The future of CX: How artificial intelligence will humanise every customer journey

Printed in part at Salesforce Australia & NZ Blog.

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Technology often gets in the way of having meaningful human experiences, and is the leading driver for frustration amongst colleagues and customers alike. Remember the last time you picked up the phone to converse with a company’s call centre, only to be left frustrated at the first hurdle – trying to get past the voice activated menu. Or when you visited your local GP, and they looked at their computer screen typing notes as you talked.

If anything, technology is often responsible for de-humanising the experience. But when used appropriately, technology can recede and almost disappear as people get immersed in new experiences that amplify the best in humanity.

What makes a good experience, a great experience?

The difference between a good experience and a great one is empathy – when it touches people in a unique way. Empathy is the capacity to understand or feel what another person is experiencing from within their frame of reference. A great experience is one where the customer is understood and gifted with an experience that not only meets their functional needs, but their emotional and social needs as well. A customer that wants to be inspired is very different to a customer that wants to be served as efficiently and quickly as possible – and whilst both customers may be headed in the same direction, the journey they take to get there will be different.

The difference between a good experience and a great one includes serendipity — the value of the unexpected, to be surprised, elated. There is a new battleground emerging around the future of customer experience, and it’s centred around how you make your customers feel, think and act. Emotion is fast becoming the future of customer experience. They may not remember what you showed them or offered them, but they will remember how you made them feel. This is not simply customer satisfaction – satisfaction determines whether the customer will return a product or ask for a refund. No, this is much more than that! This is about whether the customer felt excited, passionate, enlightened, amused, entertained, adored, respected, amazed….enough to promote your brand to their friends and families with so much passion that their connections can’t help but be caught up in the experience too.

The difference between a good experience and a great one respects privacy – and I don’t just mean from a data perspective. We live in a crazy, busy world. People are overwhelmed with information, notifications and interactions. Now more than ever, people are looking to escape reality and be in a private moment, without being isolated. Great experiences are founded on knowing when to connect with customers, and more importantly, when not to connect. Customers need to feel supported, encouraged, enlightened, but never overwhelmed with information, decisions and updates.

The challenge is empathy, serendipity and privacy are native traits of humanity, but not of traditional technology. How do we take the best of humanity, and amplify these experiences through the use of technology?

Emotion is the future of customer experience, and AI is an enabler to understanding and influencing human emotion. With every customer journey comprising multiple, connected experiences, AI is no longer just a tool or software for companies to add to their services. It is the foundation for companies who want to create a different business model, understand data in real-time, and transform each and every customer experience to one that demonstrates empathy, provides serendipity, and respects privacy.

AI can help organisations understand what customers want and predict what they will need in the future. It can help companies unlock customers desires and tie together a seamless experience with one that is relevant to customers. Most importantly, it can help organisations:

1. Create intimate experiences

We all leave digital breadcrumbs each and every day – in the websites we use, in the places we visit, in the photos we post – data is captured in each interaction and act like the pieces of a jigsaw puzzle, providing a window into our lives. AI enables us to collect and analyse those breadcrumbs to learn more about our customers – what they want, how they liked to be served, the words and images that invoke emotion and trigger them to act. The new world is not just about delivering good customer service, but about invoking emotion to make them love brands and inspire them to tell the world about it.

Rebecca Minkoff, the creator of one of my all-time favourite handbag, collects breadcrumbs: a customer’s favourite drink, products they’ve viewed online and bookmarked for later, and knowledge of products similar customers have combined in popular outfits before. These are used to create a unique and personal experience when that customer walks into the store – beacons are used to notify of arrival, clothing items are delivered to the change room. Even the mirror provides access to a catalog of clothing options to mix and match, order different sizes, and create a personal experience in what is possibly one of the most personal experiences in retail – standing half-naked in a public change room!

Westfield San Francisco even trialled AI technology to analyse a customer’s social media profile, determine their strongest personality traits based on the language they used, and match ideal birthday gifts that were available in store to make it easier for customers to find and purchase gifts for their friends and family.

