Journeys of the future customer
Editorial

Journeys of the future customer

Brands are faced with a puzzle: in a world of evolving technology and rising expectations, how will the customers of tomorrow reach the point of sale? How do brands begin to anticipate this journey, and what value do customers hold for brands beyond the point of purchase? Here, we consider what the future holds for the customer journey.

While looking into the future of marketing is always fraught with difficulty, two things appear certain: the customer purchase journey will continually be redefined by new technology; and brands will continue to develop a sharper, more sophisticated focus on the customer as an individual.

Map the future customer with data

Until recently, customer data has been seen as an abundant resource that can be freely harvested and used to target marketing communications. However, the data sources marketers have come to depend on to derive insights about the customer journey will be restricted by the incoming General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR). On-going data scandals – not least that involving Cambridge Analytica and Facebook – are only exacerbating this situation.

Nevertheless, data will continue to be essential in mapping the customer journey and driving marketing decisions. Shilpa Patel, a partner of Boston Consulting Group (BCG), says: Once you’ve landed a customer though a nascent personalised relationship, the key question is how to keep that person and expand the business you do with them. With so much data out there, the trick is how you use it.”

In Patel’s view, understanding the customer journey will continue to be achieved through the effective employment of data science, which assumes a shift in the desired skill sets of marketing teams across the economy.

“Data analysts are like gold dust,” she says. “They’re hugely important in the new way of doing things. Companies need to grow them, to keep them excited and find ways of getting them into the business’ own operation [by analysing internal data].”    

Anticipate artificial customer intelligence

Nigel Hammersley, digital business director at communications group Bray Leino, is convinced future customer journeys will be navigated by artificial intelligence (AI). “Personal AIs will become a digital clone of their user, with a complete knowledge of likes, preferences and needs,” he says.

“In the online world, this will mean a person’s ‘clone’ will know what they need to buy and when. In a physical retail environment, your personal AI will know exactly what you’ve gone in for, where it is, and how to guide you to it. The virtual representation of themselves will shop on their behalf.”

Buying decisions, says Hammersley, will be powered by algorithms rather than by emotion. And what will underpin these algorithms? “Data, data, data – super-targeted and hyper-personalised.”

Look for opportunities to innovate

Patel believes, to understand the future of the customer journey, companies should look at existing technology and platforms, and where that might lead. “These services grow rapidly, she says, “and marketers may need to experiment.”

She describes how BCG helped coffee chain Starbucks persuade ‘loyalty’ members to play interactive games through email and its mobile app. The idea was to motivate customers to try new products and visit stores more often. Over time, the games became more personalised, using data gathered from past visits and digital interactions. The outcome was to triple the incremental spending of customers who redeemed Starbucks’ email offers, and a reduced expenditure on mass-marketing.

Future customer journeys, then, are likely to be shaped by increasing innovative brand executions running on platforms in use today, as well as completely new technology.

Customers will always want the human touch

Where does customer service, that timeless and valued commodity, sit within the future customer journey? According to Tony Barritt, managing director of Investor in Customers, it should interface directly. “Visit Currys or PC World and you’ll see lots of people Googling the online shop at the same time.” In this environment, quality of service still matters – for instance; it might make a difference to customers buying a laptop in store to be told by staff, ‘we’ll make sure the machine is 100% ready to go’.”

Andy Tow, managing director of Retail Marketing Group (RMG), agrees that the future is unlikely to be totally dominated by digital commerce – for a simple reason. “Customers still yearn for the human touch. Despite technological advances, what wins hearts and minds is a personalised experience that evokes strong feelings.”

In his view, “the bricks and mortar aspect of retail is where we’re able to gain the most accurate insights about customers and their experiences. These shape future strategies, identifying opportunities to promote greater satisfaction, personalisation and engagement. People understand people, and can make customers feel valued and cared for.”

Expect blurred boundaries between in store and online

According to Tow, the future is likely to involve a blurring of the lines between traditional retail environments and online technology. A survey undertaken by RMG showed that, with electrical goods, for instance, more than 50% of customers prefer to buy in store or combine online with in-store purchasing. Tow interprets this to mean that marketers must innovate to improve not only the online experience, but that of the physical stores too.

The gold standard of customer service is whether it leads to recommendations and repeat business. From this point of view, online customer service still has a long way to go, says Barritt. “The experience needs to be friendlier,” he says. “Some companies are already attempting to make this process more personalised through the use of AI. But when it comes to pursuing complaints, customers seeking redress via corporate websites can often abandon the process feeling frustrated, especially when battling outfits such as budget airlines.”  

Welcome to ‘liquid’ expectations

These days, service is about more than a friendly face and properly addressing complaints. Increasingly – especially for young people – speed is a key factor. “You’re competing with retailers like Amazon, which have really raised the bar in terms of customer expectations. People expect a response the next day, rather than waiting three or four,” says Barritt.

Steve Grout, director of loyalty at Collinson Group, agrees that Amazon has raised the bar for all brands. “Amazon’s success depends on its ability to personalise the retail experience for each person. If other retailers don’t follow suit, they’ll be left behind.

“Perhaps the most interesting insight into the future is the creation of ‘liquid expectations’ – consumers demanding the same experiences from one brand to the next,” says Grout. “For example, anyone using Monzo’s online banking app quickly asks why another bank can’t offer the same experience when it’s clearly technologically possible.”

Overall, Barritt feels that, despite all the gadgetry at their fingertips, too many companies are still failing on the basics of personalisation and anticipating customer needs. “It’s about finding other opportunities [for sales] within the business… and following the old-fashioned advice that says, if people are buying shoes, sell them shoe polish.”

Despite the technology the future might bring – and insights marketers can extract from data – having a firm grasp of the eternal laws of salesmanship is central to understanding the customer journey, now and in the future.

Andrew Mourant
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