For thousands of years, consumers and businesses only interacted in person, and it was easy to understand the emotions of customers. If you lived in the Old West, and you went to the general store, the owner knew you and your preferences, and very likely why you were there. Depending on the time of year, he would have already stocked up on grain, seed or whatever you needed before you even asked for it. These types of interactions created positive emotional responses that over time established loyalty.
In the 1980s however, businesses discovered 1-800 numbers and at that point, something was lost. The emotional gap between businesses and consumers, especially big businesses, and has widened ever since.
While companies tried to retain that personal connection by training contact center employees to be friendly and polite, many of those efforts failed because the call center employees had no context. When you called, they had no history or context about why you were calling. And because they weren’t empowered, they transferred you to another person, when guess what – you had to repeat everything you just said! This is incredibly frustrating, and some companies still have no clue how incredibly damaging that experience is to their brand.
Digital channels haven’t done much to close the gap either. In the last ten years, companies have added a dozen channels, primarily chat. But most chat was simply a digital version of the 1-800 experience. Now there’s buzz about chatbots, messaging and even virtual reality. But until companies can understand human emotion and the connection to consumer intent, they will continue to struggle.
Designing emotionally engaging digital experiences
Now, enter artificial intelligence (AI). Finally, there’s technology that will recreate the magic of the small-town corner store experience, right? Well, potentially, yes. As close as it can be anyway. In short, AI offers tremendous potential to make your customers happy. Emotions are influenced by expectations for the brand, and expectations are very much tied to emotions. Consumers expect your business to have a certain tone and consistency no matter how they interact with you. They put a premium on that.
When thinking about their customer engagement strategy, companies should try to elicit the emotion that’s relative to their brand. Hilton is a good example. The language that the company uses in its chat program is very carefully thought out, and based on years of actual conversations between consumers and chat agents. The tone is friendly, precise and direct, because that’s what Hilton’s customers want, and it’s consistent with the tone they experience when they interact with humans. Not all brands can pull this off, however, because they haven’t thoroughly thought through how they want consumers to feel about their brand.
Without getting into technical details, artificial intelligence can analyze vast amounts of data to give humans insights that wouldn’t otherwise be obvious. Companies already possess a tremendous amount of data on their customers that can be analyzed via AI and machine learning and turned into predictive models. AI is a powerful tool that can help humans (in this case those responsible for brand and reputation), by empowering them with real-time knowledge of what a customer wants, needs and cares about.
AI can also be trained to spot consumer frustrations. In face-to-face interactions, it’s easy to spot when someone’s frustrated. Less so when over the phone, but still possible. With digital interactions, it’s close to impossible, however AI can change that.
Consumers drop all kinds of clues online about how they’re feeling. They zig-zag around the website, they put more pressure on the keyboard and in searches, they use language that shows they’re desperate for answers. Companies just need to recognize the signs (low CSAT, people switching brands, etc.) and train their systems to flag them. Facial recognition and voice recognition are still very nascent, but in the future, these technologies could also be integrated with AI and trained to spot the signals.
In the next few years, enterprises who care about customer loyalty will invest in learning how to take both quantitative and qualitative customer data and leverage it to quickly identify and authenticate customers. They will know their interaction history and predict their intent, and the result will be to reduce poor customer experiences that are impersonal and broken, with experiences that are personalized, predictive and rewarding. Customer engagement and loyalty will improve for those who care to invest in it.
Emotionally connecting to customers during digital interactions
Companies who meet consumers where they are, offering self-service solutions across channels that effortlessly scale into personal, digital conversations will retain customers longer than those who don’t. As voice recognition technologies (Siri/Alexa) get adopted by enterprises, customers will speak more and type less. Companies need a set of guidelines to design conversational UI strategies that result in emotionally engaging digital experiences.
In the meantime, here are five key ways that companies can emotionally connect to customers during digital interactions:
- Value a customer’s time –That gap – the time that the consumer is waiting to be served – it’s an opportunity for businesses. Turn it into a conversation. Conversations have a beginning, a middle and an end, and the future of customer service is about conversational user interfaces. Look at the hand-offs and the introductions, and break down the conversation at every level.
- Identify them accurately – You have the tools. Every search, purchase, query, or preference are clues to what customers intend to do next. Using AI, you should be able to greet them by name and know why they’re contacting you.
- Anticipate what they need help with – If you’re an airline and there’s a flight delay, you should proactively contact customers to offer alternatives. If you’re a car rental company, and a customer contacts you within one hour of returning a car, chances are they’ve left something behind. Anticipate that.
- Make the experience enjoyable – Instead of the “your call is valuable” scenario described earlier, why not be unpredictable? A 7.ai employee once told me a story about a time she was on hold, and the system told a joke. This unexpected humor completely transformed her emotions.
- Inspire confidence in the brand across every touchpoint – Don’t just do this for consumers, but for your support people as well. The companies who care about their brand are the ones who invest in the end-to-end experience. Zappos and Nordstrom are two that stand out. From supply chain to distributor, they weave the values of their brand into every touchpoint.
It’s time for companies to redefine the way they interact with consumers. Understanding emotion can help them attract and retain customers, and make it possible to create a personalized, predictive and effortless customer experience.