Japanese Macaque monkey submerged in  a hot spring, staring directly at the  camera
PHOTO: Steven Diaz

Just before the pandemic upended our world, a study came out which found that brands who want to be successful in customer experience will have to adapt their technology models to become more agile and to rely more on automation and smart and immersive tech if they want to reach customers with personalized interactions in real time. 

In hindsight, the report's creator, Futurum Research, must have had a crystal ball, because the pandemic has certainly brought its initial prediction around agility and smart immersive tech about — albeit much more quickly than anticipated.

McKinsey calls it “the quickening” and states that if companies are feeling whiplash, it is because we have just jumped forward 10 years in 90 days’ time in terms of growth of digital activity and particularly ecommerce. 

Forrester also reinforced Futurum’s pre-pandemic conclusion about smart and immersive tech in its “Future of Martech” (paywall) report that published late last year. According to Forrester, the boundaries between the human, digital, physical, and virtual realms are blurring as CX becomes more immersive. They highlight AI techniques like natural language processing and generation, voice and facial recognition, and image and video analysis and say these underpin emerging technologies that will fuel next-generation CX.

From wearables and smart assistants to video chats and holographic technology, the customer experience environment was already beginning to be defined by a continuous state of rapid evolution. COVID-19 simply accelerated this trend across just about every industry.

The Changing Lay of the Customer Experience Land

Futurum took an interim look at how the pandemic-induced behaviors would impact its original CX roadmap in a pulse report and some of those findings are really interesting. COVID-19 has changed consumer behaviors in terms of how they want to interact with companies — in some cases pretty significantly.

Mobile: Mobile phones were already an integral part of people’s lives, with one-third of respondents to the first survey (pre-pandemic) already saying they had three or more mobile phones in their households.   

The pulse report found that consumers have definitely transitioned to what Futurum calls the hybrid physical/digital world, with 62% saying they use their phones for online ordering and curbside pickup and 67% saying they use and like telemedicine and want the trend to continue post-pandemic.

Wearables: In the first report, 44% had at least one wearable and 78% said they expected to engage with companies or control other tech like phones or smart homes with the wearable by 2025. The pandemic significantly accelerated this trend, with 68% expecting to use wearables more broadly by 2022.

Smart Assistants: Smart assistants like Alexa and Siri were already taking hold, with 35% saying they had at least two in their household pre-pandemic and 80% saying they expected to use those devices to make purchases by 2030.

Again, the pandemic significantly accelerated these behaviors, with 70% now expecting to make purchases in the next two years and 55% saying they would like to be able to use Siri- or Alexa-like devices to ask for help in physical stores. This also clearly reinforces the hybrid digital/physical customer engagement model and is worth highlighting because consumers were not all that interested in using smart assistants in-store in the first survey.

Augmented Reality / Virtual Reality (AR/VR): One of the most interesting and significant changes was in the augmented reality/ virtual reality world. Pre-pandemic, 56% expected to virtually visit places by 2025 and 78% expected to use AR/VR to sample products — but not until 2030. 

Now 63% expect virtual visits today and 69% think they will use this technology to sample products in the next two years. And developers are paying attention to this particular trend. Apple, Google and Microsoft are looking seriously at delivering this tech through mobile phones because although the AR/VR headsets have not taken off that widely yet (gamers notwithstanding), there are 3.5 billion smart phones in the world today. The applications that are being developed or already in play range from home shopping to photography enhancements, to three-dimensional scanning and mapping. Brands can definitely expect to see a lot more of this.

Related Article: Pandemic 2.0: Rethink Your Customer Engagement

How Is Changing Consumer Behavior Impacting Companies?

What impact are these changes in consumer behavior having on companies? Quite a bit:

  • 76% believe that the hybrid physical/digital model is here to stay.
  • 83% are re-thinking what it means to deliver superior customer experiences because of these changes.
  • Most also see that incorporating this smart and immersive tech into their customer engagement will drive what Futurum calls “the need for speed” — speed to detection of on-line events, speed to analysis of behavior, and speed to intelligent reactions.
  • 73% agree that the future of CX is in real-time data collection and analysis and 66% are accelerating on-line tracking for behavior and habits to account for this.

Forrester also reinforces the changing customer engagement landscape in the Future of Martech report. They sum it up very nicely, “To stay ahead of the curve, brands must rethink their approach to martech and customer engagement tactics.”

The bottom line? The customer journey is evolving, and that evolution will include immersive experiences; experiences that will demand individual, real-time, analytically driven responses. Moments matter — and brands must be ready.

Related Article: How Has the Customer Journey Shifted?