5 Technologies That Are Reshaping Customer Experience

The emerging technologies of today will be powering the customer experiences of tomorrow. And many of those experiences will be enabled by the smartphones most consumers carry with them day in and day out.

Indeed, from augmented reality and voice to virtual reality and more, there’s no shortage of new ways to connect with customers—and the list continues to expand. As a digital leader, the question is which ones to invest in.

We’ve narrowed it down to the five we think will have the biggest impact on business this year.  

1. Augmented Reality To Reinvigorate The In-Store Experience
Augmented reality (AR) is by no means a new idea. In fact, brands such as Timberland began testing AR experiences as early as 2014. But AR’s big moment came in June 2017, when Apple introduced its AR platform, ARKit, at the company’s Worldwide Developer Conference. The opportunity was obvious: Companies could create AR experiences for iOS users around the globe.

“The biggest development that I saw [in 2018] was the continued integration of AR support directly into Android and iOS smartphone devices,” said Danielle Reubenstein, executive creative director at POSSIBLE Mobile. “More AR capability in the hands of consumers has and will continue to drive brands to create AR experiences to supplement their current mobile experiences.”

Expect a slew of AR experiments in 2019 as brands try to figure out how to fit this immersive format into their overall experience strategies. That’s according to Mark Asher, director of corporate strategy at Adobe, which, in collaboration with Apple and Pixar, last June added support for the “usdz” AR file format in Creative Cloud Apps and Services, enabling Photoshop users to tweak and modify AR imagery.

“AR, in its current form, lends itself to short, quick interactions where users can manipulate or customize things,” Reubenstein told CMO by Adobe. “… The best examples I’ve seen, outside of gaming, are commerce-based.”

Many AR retail applications today focus on helping consumers experience brands and products without having to go into stores. Case in point: Pottery Barn offers an AR app for its Pottery Barn and PBteen brands that lets users drag and drop items in a room to see how they work with existing furniture and decor. They also can completely empty a room to start the design process from scratch, and shoppers can purchase the items they like right from the app. Swedish retail IKEA has a similar offering with its “Place” app, helping users to visualize how an item will look in their homes before they purchase it.

Another exciting prospect is what AR can bring to the in-store retail experience, Adobe’s Asher said. “I think we are already seeing a trend where retailers are trying to reinvigorate the brick-and-mortar experience,” he said. “Building novelty through immersive experiences like AR is a great incentive to bring people out of their homes to the store or create a reason for traffic that’s moving by your store to come into the store.”

Beauty brand Cover Girl, for example, opened its flagship store in New York’s Times Square on Nov. 28, 2018, with an AR makeup station where shoppers can virtually try on a range of products and then share their makeovers on social media with friends.

“With new functionality that allows smartphone users to share and modify the same AR environments, I think we’ll see deeper [and] richer AR experiences in 2019 that are focused on collaboration and will be more playful,” Reubenstein predicted.

2. Voice Capabilities Will Become Second Nature
A 2018 Pindrop study, based on a survey of 500 IT business decision makers, found that 28% of enterprises have already adopted voice technology to improve the customer experience, and another 57% plan to deploy it in the next 12 months. In addition, an astounding 88% said they believe voice technology will give them a competitive advantage in improving the customer experience.

“Voice capability and voice assistants are still growing in functionality, but voice apps and skills are still very simplistic, albeit engaging experiences,” Reubenstein said. “Brands should be using voice as a supplement to other experiences, and voice should continue to be relied on to engage consumer loyalty and facilitate actions.”

There are currently two use cases for voice. The first is a fully immersive voice experience that is engaging and entertaining, such as what scotch and whiskey brand Johnnie Walker is doing on the Alexa voice assistant platform. Users who tell Alexa to “open Johnnie Walker” can access general information about whisky, cocktail recipes, and even get gift suggestions based on taste and budget.

The second is more of a utility that uses data and audio feedback to make a user’s task easier or more seamless. A good example is Starbuck’s My Barista app, which allows users to speak their orders to their phones.

In 2019, Reubenstein said she expects “users will just continue to get more savvy about using voice assistants, and it will continue to become more and more second nature to expect voice capability.”

3. In-Car Screens Will Begin To Bring Brand Experiences Into Cars
Adobe’s Asher was also bullish on the opportunity to engage consumers in their cars. Research firm IHS forecasts that the cockpit electronics market, which totaled $37 billion in revenue in 2017, will nearly double to $62 billion by 2022. And, with nearly 10 million self-driving cars expected to hit the road by 2020, drivers will become more like passengers, giving rise to a new era of in-car entertainment and on-demand services.

GM, for example, already lets customers order coffee from their cars via their dashboard screens. The auto giant’s Marketplace is a commerce platform that enables on-demand reservations and purchases of goods and services from brands such as Starbucks, Shell, Dunkin’ Donuts, TGI Fridays, and others.

We’ll see more automakers offering the same types of opportunities for bringing brands into cars’ digital dashboards and screens in 2019, Asher predicted.

“It’s still the early days,” he said. “Right now companies are still trying to figure out [in-car] experiences that aren’t intrusive for drivers. But there is definitely an opportunity to create more connection and more opportunities to touch customers when they’re in the vicinity of your brick-and-mortar business.”

