This article is the first in a series of publications to share the results of Customerfest, an online experiment to co-create the future of customer experience which ran late 2017. A big shout out to the team of InSites Consulting for making the event possible
In Bavaria, a driverless bus scoots across the countryside. In China, a man enjoys his dinner thanks to a dental implant set by a robot. In Northern Ireland, a toddler sports a 3D printed kidney. A Caribbean robotic bartender mixes cocktails on a cruise-ship.
The world has changed, and customer expectations are changing with it. 2020 will be a world where technical customer loyalty is dead. Where customers can buy what they want, when they want it, where they want it and even at the price they want it.
To adapt to this new reality, we will all need to reinvent ourselves. In fact, every company will need to develop three specific capabilities (*):
We need to learn how to solve customer problems before they occur. As devices around us get smarter, customers will expect smarter environments. Interfaces that only show the stuff they like. Mechanics that repair machines before they break down.
Customer insight collection needs to become instant and continuous. Sensing technologies and algorithms need to predict customer needs before competitors do so. Even before customers identify these needs themselves. This will allow further simplification of the customer's life. Cut transactional steps and touchpoints. Even complete journeys.
As long as humans are paying the bills, we want to be more than an organic interface to a digital process. Before we part with our money, we want attention, empathy and warmth. So while a more digital experience can add value, you will always need to infuse it with a human touch.
Tactically, you need to truly understand the customer's emotions at every stage of the relationship. Strategically, your business needs to develop a human face. A purpose and business model that transcends the simple pursuit of profit.
The experience we offer IS the product. But the opportunities to deliver this experience are getting scarce. Customers already tuned out of (intrusive) marketing efforts years go. Digitalisation now helps them avoid our showrooms, stores and offices. Unless these visits make their life easier or more enjoyable.
So when they do give you their time and attention, you need to pull out all the stops. Immerse them in your offer and the story of your business. Give them an experiential memory that can lasts months, years or even a life-time. After all, there’s no telling when you’ll get another chance to interact.
Bonus checklist item: reinvention
I realise that the above may feel like customer experience science fiction. Especially as many of us are still coming to grips with journey mapping and VOC programmes. But unfortunately, I'm not making the rules. Technology will accelerate. New players will disrupt existing markets. Customer expectations will rise.
Above all, this means mastering the skill of reinvention. The ability to challenge our own habits and beliefs. The willingness to learn new techniques and skills. Even if they are far outside of our comfort zone.
Does your business have a process to challenge itself on a regular basis? Do you deploy red teams to find weaknesses in your system? Set up think-tanks to explore new business models? In short, are you ready for reinvention when the need presents itself?
This is a final post with learnings from my trip to The Future of Storytelling (FOST) Summit in New York. My thanks for inspirations offered by Don Hahn, Melissa Kelly, Andrew Peters and my friend and virtual reality savant David Polinchock.
Imagine that I told you the story of Snow White. But I’d do it in a fragmented way. I would tell you some parts over Twitter. A bit in a 90-second YouTube video. Some more on a highway billboard as you drove to work. To add to the complexity, we wouldn’t make an appointment to talk. I’d shout out at random, unannounced moments in your week.
With this approach, you’d probably miss a large part of the story. You might think it was a tale about mining conditions for dwarfs. About a narcissistic queen and her mirror. A murderous huntsman. A young woman that sings to animals. Or, worst case, a lady serial-killer selling apples.
SHALL WE STOP FOOLING OURSELVES?
The above may sound like ineffective storytelling. But it is a reality for every brand and corporate communication professional. There is a complex, often layered story to tell. But it must live in rushed videos, limited character tweets and glossy websites which no one reads anymore.
Despite best efforts, only very few customers, stock market analysts and even employees ever hear a company’s full story. Snow White hits the radar. The apple may stick too. But most of us miss out on Sleepy’s goofiness or the Queen's complicated relationship with the huntsman.
This is problematic because a brand’s personality is all about this nuance. Without these colourful touches, every story it tells sounds the same and becomes a commodity. This, in turn, makes even more people tune out.
THE ANSWER IS STARING US IN THE FACE
The performing arts have solved the above storytelling problem for thousands of years. Their solution still works today. If they want an audience to hear a story, they don’t push it across 50 channels. They concentrate it in its purest form and ask the audience to come to them.
I am increasingly of the belief that this can also work for brands. That marketers can break the self-destructive cycle of forcing their messages on an ever more elusive and disinterested audience. That, like the arts, they can invite their audience to join them willingly by investing in immersive media and experiences. By telling stories which people want to hear.
