On October 27th, we’ll kick-off our ICX Symposium series in Atlanta with an event titled, Inflection Point: The Future Tech of Customer Experience. We’ve assembled speakers with varied backgrounds, but a singular focus on creating transcendent customer experiences (CX). In preparation for the event, we asked each of them some questions about what they do and what kinds of innovations they expect.
Our keynote session features three friends from Atlanta who spend a good deal of their free time getting together to discuss, study and strategize about this very topic. Their session, “The Future is here (it’s just unevenly distributed)”, is a wonderful blend of on-the-job observations mixed with a clear-eyed, optimistic outlook for the future.
Who are you and what do you do?
Scott: I’m Scott Wozniak, and for eight years I’ve led chain-wide initiatives for the Executive Team (C-suite) at Chick-fil-A. Currently, I’m on a special projects team charged to invent the future of the company.
Jonathan: I’m Jonathan Crabb, and I’m a manager of Order Capabilities for Homedepot.com, with a focus on the online return customer experience.
Daniel: I’m Daniel Steere, and I lead the ignition of new initiatives for Fiserv.
What makes you uniquely qualified to speak on the intersection of tech and CX?
Jonathan: I’ve spent the past 14 years at Home Depot, which has allowed me to focus on retail customers’ needs. It ‘s been incredible to see some forms of tech change customers’ expectations, but also to see how some core customer needs never change.
Also, my work and background as a futurist is deeply exciting to me as we live in an era of unprecedented tech change and development. It has been incredible to partner with organizations to understand potential disruptors and associated culture changes.
Daniel: For the last three years, I’ve worked at Fiserv in an innovation and new product development role, primarily focused in mobile payments. So, I’ve spent a lot of time wrestling with the user experience on new technology products. Prior to that, I had market research and market intelligence responsibilities for the digital banking division of Fiserv.
I also bring a unique educational background to the conversation. With a liberal arts degree from a small, private college, an engineering degree from Georgia Tech and an MBA from Emory, I feel I have a unique mix of creative thinking, technical capabilities, and strategic acumen.
Scott: Through my leadership role at Chick-fil-A I’ve designed and delivered best-in-class customer experiences – we’ve won award after award for being one of the greatest customer service brands in America. Further, I’ve consulted with leaders on innovation and customer experience in a wide range of industries on six continents.
Along the way, I’ve discovered some powerful ideas, and I’ve learned how to help executives create a customized strategy. But I also realized that every great idea eventually degenerates into hard work. So, I learned to enable employees, from middle managers to hourly help, to execute with excellence.
I’m an innovative thinker, rooted in world-class practice.
What excites you most about where technology is going, as it relates to CX?
Scott: Technology and technicians have increased their power to the point that if you can conceive of it, there’s probably already a way to do it. And if not, someone knows how to build it. Companies like Uber are changing entire industries without inventing any new technologies. They simply found a novel way to use existing tools.
And people haven’t stopped inventing! Each new creation exponentially increases the set of options. With more possibilities than ever, the stage is set for a creative explosion. Visionaries can make almost any dreams come to life.
The question isn’t, “What can we do?” What you need to ask, what separates the mediocre and the great is the question, “What if?”
Jonathan: What excites me is the ability of a new, upcoming technology or application of existing technologies to suddenly address customers’ needs which have historically not been met. This could be in big ways such as significantly improving transportation, in the example of Uber, or in small ways such as experiencing a single, great return experience through Amazon.
Daniel: There are so many disruptive technologies on the horizon – robotics, AI, self-driving vehicles, predictive analytics, 3D printing, wearables, IoT, just to name a few. I get excited about all the opportunities and changes that are coming. And particularly excited about the few companies that can balance the appropriate use of emerging technology while still maintaining their soul, their brand, their identity.
In a rapidly changing technological landscape, what is the single most important trait companies must possess in order to thrive?
Daniel: It is tempting for companies to react in one of two different ways to rapid change. The first is to ignore it, and we can all give examples of how deadly this can be. The second is to embrace technology for the sake of technology.
In my opinion, the most important trait is also one of the more difficult traits, which is the ability to really be in tune with the trends and the needs of the market. Not at a buzzword level – we need a big data strategy – but at a very practical level. Good market research, market intelligence, and product strategy is difficult and expensive. The only thing more expensive is not having it.
