2019 Outlook: How Emerging Digital Technologies are Humanizing the Customer Experience

Paulie Anthony
January 2, 2019

The customer experience has been notoriously difficult to perfect. Capricious retail trends, shifting consumer expectations and thriving competition have forced brands to learn to embrace technology to remain top of mind amongst their target audience. We looked at some of the top emerging technologies driving customer experience and, ultimately, profits.

Artificial Intelligence & Machine Learning

Artificial intelligence is an umbrella term used to refer to any software application or system designed to emulate cognitive tasks performed by humans. These range from tasks as simple as determining variable outcomes for a single occurrence based upon a predefined data set to handling computational processing too complex and time-consuming for the human mind. 

Larry Tesler, former chief scientist at Apple (and the man behind “cut/copy and paste”), stated in his famous theorem in the mid-1970s that “intelligence is whatever machines haven’t done yet.”

This adage rings true in the modern era, where advancements in AI and its sister technologies, like machine learning (ML), are taking root in software solutions across every industry.

ML is a sub-field of AI encompassing the development of computer systems that are able to “learn” by continuously analyzing statistical insights gleaned from performing a specific task without additional programming or any other human intervention. This self-contained ecosystem has proved extremely valuable not only for analyzing vast data sets but also for being able to effectively predict likely outcomes.

The ability to parse vast amounts of data down into actionable, accurate insights has been a game-changer from a marketing perspective. Brands that are able to leverage applications such as chatbots (as outlined below), personalization software and internal project management platforms like Atlassian that use elements of AI and ML can effectively minimize time and effort spent on administrative and reporting functions and optimize their customer experience.

Chatbots

An increasingly common application, chatbots are typically built using ML programs. Their base function is to provide real-time communication and support against a variety of common customer service queries. Although an entirely humanoid conversation between man and machine may not be in the immediate future, chatbots have advanced to offer entry-level approximations.

The shift toward increased personalization and customer feedback in the customer experience has led brands to value the use of chatbots for more than just a simple back-and-forth. Retail strategist Michael Klein commented that although chatbots can alleviate the workload of a busy customer service and sales team, “retailers can’t afford to make the mistake of selling chatbots short. They have the potential to not only deliver exceptional online experiences but also inspire purchases and increase the number of items in people’s shopping carts.”

Automation

As mentioned above, the popularity of AI in solutions has been a central driver for automation. Reliance on the use of computer programs as workhorses in areas of customer service, analytics, and inventory management has enabled human workers to focus on higher-level tasks with long-term implications for a brand’s bottom line. 

With 80% of customer interactions being automated by 2025 (as predicted by technology thought leader Mark Hurd), brands will have a continuing need to invest in technology that both automates and enhances the customer experience. It won’t be enough to deploy solutions that simply mean less face-time between a human brand representative and a customer if those interactions aren’t sophisticated enough or don’t achieve the desired outcome.

Virtual & Augmented Reality

Augmented reality (AR) seamlessly integrates computer-generated imagery and other perceptual information into a user’s real-world sensory experience. It’s typically accessed via visual display devices such as Google Glass and, more recently, smartphone-based apps such as Snapchat that seek to overlay interactive data and imagery onto relevant parts of the world captured by a camera’s viewfinder.

It’s important to note the distinction between AR and virtual reality (VR): AR adds to a user’s reality, whereas VR attempts to replace that reality with an entirely computer-generated environment. The end goal of a VR program is to have a user perceive the simulated environment as their true surroundings using advanced three-dimensional effects achieved through a combination of software and hardware.

Immersive experiences

Gartner identified immersive experiences as one of its top 10 technology trends of the past year. Being able to use technology to influence the way someone views the world around them has made waves across various sectors, but especially in the realm of marketing and advertising.

Both AR and VR have been used extensively by brands in the last few years as a form of experiential marketing, but AR has proven to be slightly cheaper and more accessible to the average consumer. Utilizing AR apps to augment the sales funnel helps ease purchase uncertainty for consumers through immersive “try before you buy” platforms, boosts engagement through interactive packaging and can even guide self-service customer support. Ultimately, it provides an avenue for brands to foster closer, more informed relationships with their target audience, something that can be hard to do in our digitized age.

The Internet of Things

A network of physical devices, vehicles, and home appliances that collect and share information with the internet and amongst one another, the Internet of Things (IoT) has exploded in popularity over the last decade. It’s estimated that there will be nearly 21 billion connected devices by the year 2020, due in no small part to the race for market domination amongst smart home “hubs” like Google Home and Amazon Echo.

Hypertargeting

One particular advantage for brands is the ability to segment customer profiles based on the most minute details. Data collection amongst endpoint devices, especially smartphones, provides a steady stream of data on a consumer’s particular interests, past purchases and even the types of big-ticket purchases they’re likely to make in the near future. Additionally, due to the pervasive use of smartphones and other devices across a broad demographic spectrum, brands are able to reach consumers in real-time with messages that are more likely to be interactive than disruptive.

Offering up the right promotional content at the right time is one part of the equation. Being able to more precisely understand the consumer as a singular user also means that increased personalization is once again at work. Digital research analyst David Newman likened IoT advertising to treating customers like members of an extended family, adding, “A customer that is treated like family is a customer that will keep coming back.”

Ultimately, brands are beginning to realize the impact of their customer experience as consumers become harder to convert and the retail market becomes more densely populated. In order to gain lasting market share, businesses have to keep up a constant stream of innovation and invest in the right technology to move the needle forward.

Summary

Incorporating innovation and digital transformation isn’t for the narrow-sighted. It’s for those able to parlay higher-level decisions regarding the company vision and current state of the market into a bold view of the future. Doing business in today’s “now” economy means leveraging real-time data and engagement in order to stay competitive.

Enhancing customer and employee experiences and automating business processes utilizing advanced AI, machine-learning and analytic technologies is becoming essential for business growth. The impact of doing so can be directly tied to a company’s bottom line.