By 2020, 70% of purchasing decisions will be based on the customer experience, according to research carried out by CISCO. To stay ahead of their competitors, businesses must invest in exceptional experiences that resonate with the brand and go beyond the expectations of customers. So what’s driving change in the customer experience this year and beyond? We take a look at four major factors.

Conservations start with artificial intelligence
Increasing numbers of first interactions are now handled by artificial intelligence, whether through triaging customers on the phone or via interactions with chatbots on Messenger. Gartner believes that 85% of consumer interactions will be non-human by 2020. They also say, rather disquietingly, that by 2020 the average person will have more conversations with bots than with a partner. AI enables companies to efficiently keep up with the demand for customer support in all channels and potentially provide more personalised service, though it may not be there quite yet. AI can carry out millions of conversations at the same time, unlike humans. So it’s easy to see why when it comes to customer service it makes sense to employ machines to do the heavy lifting, passing on only complicated or unexpected queries to a human operative. But it’s also important that AI provides real value by offering genuine help and being able to action issues, rather than just wasting people’s time with pointless robo-chat before they give up in favour of searching out a human who can give a more useful response. According to a report by CGS, consumers are still 50-50 on chatbots, with roughly half saying they’d prefer to speak to a real live person. This might be because the answers they’re getting are – at the moment – more generalised and less useful, or because they assume their query is too complicated to be dealt with. As AI becomes more sophisticated and not only knows a person’s history with the brand but can gauge their emotional state and give ever-more appropriate responses, perhaps more people will grow to love the super-fast response times and witty repartee of their most-used bot friend.

Talking out loud goes centre stage
The figures are staggering. More than 500 million enabled Google Assistants, 500 million Siris, one in six Americans owning a smart speakers and cloud-based voice services like Alexa used at least once by four out of five US adults. Once thought of as a novelty, voice activation is becoming more and more popular, gaining in functionality as more IoT devices appear. It’s also driven by Generation Z who expect the quickest answers and solutions for their busy lives and are supremely comfortable with digital technology, having never known anything else. As their buying power outgrows that of millennials, we can expect to see the rise and rise of the voice assistant ­– though perhaps it will always be best suited to home use. No one wants to listen to other people’s boring questions about the weather on the bus, or have others know the intimate details of their Amazon purchases. However as they capabilities in AI and machine learning increase, voice assistants will not only be able to offer more personalised advice, the whole service will become smoother, as they learn to filter out background noise and become more skilled at natural language understanding as well as distinguishing accents and voices.

IoT is transforming the customer experience
By 2021 Gartner expects there to be over 25 billion IoT devices enabled worldwide. Nine years later in 2030, the figure could be a staggering 125 billion, or 15 for every person on the planet, according to IHS Markit. The insights that can be gleaned from the vast amounts of data sent from these devices gives businesses an extraordinary opportunity. The ease of updates to products and services will make them better and better over time. Problems can be dealt with before customers are even aware of them, for instance fixing bugs through automated software updates so that the first time someone hears of an issue, they’re getting a notification to say it’s been fixed. Devices could also communicate any more serious maintenance issues, notifying the customer in advance if a device needs to be serviced and letting them know how to action it, as well as allowing the manufacturer to plan for repairs. The capabilities of IoT allows businesses to create highly personalised messaging addressing each owner’s unique situation, suggesting other products and services that may be relevant based on history and usage of particular functions. It’s a fantastic way to drive loyalty – if a brand knows you inside-out, why would you want to start again with another?

Conscious consumers go mainstream as the climate crisis deepens
Away from technology, there’s another issue driving customer expectations and loyalty. With rising carbon emissions, melting glaciers, an increase in extreme weather events and wildlife populations dropping 60% in 40 years, climate change has become impossible for any of us to ignore. 2018 research by EY says that two thirds of UK consumers consider themselves to be ethical shoppers. More and more people are choosing to be vegetarian, vegan or at least reduce their meat intake. Using less plastic, particularly the single use plastics that are seen as particularly damaging, is also high on the agenda for many, A new study, conducted by GlobalWebIndex, has revealed that 53% of consumers in the UK have reduced the amount of single-use plastic they’ve used in the past 12 months. Environmental matters aside, there’s also increasing scrutiny on issues like gender equality, LGBT+ rights and equal pay.

And for big brands there’s no longer anywhere to hide. Digital technology means that today’s consumers have access to information that just wasn’t available in past decades. Social media means companies who talk the talk but don’t walk the walk can be called out and castigated in public, and no brand wants to have to deal with the PR disaster that can result from just one bad decision. In a world where fake news and false facts have proliferated, businesses who take a genuinely ethical stance and can create effective strategies for engaging with conscious consumers will benefit as people choose products and services from brands that resonate with their own beliefs.

New technologies like AI, voice activation and IOT are transforming the customer experience in ways we couldn’t have imagined a couple of decades ago. As their capabilities and level of sophistication increases so will our ability to create exceptional experiences that are fundamental to the lives of consumers. Meanwhile the environmental crisis we all face is driving many customers to ask more questions and be more discerning about the products and services they buy and the brands they want to interact with. They may seem like very different things. But there is a point where new technologies and conscious consumers can meet; IoT solutions can cut carbon emissions by creating efficiencies, bring precision agriculture to farming, reporting back the environment from remote or inhospitable locations and much more. Meanwhile businesses can use the new possibilities brought by chatbots and voice activation to reassure customers by communicating their strategies for environmental responsibility. While some people see our over-consumption of modern technologies as accelerating the planet’s decline, the opposite may in fact be true. Technologies driven by consumer demand and employed to transform the customer experience just may end up saving us after all.

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