The ambient customer experience: physical, digital, virtual and everything in between

Engaging your customer across all touch points is paramount.

customer loyalty ts
Credit: Thinkstock

My company’s focus is on engaging customers. We work to help retail merchants better engage consumers to encourage loyalty and drive sales. Technology is at the heart of everything we do. In fact, Gartner identified the “ambient user experience” as one of the major technology trends of 2016. In it, “the experience seamlessly flows across a shifting set of devices and interaction channels blending physical, virtual and electronic environment as the user moves from one place to another.”

What is particularly interesting is that the ambient user experience encompasses much more than it did in the past. The ambient user experience in today’s digital world is influenced by how seamless your experience is from platform to platform, even from virtual to physical and back again. It isn’t just the design of the web page, or how your mobile app works. It’s how the user, or customer, can have a seamless experience from the mobile app to the physical store, from the IoT beacon offer to the followup customer satisfaction call, from virtual reality to augmented reality and even physical reality. It needs to transcend all. Technology has a huge responsibility in figuring out how what is often a multigenerational collection of projects can come together to create this seamless experience for the user, even when they transition from a digital user to a physical customer talking to an associate in the store.

Starbucks has done a good job integrating its mobile app and its in-store experience, but even this is one-dimensional: Order here, skip the line.

As we merge together many different touch points, the integration gets more complex. Apple has come a long way in how it integrates its products across its digital ecosystem: Open a web page on your mobile device and a helper icon pops up on your desktop so you can instantly jump to that page on your desktop. A phone call comes in on your cellphone and you can answer it on your laptop. Take a picture on your iPhone, view it on your Apple TV.

Apple encourages users to buy into not just one device, but to buy into the entire Apple ecosystem, and if you do, you are rewarded with many seamless integration features. Essentially a seamless digital ambient experience.

However, even the best-in-class experiences are limited. What about when you tie in virtual reality, personal digital assistants, and the physical customer experience? The world does get more complex, but the potential for more powerful customer interactions increases greatly.

What do you need to do to leverage this trend for your business?

  • Know your ecosystem. Many businesses are so focused on siloed products (often because this is how rewards are doled out) that they miss the ecosystem play. Amazon, Apple, Google -- three of the giant innovators of the digital age -- all get the importance of an ecosystem. Amazon’s Kindle, a highly successful product by itself, is much more important because of the ecosystem it plugs into and works with. Ecosystems matter. Define the boundaries and the products you have in your ecosystem and see if you are spending enough time thinking about how they work together.
  • Think beyond digital. It's easier to think about how this ecosystem play works across the digital universe. It is even more impactful when this experience transcends the digital world and leads into the physical world or the virtual/augmented world. Imagine starting your shopping trip at home, as many do, with a search on your mobile device for the best “foosball table.” You filter based on personal preferences, table speed, durability, color. Maybe you even use virtual reality to try out different models. Shouldn’t retailers know what you want as soon as they identify that you are in the store? People like it when they walk into a local restaurant and the owner recognizes them and asks if they want their usual cocktail, or if the owner knows that it is their anniversary and gives them an extra perk without the customer asking. How can the local restaurant ambiance translate to the physical retail store, or to a customer relationship in your industry? It requires special care to make sure that this highly personalized experience is something that customers want extended to their different interactions. You can bet that merchants who embrace their customers with the right level of care in this holistic customer engagement model will lead not only in engagement, but ultimately in sales.
  • Think about your next customer, not just your current customer. Mary Meeker showed in her Internet Trends 2016 report that the popularity of business contact channels flips completely from generation to generation: All generations prior to millennials list voice as their first choice for contact, while millennials flip voice to fifth place and put social media and internet chat in first place. If you are planning your contacts around your current customers, you could suddenly seem very obsolete. The holistic experience you are designing is for the future.
  • Design cloud-native now. "Cloud-native" microservice architectures make integration across different domains of interaction dramatically easier. The sooner you start down this road, the better off your customer ambient experience will be.
    cloud building security Thinkstock

So engage your customers holistically, and take the time to understand your full customer interaction model. The next generation of consumers will have high expectations for personalization, integration and physical branch “experiences.” No one will just “go shopping” anymore, they’ll expect much, much more in return for their time, and they’ll be loyal to those companies that give a richer, more personal experience, regardless of your industry. As Jeff Bezos said, “We see our customers as invited guests to a party, and we are the hosts. It’s our job every day to make every important aspect of the customer experience a little bit better.” 

Just make sure you are thinking about your guests’ experiences in both the digital and physical world and everywhere in between.

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