Scott: Above all else, increase your customer empathy. There is an overwhelming amount of shiny, cool ways to use technology. But it’s not about the tech. It’s about customer desires. I’ve seen company after company with truly impressive technology close their doors because they didn’t connect with the feelings of their customers.
Jonathan: I think one of the most vital traits is awareness of the potential disruptors, whether technological or cultural. While this would never replace focusing on the fundamentals of a given business, there is a heavy shift towards industry and company turnover in many of the markets today. Companies must possess the willingness and the humility to consider how smaller companies or even startups are meeting or potentially exceeding customer expectations in new ways.
What are some key values that will allow your organization to be successful five years from now?
Jonathan: Two things. First, the ability to iteratively improve on the core products and capabilities as trends immerge. While expansion into new technology areas for the sake of staying relevant might be praised by investors, it can often becoming counter-productive if it doesn’t support and enhance the company’s core strengths and products.
Next, a willingness to invest in new technologies in a “fast follow” methodology. While many companies don’t have the ability to invest heavily in R&D similar to Apple, Google or Amazon, there are often opportunities to take targeted risks on new, yet established capabilities that customers find compelling. This allows the double benefit of keeping your company aware of the emerging trends and maintaining the practice of integrating those technologies into existing products or services.
Daniel: A Risk Tolerant Culture. Companies must be willing to make some bets on the future, and some of those bets will be wrong. A willingness to accept and even embrace that reality is a critical value.
Humility. The right questions and the right answers are usually not within the four walls of your organization. Have the humility to search for answer elsewhere. Don’t assume that your executive leadership is a representative sample of the rest of the world, because they are not. Be willing to ask the hard questions and look honestly at the answers you receive.
Scott: All signs suggest the next five years will be the most exciting and surprising five years we’ve seen yet. And so will the next five years after that. Those who survive will be have to have these values—not just emotionally, but actually live them out day after day:
Excellence – Customers all across the globe have more and more options. And they have more and more information about their options. Only the best will be chosen.
Bias For Action – The world will change too fast for people to move slowly. The winners will be people who master rapid prototyping, quick decision-making, and a willingness to act without certainty.
But those who aren’t aiming to survive, but to thrive, will also need to display:
Servant-leadership – People, young and old, have less patience with selfish leaders who use their people as tools to accomplish a job. The “War for Talent” is more intense than it’s been in decades and the research is clear: the best talent is leaving poor leaders to work for servant-leaders.
Customer Empathy – The reason they pay is because you meet their felt needs. Stop being the best way to meet those needs and they’ll stop giving you their money.
In short, they need to Focus On Others, not themselves. They need that driving their motivations and guiding their decisions.
What is a huge misconception about technology and what it can do for B2C brands?
Scott: It’s not about you.
It’s not about how cool you look or how advanced your technology is. Too many companies attempt to use technology to make themselves more impressive to their customers. But the customer should be the hero of the story, not you.
So think about how to make it easier, simpler and more fun. Think about how to make them feel like a powerful hero or a beloved friend. And while you might need to employ complicated technology to make that happen, they don’t care about that. They might not even want to see any of that. They do care about how they feel after interacting with you.
Daniel: Technology is not a panacea. You must have a very clear vision for why you are using new technology, what you hope to accomplish, and the problem you are trying to solve. “Because it is cool” is not good enough. Technological innovation may not be a good idea for some businesses; it really depends on the brand and the business model. So let strategy lead and technology follow, not the other way around.
Jonathan: One of the biggest misconceptions about technology is that dramatic market and culture shifts come from the new, popular trends of the last three months rather than often seemingly mundane technologies. It is easy to look back on large-scale developments like free global communication, e-commerce, and smartphones, and think that these changes were foregone conclusions. However, the companies that paid close attention to these more mundane trends and made investments into infrastructure to support them are the current dominant players in the technology space.
What are some innovations that you see in the near-term future that really excite you?
Jonathan: I am very excited about a company named Theranos which is bringing low cost, convenient blood testing to the masses. It is an industry ripe for disruption, but more importantly, the ability for the individual to have a more active, informed understanding of their health before getting sick or talking to their doctor is really promising.
Self driving vehicles, particularly in the carrier industry, will significantly cut supply chain transportation costs and continue to drive the customer delivery efficiencies that Amazon and others have popularized through services like Amazon Prime. Self-driving cars for the average consumer could fundamentally change how we think about car ownership and how to enjoy rather than dread long commutes.