4. Artifical Intelligence/Machine Learning Works Its Way Into The Customer Journey
A PwC study of 2,500 U.S. consumers and business decision makers found that business leaders, specifically, believe artificial intelligence (AI) is going to be fundamental in the future. In fact, 72% termed it a “business advantage.”

Indeed, AI and machine learning have been top-of-mind for companies for a number of years. Chatbots for customer service has seen the most maturity, Asher said.  

Additionally, marketing departments have been focusing on AI in their customer journey strategies, using it to predict where the customer is in the funnel and better serve them with the right message at the right time. For example, telecom giant Sprint uses AI to dig through troves of customer data and find potentially receptive groups of people to target with marketing.

“The future of AI is also going to be very much about computer vision and applying AI to things like facial recognition when people opt-in,” Asher said. “Think of the opportunity in recognizing a customer when they walk into the store.”

Similarly, image recognition to identify products in any kind of media, especially video, will be another interesting space to watch, said consultant David Berkowitz. He also predicted this year we will see “ more concrete” and “more narrow” uses of AI, designed specifically to help resolve and identify customer service issues faster, and to identify new product opportunities or potential leads for the sales team.

“AI is really going to matter in an impactful way in the next few years as far as delivering disproportionate impact,” he said, “because when you couple AI with machine learning, it can affect every aspect of the organization. There are ways for AI to help everyone do their jobs better, and it can even create new business opportunities.”

Adobe’s Asher expects that facial recognition for content personalization will be a big trend eventually, but 2019 might be too early for that trend to become mainstream.

The retail industry is ahead of the game, already using AI for personalization, optimizing the merchandising and supply chain, and customer service. AI also will have a huge impact in terms of making in-store experiences smarter and more frictionless.

Think of Amazon Go, the checkout-free in-store app that uses computer vision, sensor fusion, and deep learning to detect when products are taken from or returned to the shelves and keeps track of them in a virtual cart. The entire experience is powered by AI.

Adobe’s Asher predicted more stores will introduce smarter in-store experiences in 2019. The next step will be figuring out ways to communicate promotions and other opportunities while a consumer is browsing in-store.

5. Blockchain And The Bid To Standardize Recordkeeping And Data Handling  
Andy Jacobs, CTO, North America, at Wunderman, is bullish on the opportunities for businesses with blockchain, which he said is increasingly gaining adoption. Indeed, a Juniper Research study from September 2018 found that 65% of enterprises with over 10,000 employees are considering or actively engaged in blockchain deployment.

“And the rate of R&D for blockchain initiatives is growing,” Jacobs told CMO by Adobe. “The three predominant blockchain frameworks, Hyperledger, Corda R3, and Ethereum, have gained a respectable level of maturity and acceptance.”

For example, Microsoft has a Blockchain-as-a-Service offering that supports all of these frameworks on the tech giant’s Azure Cloud. Brands that have jumped on the blockchain bandwagon early include JP Morgan Chase, which has invested in an Ethereum-based Quorum blockchain that will tokenize gold bars.

Jacobs said that government, a sector not known to be an early adopter, has also begun to adopt blockchain. “Some states in the United States are now standardizing their record-keeping using blockchain technology,” he said.

Indeed, Arizona passed a law recognizing blockchain signatures and smart contracts as legal. The state has also standardized the record keeping for real estate titles and firearm tracking on a blockchain. Additionally, Vermont has passed a law making blockchain data admissible in court, and West Virginia conducted mobile voting using blockchain technology in the most recent November election. Outside of the United States, blockchain is being used by the Estonian eHealth Foundation to secure the health records of 1 million Estonian citizens.

In advertising, Jacobs referenced Comcast for being very active in the blockchain ecosystem. Most recently, it announced a blockchain project named Blockgraph, which is in the testing stage. The aim is to secure personal data and sharing information to optimize TV marketing.

“In 2019, I anticipate many of the pilots previously carried out by early adopters to be released for general use, and I wouldn’t be surprised to see many more state governments quickly adopt [the aforementioned examples],” Jacobs said. “We’ll see companies making greater R&D investments in blockchain application development in 2019.”

Blockchain-based micropayments also will be getting a lot of attention from businesses, Jacobs said. Businesses with small transaction values struggle because of the high transaction costs for electronic payment systems; micropayments via digital currency offer an alternative, he explained.  

“With micropayments you spend a small amount each time you view a piece of content, such as an article, video, etc.,” he said. “Paying per article incentivizes publishers to produce high-quality content to satisfy the audience. If the audience is not satisfied, they will stop making purchases.”

Lastly, Jacobs said, expect a lot of activity around applying the benefits of blockchain to the healthcare community, resulting in significant savings. BIS Research estimates the global blockchain healthcare market will reach $5.6 billion by 2025.

The opportunity for using blockchain with regard to electronic health records and handling patient data is clear. In addition, expect to see a lot of investment from pharma in the areas of clinical trials and supply-chain solutions, Jacobs told CMO by Adobe. “The use of blockchain enables visibility through the drug supply chain tracking drugs to the point of origin and preventing counterfeits,” he said.

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