How do products and services help people live better lives? How can businesses connect with customers’ emotional needs? This line of questioning may seem offbeat, but it’s top of mind for Glen Hartman, Senior Managing Director of Accenture Interactive, North America. The North American business unit is a multibillion-dollar operation within Accenture that helps brands create differentiated customer experiences.

Hartman has been featured in The Wall Street Journal, Harvard Business Review, Forbes, and Ad Age, among others. In this interview, he explains why empathy is an essential capability for companies looking to deliver winning customer experiences.

How do you see customer expectations shifting — and what’s the role that artificial intelligence (AI) and other advanced technologies are playing in that? How are these technologies expanding what’s possible when it comes to creating great customer experiences?

Companies now have the technological capabilities at their fingertips that can help them create experiences that are truly centered around the individual. By aggregating large amounts of often unstructured data about users — and learning in real time from feedback loops — AI-based systems can produce powerful insights into an individual’s preferences. These insights can help companies create highly personalized and meaningful experiences that help to differentiate their brands through marketing and communications.

Smart voice search and voice recognition tools — think chatbots and voice-controlled virtual assistants like Alexa — can also help power the digital dialogue you have with your customers. That means sharing information and knowledge in a personalized exchange. Augmented reality tools can also help provide some deeply immersive experiences.

Can you give us a couple of examples of what these kinds of AI-driven customer experiences might look like in practice?

Imagine a customer walking up to a supermarket shelf and holding his or her smartphone up against different bags of potato chips. Using image processing, language processing, and analytics, AI-enabled systems can help that customer check which brand is best for their low-sodium diet, or whatever their taste profile might be.

Such systems also make it possible to offer customers more personalized merchandise. You could become the fashion model in a digital catalog, for instance, observing what the clothes look like on a digital version of yourself that mirrors your size and shape.

And just think about what might happen when you start to combine personalized conversations and personalized merchandise. Imagine you’re trying on your own outfits at home and you say to your smartphone application, “Well, I like these, but I can’t really make up my mind which one I should wear.”

That situation can become a contextual engine for an AI-based system. A voice-controlled virtual assistant might be programmed to respond with something like, “Tell me, where are you going tonight? It’s a formal thing? Okay, then let me tell you what kind of look our expert would recommend for that kind of situation.”

And there’s more. Imagine what it would be like if your customer could access what you might call “iconic advice” in this situation — with Stella McCartney or Michael Kors saying, “Yeah, go with the green and pink floral dress — that makes perfect sense!”

Of course, normally, that kind of exclusive advisory service would be out of reach for ordinary people. But when you put AI capabilities to use in a customer service context like this, they can help you deliver on your brand promise in powerful and differentiated ways.

The experiences you describe show how the bar is being raised and how customers’ expectations are shifting. Salesforce recently conducted a study in which roughly half of customers said most companies fall short of their expectations. This indicates many brands might be struggling to catch up. Would you agree?

Here’s what we need to be increasingly careful about: Advanced technologies also enable a level of automated marketing that can put brands at risk of appearing unthoughtful.

Let’s take an example. Say you usually do your grocery shopping on a Saturday morning. You use the store’s app, you belong to its loyalty program, and perhaps you’ve even attended a do-it-yourself cooking class there. So, they know you well. When you walk in the door, the store knows you’re there through location technology and can see the shopping list you created using its app.

Delivering a real-time personalized experience in this context could mean the store saying, “Listen, we notice you’re shopping for these three ingredients. If you added these other things, you could make this recipe.” They could even show you a video of what the recipe looks like, right on your phone. Then they might be able to upsell you on some other things to enable you to have a great dinner that night. So, you stay longer in the store and add to your shopping trolley, and the store says, “That’s a successful shopping trip.”

But then say you do something different. You enter the store at 11:45 p.m. on a Tuesday night with the goal of picking up some Vicks VapoRub and leaving. You have a sick child at home you need to get back to fast. But suddenly, you are being offered all kinds of coupons and additional ingredient suggestions, or even a recipe that might well be of interest to you in different circumstances. It’s personalized, but is the store really empathizing with you? I’d say not. The store’s interaction lacks the necessary context and understanding of what you care about.

Delivering meaningful customer experiences must start with empathy. It’s true that customers have come to expect real-time tailored and efficient experiences, but they also expect the brands they love to understand their wants and needs in context. Otherwise, it’s easy to miss the point and end up alienating customers.

You mention the need for brands to deliver a more empathetic experience to win with customers. Can you explain a little more about how these kinds of experiences are better than simply personalized ones?

It’s useful to think about the Nike example here. The point at which they started to really sell more shoes was when they turned their brand into a service that could help you track your running, compete with your friends, and just feel healthier. For Nike, it isn’t just about selling shoes anymore; it’s about delivering on a brand promise in a way that’s more meaningful and aimed at helping a customer change their life. It’s a great example of an empathetic mindset.

The problem for many companies is that they are still focused on defining a successful customer experience in terms of what’s good for the business’s bottom line, rather than what really makes it successful for the customer. “Did we acquire that customer?” “Did we convert them?” You can hear how that language sounds — no one wants to be acquired, right? But if we change the language to be more empathetic — “Did we help the customer?” “Did we understand their goals?” — that allows us to add context to their behavior and understand what we need to do to create an experience that truly focuses on individual needs.

This links to the issue of trust. We know that consumers are increasingly wary of the way their data is being used. Would you say that putting empathy center stage can help companies deliver personalization in a way that also effectively helps build trust?

Yes, absolutely. It’s all about trust, right? People value personalized experiences and are willing to trust companies with their data to get them, but no one values blind personalization. It’s essential that companies get that value-to-trust quotient correct.

To do this, it’s useful to take a step back and think about the basics of human interactions. Underpinning all our needs and desires is a set of human characteristics that govern the way consumers interact with a brand. In short, we’re people, and we want to be treated as such — we don’t want to be treated as segments or personas, or be defined by our transactions. 

That’s true — in fact, more and more customers say it’s critical that companies treat them like people, not a number, to win or keep their business. What are other ways that companies can improve the customer experience?

It starts with rethinking how you deliver products, services, and value to the customer. Instead of just selling a product, it’s more about delivering an empathetic experience that helps people live better lives. That means figuring out what your potential customer will ultimately respond to by empathizing with them. Then, find a creative way to not only engage customers but to help them achieve their goals in the moment — that’s the real win.

 

Glen Hartman is one of the experts we’ve been interviewing about rising customer expectations — and the growing scrutiny of customer experience and trust — as we gear up for Connections, June 12–14 in Chicago. For more, check out this article on Why Customer Experience Begins with Understanding Human Nature