know).

What’s interesting is that they are positioning the Vision Pro as a general computing device, much like the Mac or the iPhone: one that is built for facetime, entertainment, gaming, productivity and even mental wellbeing.

Once AR technology really takes off (and I think the Vision Pro could play an important role here), it will have a huge impact on all things CX. Not just in entertainment and gaming, which are the most obvious examples of course. The age of AR will usher in full transparency. Brands will no longer be able to hide badly constructed products or unsustainable practices. For instance, AR glasses in a shop will tell you that a certain “diet” cheese, is actually full of chemicals and sugar and thus very unhealthy. Or that that fabulous looking polyester dress you wanted to buy is made from petroleum, a non-renewable resource that’s not biodegradable and can release microplastics into the environment. And customers will be able to very realistically “try on” shoes or a dress and it will become more difficult to persuade them to buy your products.

You could say that evolution is challenging for brands. But I see it as an opportunity to develop products that are both more qualitative and fair for people and planet and offer better and more useful CX. I love Sephora’s Virtual Artist, for instance, which lets users get a virtual makeover, star in tutorials, and share interests with friends more easily. Or how Gucci allows its customers to virtually try-on eyewear, sneakers, masks, lipsticks, and hats. Just imagine the effect when AR becomes nearly indistinguishable from real life.

When HR meets CX

In my brand new book A Diamond in the Rough, I explain how company culture, and the credibility of leadership are crucial for CX. One of the 3 tell-tale signs of a customer oriented culture (the others being: “What do you decide when there are conflicting interests?” and “Do you solve a customer problem or start an investigation first?”) is the responsibility given to employees for keeping customers happy. How far are they allowed to go before they have to ask for permission?

That’s why I truly believe that HR teams should play a leading role in shaping customer culture. It starts with hiring passionate, enthusiastic, empathetic people and training them to stimulate that people-oriented CX “muscle” with customer-centric onboarding programs. But HR teams are also responsible for helping their leaders realize that the CX culture starts with them and that they need to set the example. They should also help guard the empowerment of employees to always act in the interest of the customer. Last but not least, they ought to have a strong focus on employee wellbeing. Because I’m a true believer in the fact that happy employees result in happy customers.

A company that truly excels at combining employee empowerment, wellbeing and experience with a fantastic customer experience is Southwest Airlines. It’s well known for recognizing that treating its employees well, creates happy customers, which results in financial success. And the numbers don’t lie: it has a 4% voluntary turnover, 44 consecutive years of profitability, one of the lowest numbers of customer complaints and 85% of its employees say they’re proud to work for Southwest.

CX for Life

Companies invest huge sums of money to map out the customer journey so they can better optimize their own sales, marketing and service processes. But today, customers also expect brands to concentrate on mapping their customer’s life journey, find ways to tackle life frustrations and really offer useful services and experiences. And lately, we’ve seen quite some companies looking for ways in which they can help their customers lead better lives.

Snap, for instance, partnered with ed-tech company Inspirit to bring augmented reality technology to classrooms across the U.S. with the goal of helping students better understand STEM concepts. AT&T worked with agency Translation and Gallaudet University to develop a 5G helmet for deaf athletes to make football more accessible. Tinder worked with ‘Mean Girls’ actor Jonathan Bennett to help users dodge toxicity and share safety tips to help users avoid online scams. And the “New Homeowners Hub” from Home Depot offers do-it-yourself guides and other resources on skills like changing light fixtures and replacing garbage disposals. All of these companies have found frustrations and challenges – sometimes more niche, sometimes broader – in the lives of their customers, and they developed services to help them cope.

CX for the World

Humankind today is coping with many global challenges: from inequality, to climate change, food and water security, geopolitical struggles, the rising cost of living and other issues that sometimes tend to reinforce each other. Here too, brands are expected to play their part. In fact, according to the 2023 Edelman Trust Barometer, people see business as the most trusted institution (compared to government, media and NGOs), both competent and ethical:

But with great trust, comes great responsibility. Consumers really expect business to act and  leverage its comparative advantage to inform debate and deliver solutions on climate, DEI, and skill training.

Source: Edelman Trust Barometer 2023

And we have seen an increasing number of companies investing in solving tangible world problems for the past year. Tesco enlisted star chef Jamie Oliver to help families struggling with the cost-of-living crisis by showing them tasty but affordable 5 ingredient meals. Asics is focusing on climate change and launched the lowest carbon footprint sneaker on the market as part of a larger goal of net zero emissions by 2050.

M&S, then, has teamed up with youth mental health charity YoungMinds to raise awareness of support for struggling young people’s mental health. The move makes a lot of sense, seeing that no less than three quarters (75%) of 8- to 10-year-olds are thinking about mental health. In fact, according to the study, titled “Exploring Generation Alpha: A Look into the Future”, support of mental health will likely become a major driver of brand affinity and purchase consideration. TikTok, too, has announced improved access to mental health support organizations and creator initiatives to support mental wellbeing-related content.

