For the last five years I’ve written predictions for the future of customer experience. There is no doubt in my mind that the discipline of customer experience has exploded since 2014 when I started this column for Forbes. It’s amazing to see the evolution of trends and technology from my predictions. In 2015 I wrote about the multi-channel customer. In 2016, I predicted the growth of the Internet of Things and video for customer service. 2017 was all about data and machine learning, 2018 showcased personalization and the CEO owning customer experience and last year I predicted the growth of digital transformation. Clearly, things are always changing and evolving, and it’s up to us to keep up.
2020 is an exciting year for customer experience. As we enter a new decade, customer experience is firmly positioned as a competitive advantage and something most companies are prioritizing. It’s never been more important to deliver a consistent, seamless experience for customers and to look towards the future to find innovative ways to meet their needs.
With that in mind, here are five predictions for customer experience in 2020.
1. Thoughtfulness Is In
For decades, brands have wondered how to best connect with their customers and provide amazing experiences. All along, the answer has been right in front of us. Instead of worrying about new technology, brands need to consider the psychological foundation. Before they even want to use the technology, customers need to feel acknowledged and understood. Feelings alone aren’t a hard business metric, but a growing number of companies are taking feelings more seriously. Customers who feel they have an emotional connection to a brand become loyal advocates, make repeat purchases and recommend the brand to family and friends. Instead of focusing solely on the technology solutions they offer customers, brands first need to build trusting, thoughtful relationships. How does a customer feel about a brand? Does the customer value the service? How could the customer connect emotionally with a brand? Thoughtfulness considers the softer aspects of customer experience that can’t be measured as easily.
Thoughtfulness comes from having a customer-centric mindset where everyone is obsessed with providing the best service and solutions for customers. That expands to a thoughtful culture towards employees where they feel valued and have the tools they need to do their jobs. In those cultures, employees at every level know how their work impacts customers and the overall goals of the company. Thoughtfulness is built through a systemized leadership development program that internally trains future leaders to continue the customer-centric mindsets and culture.
For all the talk of technology in the future, a big push in 2020 will be for thoughtfulness. Customers want to build relationships and emotional connections and will respond to brands that show interest in them and their feelings and then follow that up with a consistent, technology-driven experience.
2. Services Over Products
In the next year and beyond, we’ll see a move from selling products to selling services around products. Many consumers, particularly young people, are moving away from consumerism. Figuring out new ways to sell consumers new versions of products they already have is no longer a good business. For example, smart phone purchases are down, as a result of consumers not replacing their perfectly functional older phones. Maybe it’s Marie Kondo’s anti-hoarding book The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up, maybe it’s generational attitudes, but research shows that people are buying less, with a move toward experiences over things. Companies now realize they have to re-imagine many of their business practices, specifically what they actually sell to customers. Companies will think more about the help that customers actually need instead of simply finding new products to sell customers.
The preference of spending money on experiences over things often extends to having access to something instead of owning it outright. Younger consumers may not want to buy their own car, but they’ll pay a monthly fee for access to a shared car. The same goes for services like streaming media, vacation rentals and food delivery. It’s about the service that surrounds the products instead of the actual products themselves.
Many products and services are turning into commodities. Retailers often still compete on price, but it won’t be enough to save them in the long run. Instead, the focus is shifting to offering a great experience instead of focusing solely on the products. Brands have numerous options when it comes to competing on experience, including creating experiential concept stores, teaching customers, providing personalized service, doing good in the community and much more.
3. Culture Is Now Number One Over Customers
Customer experience isn’t all about the customer. It actually starts by focusing on employees and creating a cohesive culture. Companies are focusing even more on employee experience. Many CHROs now call themselves Chief Employee Experience Officers. Companies are starting to realize, no matter how much they beat their customer experience drum, until they start with what’s happening within their walls, they’re not going to have the culture they need to achieve velocity.
Creating a strong culture isn’t easy, but the investment pays rewards with both customers and employees. Companies understand how much work they have to do in this area and how hard that work actually is when it comes to trickling down through an organization with thousands of people. Company cultures that are extremely buttoned up are suffocating employees. In the era of #BlackLivesMatter and #MeToo, companies that try and dust all their shortcomings under the rug only make it worse. Good companies are having the difficult conversations. Organizations need to do a better job of training their leaders how to address topics that some might be uncomfortable discussing.
I recently heard a story from a former Sears executive who recalls a time when the former CEO would pit leaders against each other in competition for resources. The culture was competitive and closed. We can see what happened to Sears and the downward slope it has been on for years. Culture is the most overlooked piece of customer experience strategy. Many companies are now rebranding their human resources groups to employee experience groups in an effort to empower employees and give them the resources and training they need for their jobs.
4. Engineering And Service Finally Join Forces
For too long, engineering and service have worked in separate realms, each doing their own thing next to each other without ever really collaborating. As we head into 2020, companies are combining their engineering and service efforts to create strong feedback loops. One of the best examples comes from Slack. I spoke with Ali Rayl, Slack’s VP of Customer Experience, who shared how the company connects its engineering and customer service efforts. As Slack experienced rapid growth, leadership realized it was too big for one person to know everything. Slack customer service representatives now specialize in certain areas of the program and become specialized experts. Employees benefit from taking ownership over certain areas, and customers can be served more quickly by automatically sending their question to a specialist in that area instead of moving aimlessly through the service department. If a customer calls with an iOS question, they are immediately passed to an expert in iOS who can take their call. The service department works closely with the product and engineering teams to look for ways to change and update the product based on common questions or issues from customers.
There are essentially two ways to handle customer service: manage questions through customer support or change the product to solve the problems through engineering. One answer isn’t always best, especially when considering the frequency of the issue and the time and cost to fix it versus simply taking questions as they come. When customer service and engineering work together and have a strong relationship, they can find the balance in handling customer complaints and ensure the product is customer focused and intuitive.
5. The B2B World Is Inefficiently Served
The B2C world has made huge progress in customer experience over the past few years, so much so that it has become a driving force for many customer-facing companies. However, the B2B space is still lagging behind. Many B2B companies don’t focus on customer experience, and B2B customers have come to expect the same mediocre experience every time. That’s in contrast to the convenient, personalized experiences they see in their personal lives every day. B2B needs to step up with more tools and a greater emphasis placed on customer experience.
At the same time, B2B companies are growing at a fast pace. Amazon’s B2B branch, Amazon Business, is predicted to be worth $31 billion in four years, even as experts say it is largely ignored by investors. The same is true for B2B companies in many industries facing incredible growth. Clearly, there are customers waiting to be served better.
B2B companies that have made the push for customer experience, such as IBM, which assigns each customer a team of specialists to help them integrate IBM Cloud into their current programs and best leverage the program, and FedEx, which streamlined its customer communication to become one of the most trusted B2B companies, have been incredibly successful in driving innovation and setting themselves apart from the competition. The rest of the B2B world needs to follow suit to serve their customers well and get the attention they deserve.
2020 will bring customer experience into a new decade. The incredible growth in customer centricity we’ve seen in recent years will only continue to grow over the next decade, giving customers more power and companies more opportunities to grow than ever before.
Blake Morgan the bestselling author of the new book The Customer Of The Future, a keynote speaker and customer experience futurist. For more from Blake Morgan sign up for her weekly newsletter here.