For millennia, the gold standard of customer experience has been the personal touch. However, when consumers buy more and more products online, providing the personal touch becomes a lot trickier. For most retailers, the key to providing the personal touch online is technology. The editorial team at BusinessMatters Magazine writes, “Customer service technologies are [providing] plenty of new ways that brands can engage with customers in order to offer an optimized service.” Technology alone, however, cannot guarantee a great customer experience. Stefan Thomke, the William Barclay Harding Professor of Business Administration at Harvard Business School, explains, “The difference [between a ho-hum customer experience and a great one] has less to do with catchy marketing and everything to do with the design of the experience itself.” Designing a great customer experience is difficult.
Journalist Dina Gerdeman reports, “When it comes to providing the type of experience we gush about to friends, many companies are falling down on the job. A survey found that 65 percent of customers are likely to speak negatively about their experience, and 48 percent who had negative experiences shared them with 10 or more other people, according to a study in a 2010 Harvard Business Review article. Only 25 percent were likely to say positive things, and only 23 percent with positive experiences told 10 or more others.” Since word-of-mouth advertising is an extremely powerful tool, those statistics should make retailers sit up and take notice. Gerdeman notes, “Exceptionally great experiences stand out, create memories for years, increase loyalty, and lead to a massive multiplier effect when one customer shares the details with others in today’s super-connected consumer world.”
Designing Great Customer Experiences
We’ve all heard the old adage “the customer is always right.” Even though the customer is not always right, a great customer experience starts by seeing customer interactions through the consumer’s eyes. Thomke asks, “Does it make economic sense to go over the top with it? I would say ‘yes’ because it creates that stickiness which is hard to measure. Aside from that customer coming back, you are going to benefit from word of mouth. I’ve had students telling stories about things that happened more than 10 years ago.” Gerdeman adds, “Rather than worrying only about offering customers a discount on products or services or focusing on how fast employees can process transactions, companies could benefit in the long run from empowering their employees to meet customers’ emotional needs more often.” Thomke suggests three principles to keep in mind when designing your customer experience strategy. They are:
1. Solve problems with empathy and exceed expectations. According to Deloitte analysts, the latest trend in customer experience is understanding and exceeding customer expectations. They note, “With its emphasis on the human experience, this trend represents a turning point in marketing strategy and practices. Traditionally, marketing’s broad goal was to bend consumer will in ways that advance a seller’s strategy. Going forward, the new goal will be to adapt the seller’s objectives and methods of engagement to meet specific customer expectations.” The same objectives and methods should be used after the sale when problems emerge.
2. Become your customer’s champion and own the problem. The Deloitte analysts report, “In a CMO Council/SAP survey, 47 percent of respondents said they would abandon a brand that delivers poor, impersonal, or frustrating experiences.” When a consumer has a problem with a product, they begin the conversation with the belief they have been ripped off. By making their problem your problem, that negative attitude transforms into one of gratitude.
3. Trust your customers, take immediate action, and do not blame them. When a customer feels their problem is understood and knows action is being taken, their confidence in an organization increases tremendously. On the other hand, when they feel their concerns are being dismissed or diminished, animosity is the likely result.
I would add a fourth principle to those identified by Thomke: Don’t frustrate your customers. Frustration can result when technology fails to provide the personal touch and/or fails to achieve the immediate action consumers expect to receive. Customer experience expert Jeannie Walters (@jeanniecw) writes about an experience she had with a chatbot.
“I was arguing with a bot recently. I was asking what I thought was a straight-forward question. Using the helpful ask us tool on my bank’s site, I typed in a simple question: ‘I don’t recognize what this ‘service adjustment’ fee is all about on my statement. Can you please tell me what that is?’ The bot wanted to tell me about their great interest rates. I explained to my new artificial friend that I had a business checking account and needed to understand a fee on my statement. ‘I can help you with that!’ the bot proclaimed. After verifying my identity and account information, I was again directed to the wonderful interest rates available for personal savings accounts.”
After 8 frustrating minutes with the bot, she was finally directed to a human representative, who then made her once again provide all of the information she had given the bot, and wait some more. Eventually, after wasting the better part of half-an-hour, and failing to get her question answered, Walters was pretty fed up. She writes, “What should have been an easy answer turned into an episode of frustration. And effort. Too much effort for me as the customer to get a simple question answered.”