Preloved is hot

Preloved channels are an important trend of the moment. For the last few years, the secondhand market has been growing exponentially, for both economic and ecological reasons. In 2022, the global market value of secondhand and resale apparel was estimated to be worth 177 billion U.S. dollars. This value is projected to rise rapidly in the coming years, almost doubling in size from 2022 to 2027, reaching a value of 351 billion dollars.

And we’ve already seen many brands jumping on that “preloved” boat over the past year(s). One of my favorite stories in the matter – which I extensively discuss in my brand new book “A Diamond in the Rough” – has to be that of Filou & Friends, a popular Belgian children’s clothing brand. Because they produce high-quality sustainable and recyclable products, their clothing has a long lifespan resulting in a lower impact on the environment.

But they also decided to take that approach one step further with the introduction of the Filou Forever brand. Customers are encouraged to return garments to a Filou & Friends shop when they no longer have a use for them. If the garment passes the Filou & Friends quality control exam, the customer receives a partial refund of its purchase price in the form of a voucher to buy new garments and the pre-worn quality-controlled product is added to the Filou Forever collection. People with modest means are then able to buy high-quality beautiful and durable clothing for their children.

We see many examples of this. Patagonia’s Worn Wear program, Levi’s Secondhand program and The North Face Renewed: they all encourage customers to sell, and trade their used products. Even luxury brands are investing in secondhand and resell business models. Gucci recently has innovated in the second-hand sector with Vault: a platform that sees the brand itself offering vintage pieces reconditioned by artisans. Balenciaga also launched its own “Re-sell” program. Other houses, including Burberry and Stella McCartney, have partnered with specialists in the genre, such as The RealReal, to encourage customers to give a second life to their clothes. And according to research firm IDC’s 2023 smartphone market projection, the used phone market is growing at double-digit percentage levels. This is a sustainable and affordable service model worth investigating.

Friction-hunter CEOs

Sometimes, executives are so far removed from their customers that they no longer know what’s important to them. That’s why I love the latest trend that some CEOs have been spending dedicated time with – or as (trying out their own products and services) – them in order to become more in touch with their hopes, wants and needs.

Brian Chesky, the CEO of Airbnb, for instance, recently spent six months living on the premises that he’s been renting out through his own platform. He wanted to learn what the real customer experience was like and that really turned out to be an eye-opening adventure for him. Most places turned out great, but in 10% of the cases, he was truly disappointed. He looked at the world from a customer point of view, bypassing Excel files or obsessing over market research data and received insights that he probably wouldn’t have got from the latter. The first thing he did, was make a list of 50 items that he wanted to change to improve the customer experience.

But Chesky is absolutely not alone in this ‘on the field’ approach. Starbucks CEO Laxman Narasimhan works one half-day a month as a barista, to become immersed in the Starbucks customer culture. Uber CEO Dara Khosrowshahi got behind the wheel as a driver and went through the entire process himself, from signing up as a driver to driving customers and dealing with app glitches and traffic. Air New Zealand CEO Greg Foran regularly works as a member of the cabin crew serving snacks and beverages and assisting customers on his airplanes. Wade Foster, CEO of workflow automation company Zapier, spends time every week in the contact center working through customer support calls. All salaried employees of DoorDash are required to make deliveries through its WeDash program and that includes CEO Tony Xu. eBay CEO Jamie Iannone regularly travels to the company’s offices around the country and spends time answering customer support calls to better understand their needs and how processes can be improved. These are all fantastic examples of what I call “friction hunting”, where employees and decision makers go out into the field to look for small frictions and then solve them in a manageable way.

So these are my hottest trends for 2024. Let me know which ones are yours over the socials!

Republished with author's permission from original post.

Steven Van Belleghem
Steven Van Belleghem is inspirator at B-Conversational. He is an inspirator, a coach and gives strategic advice to help companies better understand the world of conversations, social media and digital marketing. In 2010, he published his first book The Conversation Manager, which became a management literature bestseller and was awarded with the Marketing Literature Prize. In 2012, The Conversation Company was published. Steven is also part time Marketing Professor at the Vlerick Management School. He is a former managing partner of the innovative research agency InSites Consulting.

1 COMMENT

  1. While the latest examples of CEOs and leaders being “in the field” are valuable, this is definitely not a “trend.” It’s a long-standing practice by leaders in several fields. Howard Johnson spent much of his time “in the field” visiting his inns/restaurants. Disney leaders, including several CEO’s, worked in the parks, even as “characters.” Marriott is known putting everyone in the field for, if I recall, 30 days. I consulted with several organizations in ’90s and ’00s where getting owners/leaders “onto the floor” was a key part of the management development programs. Again, great new examples but more of a classic strategy than a trend.

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