These can take many forms. Physical spaces. Virtual/augmented reality environments. Long-form copy (aka. books). Podcasts. ARG’s. Story-worlds. Or the often ignored, but oh-so-immersive silver screen of cinema. I probably missed a few.
SHALL WE PLAY A NEW GAME?
Unfortunately, these immersive experiences won’t fit the reach addicted communication formats that force us to dumb down stories into 30-second or 140-character formats.
They require us to replace our message-centric communication models with an audience-centric approach. Stop focusing on the stories we want to tell, but craft the stories our audience wants/needs to hear. Quit chasing hypothetical GRP’s, but embrace and move smaller, real audiences. Rely on them to tell our story to the world.
We need to start crafting (immersive) experiences that are meaningful, memorable and shareable. As this is a standard that most of the current marketing and communication initiatives fail to achieve, marketers and agencies need to raise the bar. Play a new game.
WHAT IF AUDIENCES EMBRACED YOU
This mind-shift will take effort. Audience-centricity, meaning and the careful crafting of experiences don’t always fit in the hectic world of campaigns and KPIs. Advertising has become a machine and the world I describe above, doesn't really fit the mould.
But I firmly believe that the brands that dare to be different will gradually, and sustainably overcome many of the communication challenges they face today.
Instead of hunting audiences, I see a world in which customers willingly give their time. Immerse themselves in real, imaginary or virtual brand environments because they want to experience them. And once they have been touched, they tell their friends about it.
After all, who of us wouldn’t want their brand’s story to be as familiar as Snow White?
If you're a (marketing) executive and you find this message resonates, do get in touch. I'm currently still shaping my thoughts on this topic, so perhaps we can experiment and co-create in 2018.
Also check out my other two lessons from the Future of Storytelling:
This article first appeared on www.alainthys.com. All rights reserved.
Every year, I force myself out of my day-to-day to attend The Future of Storytelling Summit in New York. This is one of one of those rare events that don’t just inform, but challenge - even change - your belief system. After a week of experiential overdose, I'll be sharing some of the lessons I learned this year. I’ll focus on the ones which are relevant for brands and customer professionals. I’ll split them over multiple posts.
FOST LESSON 1: UX as we know it, just died
Every serious conversation about quantum physics has a tendency to melt your brain. It doesn’t make sense, and yet it is. So when my first work session at Fost started looking at the influence of quantum field theory on user interface design, I knew I could be in for a rollercoaster ride (OK, I’m a nerd, sue me 😃).
Jumping straight to the end of the story, the workshop's message was that we should forget everything we know about today's user interfaces.
Ever since the beginning, we have modeled digital interfaces on an industrial age paradigm. If you wanted a machine to do something, you had to press a button. This could be a physical button, a Siri command or a wave of the hand. But metaphorically, it was always “a button”.
Using this new paradigm, these buttons disappear. By installing a wide variety of sensors around us, our machines monitor our every move, micro-expression, heartbeat, temperature, pupil dilation. And just to be clear, our sunglasses, jewellery and clothes can all be machines.
This allows the development of probabilistic models that predict our intentions at the speed of our brain. In other words, the machines watch us and calculate the probability that we want to open a door, open a file or are in the mood for ice-cream. Once the probability is high enough, they automatically provide us with the things we desire. No commands. No instructions. No buttons. Only intent.
This can happen over short distances, but also across larger ones. Even at the other side of the planet. After all, if you think about vectors in a quantised field, space is a very relative concept. All that matters is the expression of intent/probability.
If this sounds like science fiction, it partly is. The technology is available today and all major players are working on it. But it does require 5G, a ton of sensors (IoT anyone?), more advanced AI and - as an AT&T executive observed - “a massive amount of processing power”.
Also, the ethical implications will need sorting out. If my primal brain says I want bacon, but salad is the smarter option, which will the digital restaurant menu show first? If I tell my vendor that I’m satisfied with the service, but my micro-expressions contradict this, is he allowed to know? If I’m depressed and consider killing myself, will the machines help me? Or stop me?
But all these elements will eventually be sorted out. Especially as first user tests indicate that after 20 seconds of usage, people have figured out the new way of working. They also prefer the intuitive nature and nanosecond speed over old-school UX.
So, there is still a number of years mileage in today’s user experience design practices. But the genie is out of the bottle and there’s no way we’ll put it back in. In my mind, UX has we know it, is a dead man walking.
What are your thoughts when you read the above? Good? Bad? Ugly?
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About this blog
Whenever inspiration strikes, I use this space to share my thoughts on customer experience management, storytelling or what ever else crosses my mind.