Year-end articles and blog posts about hot trends are popular. People enjoy reading speculative predictions, and writers are happy to collect the clicks earned by lofty and alarming statements about the pace and breadth of change. Since both writers and readers love them, the annual slew of CX predictions are arriving, and you can find plenty of posts and articles about the Customer Experience trends you “must be aware of” and “must get ready for” in 2020. But must you? Really?
I’ll share some observations on CX trends in this blog post, but at the same time, I also want to caution you from taking too much from the flood of similar articles you will see this month. Most organizations do not struggle with CX because they don’t understand or execute the buzziest new trends; they struggle because the foundational basics of CX are often neglected. To a CX leader grappling with limited resources and influence, it may seem appealing to chase some talkable new tech rather than encourage customer-centric changes across the enterprise, but focusing on CX blocking and tackling will almost always have a much more significant impact.
As you read this year’s crop of articles about the CX trends you absolutely must act upon or risk immediate consequences, keep in mind these three cautions:
1. There is often much less to those “hot” trends than meets the eye
One of the ways to create attention for a dubious trend is to focus on the innovative business model for a well-publicized startup with a rapidly growing private valuation. The eye-catching valuation gives the appearance of success, but we should know by now that private valuations and impressive IPO prices are not an accurate harbinger of future performance. From Theranos to WeWork to Uber to Magic Leap, it should be evident that remarkable growth and inordinate financing rounds are no guarantee of sustainable, profitable success.
Take Direct-To-Consumer (DTC) strategies, which were all the buzz earlier this year. I’m not suggesting DTC isn’t right for your brand or won’t be valuable in the future, but are you aware those well-known envy-inducing DTC brands aren’t actually profitable as of yet? Casper hopes it will become profitable on an EBITDA basis in 2019. Dollar Shave Club wasn’t profitable when Unilever purchased the company, and subscriber growth has slowed since the acquisition. The Honest Company made headlines in 2017 for a down-round that stripped the company of its “unicorn” status, and the CFO recently shared The Honest Company generates half of its total revenue from stores and not DTC. Lastly, SmileDirectClub was one of the five worst IPOs of 2019, with its shares losing over 60% from its September IPO price.
I am not casting aspersions on these brands or the DTC strategy, which may continue to grow more common and profitable in the coming years. Still, given the deafening level of hype about the DTC trend, you’d be forgiven for thinking these companies were printing money and not struggling to get into the black. By all means, research the value of DTC strategies, but don’t buy into this or any other hot trend simply because some unprofitable, VC-funded companies have gained market share by selling products or services at a loss. If that were a repeatable and scalable recipe for success, we’d all be billionaires.
Real CX Trend: Back to Basics: Corporate websites have been with us for 25 years, mobile apps for 15 years, and social media for more than a decade. Yet, many brands still struggle to offer good, customer-centric experiences on these channels. Focus your efforts on learning the drivers of satisfaction and dissatisfaction you have on today’s widely adopted-platforms and channels rather than racing to launch a technology, platform, or strategy that may (or may not) be the next big thing in 2025. No brand will fail in 2020 because it lacks a Virtual Reality application or Alexa Skill, but many brands are already failing because they cannot deliver the experience customers want and expect in the real world, on desktops, and on mobile phones.
2. The first focus of CX is on what customers want, need and expect; not on trends, tech or competitors
As noted, a favorite technique of writers promoting a “hot” trend is to mention a newish technology and share a case study of an early mover who seems to have successfully exploited that tech. But are tech and competitive benchmarks where CX leaders should put their focus? After all, the whole idea of CX is to focus on your customers.
Don’t take my word for it; listen to Jeff Bezos, founder and CEO of Amazon, a firm every company wishes to emulate. Business leaders obsess about what they can learn and repeat from Amazon’s success, but Bezos hasn’t kept his recipe secret. In fact, he gives it away regularly. “We’re not competitor obsessed; we’re customer obsessed. We start with what the customer needs, and we work backwards,” Bezos has said. And “Focusing on the customer makes a company more resilient.” And “If there’s one reason we have done better than our peers in the internet space over the last six years, it is because we have focused like a laser on customer experience.”
But despite Bezos’s consistent statements about Amazon’s customer obsession, people continue to think they can be more like Amazon by focusing on tech. Obviously, Amazon hasn’t ignored tech, but it wins by centering first on customer wants and frustrations and only then focuses on how tech solves those problems and needs. Amazon’s fixation with the customer, not tech or competitors, is why it has enjoyed such success being an early adopter.
Real CX Trend: The tech that matters most is the tech that helps improve your customer understanding: Some of the most interesting CX trends, in my opinion, aren’t about platforms that let you personalize engagement or allow people to speak about your brand to Alexa; they are technologies that help surface customer insight. Voice of Customer platforms are working to transition from traditional survey formats to more conversational approaches. Voice and video analytics allow brands to record customers using their phone cameras or to evaluate the sentiment and content of every customer care call. Web and mobile analytics tools are evolving to identify moments and causes of customer struggle. In the next few years, CX leaders will increase the breadth and depth of knowledge of customers thanks to new and better ways to listen, monitor, record, and analyze customer interactions and feedback.
3. CX trends are not as “hot” as you probably think
We live in a world that seems to be ever-accelerating, and it stresses all of us. It’s essential to appreciate what changes quickly (like the adoption of a mobile app—Hello, TikTok) and what does not. The adoption of new and innovative hardware takes much longer than downloading and installing a mobile app, and real changes in consumer behavior and preference shift even more slowly. Reduce your FOMO by appreciating how gradually some things still occur.
Many CX trends are progressive and not precipitous. The current crop of 2020 trend posts mention technologies like Artificial Intelligence, chatbots, voice, AR/VR, and mobile. So did 2019 trend articles. And in 2018. And many of 2017’s posts, as well.
And it isn’t just CX trends that develop slowly. Popular home PCs like the Commodore 64 debuted in the early to mid-80s, but half of US households didn’t have a PC until 2000. The first web commerce transactions occurred in 1994, and it took two decades before the digital share of US retail sales surpassed 10 percent. Smartphones like the Treo 180 and Blackberry 6000 series were available in 2003, but it would take another decade until half of Americans owned a smartphone. Consumer VR debuted in 1995 with the Nintendo Virtual Boy, and the Oculus Rift was released to great fanfare and expectations four years ago, but VR remains little more than a niche CX use case for most brands.
Real CX Trend: Make the most of what you have now: You must be prepared to adopt new technologies as they arrive, but chances are you have most, if not all, of the capabilities you need to meet customer expectations today. Get your product and service right with today’s tech before worrying too much about the technology of 2025.
One tip for 2020: Hold your existing vendors responsible for keeping you up to date on new tech trends, and explore how your vendor partners are evolving to incorporate those trends. For example, I recently had a conversation with a client about his disappointment that his VoC vendor didn’t offer a desired feature, and I was able to tell him it did. So, before you go thinking you lack the tech to get the job done or involve your team in a time-consuming and expensive RFI process (and even more costly platform transition process), put the monkey on the back of your existing vendors. Ask them to tell you what features you aren’t using but should, what changes they plan for the coming year, and how to get the most of the investment you’ve already made.