Daniel: Self-driving vehicles will be an epic disruption. It will be a huge productivity boost for millions of commuters, but will also have profound negative effects for millions of taxi, truck and delivery drivers. I’m interested to see how our society evolves to accommodate this innovation.
Scott: Tech innovation is moving from 2D to 3D, extending beyond images on screens to real world, physical interactions. Breakthroughs in 3D printing, robotics, wearable tech, augmented reality, and biotech (to name only a sampling) will impact customer experiences in industries previously “safe” from radical disruption.
Sci-fi movies are about to become reality. What happens when a customer only needs to download the schematics for a product to print at home? What happens when you can physically interact via videochat with an object on the other side of the planet? What happens when your thoughts can direct machines? What happens when your very body is equipped to communicate with other devices?
All of these possibilities — and many, many more — exist as functional prototypes today. So the real question is: What happens when these become common?
What brands are doing the best job of engaging customers in a meaningful way with technology?
Daniel: Apple and Uber are the easy and obvious examples.
Amazon. Their Prime offering is a simple but wildly effective engagement model. Their predictive modeling is good. Amazon regularly knows what I like before I know I like it. Also, Amazon Dash is a very innovative offering, and drone delivery could be huge for them.
Good apps. The Delta app is a very engaging resource for business travelers. The Starbucks app is a fantastic engagement tool that is saving Starbucks millions in interchange expense every year.
Finally, Disney is doing a great job of incorporating digital experiences into the physical experience of their theme parks.
Scott: Amazon tops the list, of course. Not only do they have brilliant algorithms and great infrastructure, but they have found ways to be generous and profitable at the same time, whether in big programs like Prime or individual interactions. For example, a friend ordered a $6 cord, but then found the missing cord he was trying to replace. He contacted them to return the order and they did a good job giving him a refund. But the cord was already on a truck to his house. So they also said, keep the money AND the cord. Generous? You bet. And that goodwill generates great word-of-mouth marketing. But they also knew that it would cost them more that $6 to ship the item back to their warehouse.
On the other hand is Disney Theme Parks, who has found a way to integrate technology in a necessarily physical experience so beautifully. From their FastPass to the park apps to digital memory captures, it’s so masterfully woven into the experience that most guests don’t even realize how much they use the technology before, during, and after the experience.
Jonathan: Amazon does a great job of servicing their customers through their mobile and app platforms, and they have done a lot of good work of building out the technology infrastructure to shorten delivery times. Amazon’s web service (AWS) platform is another incredible tool in their belt that delivers a fantastic customer experience for business customers.
Disney has done a wonderful job of integrating technology into their parks. Their MagicBands incorporate all kinds of technology that quietly support and improve the guest’s experience while not demanding attention as a technology product. Their IOS / Android park applications are particularly honed as well.
What is the biggest caution for early adopters of new tech innovations?
Jonathan: While there has been unprecedented successes like Uber, Instagram, WhatsApp, and Oculus VR in the past several years, the number of companies that grow rapidly during exceedingly high startup valuations and then dissolve just as quickly is concerning. Investments and partnerships with these types of companies are becoming increasingly important, but it exposes mutual product and capability offerings of established companies to large amounts of risk.
Daniel: Timing is critical. CheckFree invented a PayPal-like solution in the early 90s, but email wasn’t ubiquitous enough to make it a viable market solution. So, we ignored it. PayPal launched at the right time and found the right partner with eBay. The right solution at the wrong time is not the right solution.
Who you are matters. Just because consumers want a solution and are willing to pay for it does not necessarily mean they are willing to pay YOU for it. Technological innovation must be aligned with your brand to be embraced by your customers.
Scott: Don’t make a big guess. Ask and test.
Too often, we hole up in our towers, create an epic plan to change the world, spend millions building the product and marketing resources, then cross our fingers and launch. And too often, it’s an epic fail.
Instead, I’ve learned to ask our customers to react long before we go to market. It begins with truly understanding the desires of my target market. Then I create a viable prototype and test it with customers. And the insights learned from that shapes the next (usually bigger) version. But we test that, too. The insights from that lead to another (again, bigger) version. And soon we’re launching a refined, reliable product into the world.
And this approach usually costs a lot less, too.
So don’t make the big guess. Ask and test.