2. Explore new channels

AI makes emerging channels such as smart vehicles and augmented reality not just examples of cool technology, but a valuable platform to sell and serve customers, and connect employees to the information they need to do their jobs. Your car will talk to your fridge to make predictions on the groceries you need and purchase them for you on the way home from work. Home appliances will replenish supplies and serve themselves. Augmented reality puts information in the hands of the customer or employee so they can make more informed decisions and take the best action in that moment. More importantly, it takes advantage of emerging channels that are inherently personal in nature, and better suited to invoking real emotion.

Take for example the launch of the TV series The Walking Dead. A digital ad on a bus stop to promote the series is interesting and informative to some, but unlikely to elicit any real emotion and intuitively ignored by most. Leveraging AR technology it is transformed into a human experience, invoking real fear and dread in un-expecting bus passengers – and creating an entirely difference experience.

I’m not suggesting you should scare your customers into action, but that same technology coupled with AI can be used to invoke actionable human emotions and influence customers to invest in your products and services. Take for example Sephora, who launched a digital mirror to allow customers to virtually try on makeup, making recommendations based on skin type and facial features, and removing the friction of purchase when they find the look they love. Or Lowes, who overlay navigation and product information onto a smartphone camera to make it easier for customers to navigate their way through stores and find the purchases they need more quickly and efficiently.

3. Deliver equality in service

For a period there was concern that AI could inadvertently amplify inequality – as predictions and recommendations are based on algorithms that look for common trends and patterns in data. Anyone who falls outside that data is at risk of being treated less favourably. For example, creating a risk profile for individuals likely to default on a home loan based on demographic data. Or marketing offers to segments that reflect the most common customer profile. However, we have moved into the phase of consciously incompetent when it comes to AI and equality, and more and more technology is being used to turn the tables and provide greater equality in service.

A great example is Soul Machines, the creators of digital humans and on a mission to humanise computing to better humanity. Technology once developed to create the movie Avatar, is now being used to accelerate the shift away from graphical user interfaces that focus on teaching humans how to interact with machines, to human user interfaces that teach computers to speak our language and replicate human emotion. Thus taking the friction out of interacting with technology. This is particularly important for individuals with physical or mental impairments, where simple tasks like filling out a form for government programs can become a complex and frustrating experience.

Furthermore, face-to-face communication is an intrinsic part of what makes us human and essential to establishing trust. If someone doesn’t look you in the eye when they talk to you – it’s unnerving. Visual cues to what a person truly means are painted across the face adding the clarity of non-verbal communication to the conversation. Soul Machines Digital Human’s have the ability to read whether someone is confused, happy or unsure through their expression’s and can then direct the conversation accordingly.

Soul Machines worked with the National Disability Insurance Agency in Australia to address the challenges faced by people with disabilities in communicating and engaging with the agency around the programs they support. In many cases, forms are not accessible, websites are not accessible, letters are written in government language that people with disabilities may not be able to read. Combining a human face and voice with AI, in a system co-designed by the disability community, has resulted in making information available to people in a more accessible and personalised way, and removed difficulties in using standard government communication methods. It’s a much more democratic, empowering way to deliver a service so that people can just get on with their lives and be who they are. The work that Soul Machine is doing with NDIA is a great example of using AI to humanise the citizen journey to make government services available to everyone – the liberating potential is incredible.

According to Forrester’s 2017 prediction report, there will be a clear correlation between the quality of customer experiences and revenue growth for companies. Emotion is fast becoming the new battle ground, and a core driver of customer loyalty and consumer spending. Companies that can successfully use AI to drive better experiences at each interaction in the customer journey, that can humanise the technology experience to demonstrate empathy, provide serendipity, and respect privacy, will find themselves winning the hearts and minds of their customers – and there’s nothing more human than that!

To hear more, make sure you register for Salesforce Basecamp in Melbourne on 27 September 2017 where Shaun Paga, Soul Machines, and I will take to the stage one last time. It’s not too late to register and secure your spot.