How Technology Can Help
Even though the BusinessMatters staff notes there are new customer service technologies providing plenty of new ways that brands can engage with customers, the Walters’ story provides a cautionary tale about the limitations of such technologies. Fortunately, Walters’ experience didn’t sour her on new technologies. She explains, “Artificial intelligence (AI) is a promise of providing faster, more personalized experiences for customers, especially when combined with humans still serving customers. And it also offers organizations ways to scale tasks that are difficult to scale today. All while leveraging technology and machine learning (ML) to provide high-touch, human experiences via automated tools. The story I shared is a small glimpse into how artificial intelligence and machine learning can be fantastic in theory, but maybe not as fantastic in real life.” With that caveat as a backdrop, let’s discuss how experts see technology improving customer experience in the future.
Voice Interactions. If you’ve ever yelled at a chatbot for its lack of understanding, you’re not alone. The BusinessMatters team predict future chatbots will detect your frustration. They explain, “There have been significant breakthroughs in emotion-sniffing AI, capable of identifying emotions in spoken language, either based on the tone used or the word choices uttered. This can then be used in various useful manners, such as directing people phoning a call center to the best operative to be able to deal with their personality type or concerns.”
Problem-solving. Despite situations, like the one described by Walters, AI systems are getting better at handling routine problems. The secret to great customer experience is knowing when to hand-off problems to a human. Callie McCarty, a business analyst at Capgemini, observes, “Humans are problem solvers and critical thinkers, so it is rather counterproductive to put them on simple and monotonous tasks that leave them in rudimentary positions. AI holds the key to opening doors where employees have the freedom to tackle roles that challenge and grow them, increasing drive and overall performance. Ultimately, the customer benefits with more time dedicated to improving their experiences.”
Process Automation. Consumers are generally turned off by having to spend time filling out forms. Technology can help. The BusinessMatters staff notes, “There are some powerful examples of customer-facing Robotic Process Automation that can help bolster the kind of customer service businesses are able to provide. For instance, RPA chatbots can help answer many routine customer queries, rather than having to wait for a human operator to respond to these messages. In the event that they are unable to answer queries, RPA can ensure that these questions are routed through to the right piece. RPA can also help process orders, including populating databases with the correct information.”
Virtual and Augmented Reality. As you’re likely aware, Facebook recently changed its name to Meta because it believes the future belongs to companies that master the so-called metaverse. The metaverse is accessed through virtual and augmented reality systems. The BusinessMatters staff observes that virtual and augmented reality “opens up a plethora of possibilities when it comes to using tech to bolster customer experiences. … This impressive use of technology gives businesses the opportunity to create impressive, problem-solving experiences for customers and would-be customers alike.”
A 2019 IDG survey found, “Nearly 54 percent of respondents believed that the topmost objective for the adoption of cognitive technologies is improving customer experience.” However, both Thomke and Walters insist that adopting technology without the right strategy and design is a losing proposition. Walters explains, “AI is a tool. Make it part of your business strategy. Deploying an army of bots because the technology is there is not a strategy. Your overall business strategy should guide how AI is leveraged in your customer experience. How does your organization measure success? Start there. Review your overall goals, your key performance indicators, your customer experience metrics, all of it.” Thomke notes that technology is often more about functionality than providing great customer experience. He concludes, “I’m not saying functionality and value aren’t important, but you should aim for the hearts of your customers, not just their heads. You do that through empathy, by putting yourself in the customer’s shoes. You take over. You say, ‘Let me take care of everything.’ But you can do these things only if your organization encourages you to do that.”
 Staff, “How cutting-edge tech is reshaping the customer experience,” BusinessMatters Magazine, 14 December 2021.
 Dina Gerdeman, “How to Design a Better Customer Experience,” Harvard Business School Working Knowledge, 20 December 2017.
 Angel Vaccaro, Scott Mager, and Alex Bolante, “Beyond Marketing: Experience Reimagined,” The Wall Street Journal, 11 March 2019.
 Jeannie Walters, “The Right Way to Use Artificial Intelligence (AI) in Your CX Program,” LinkedIn, 9 September 2021.
 Callie McCarty, “Artificial Intelligence Is Ready To Improve The Customer And Employee Experience,” Greenville Business Magazine, 4 March 2019.
 Staff, “Organizations Deploy Cognitive Technologies for Enhancing Customer Experience,” Analytics Insight, 24 September 2019.