Bots, umbrellas and your daily commute: A new approach to customer experience

The way brands interact with customers is rapidly changing. You can see it in the rise of Facebook’s bot network. But still, many of us aren’t quite sure how to speak to one. So as the service hit 11,000 users this month, the social network made interacting with its bots more intuitive. Facebook knows the user has to come first.

Facebook’s move to make its bot interface more seamless reflects a changing approach to customer experience. Brands are using technology to integrate themselves into customer’s lives in a genuinely helpful way. It’s making decision-making easier by giving us the information we need before we ask for it. I call this shift telling, not interacting.

Take the smart umbrella. It’s informative customer experience in its essence. Designed in rainy Seattle, the first iteration, called the Ambient Umbrella, uses weather data to tell users whether it’s raining outside. If the handle is glowing blue, you’d better take it with you when you leave for work. The crowdfunded Oombrella has taken the concept to the next stage. It’s a simple idea. The clever bit is that it fits seamlessly into our daily lives and solves a potentially unpleasant problem.

This is equally relevant to car brands. If the traffic’s terrible on your normal route to work, who’s to say they can’t recommend that you take the train instead? Recording this kind of data is commonplace – even though some customers do still have their reservations. Replaying a customer’s data back to them in a useful way is the holy grail of customer experience.

Plus, delivering genuinely useful information shows a level of sincerity that many brands lack. In fact, a car brand advising its customer base to use a train instead might be viewed as crazy from a business perspective. It is in effect removing the customer from the product. However, improving the customer’s experience in this way is immensely valuable when you factor in the loyalty it can go on to create.

Brands benefit from the positive associations generated by being helpful. And our commute is just the kind of experience brands ought to be improving. The mindset we occupy during our commute falls under what behavioural scientist and author of best-selling Thinking Fast and Slow, Daniel Kahneman, calls “System 1 behaviour”. System 1 is auto-mode. It’s when we’re operating instinctively or doing a task we’ve done a thousand times before.

Our journey to and from work is a rhythmic exercise. We know it inside out. It’s an opportunity to zone out – to read, to listen to music or play Sudoku – and the actual completion of the journey comes automatically to us. It’s a beautiful thing when a brand reaches us in this state and successfully simplifies our decision-making process. It’s not just cars and umbrellas though, smart thermostats are leading the way too, turning on automatically to anticipate our arrival home. Good interaction doesn’t ask us anything, while ensuring we remain very much in control.

Brands can achieve this nuanced understanding of the customer in a variety of ways. It’s about having the right experts in place, on the ground, who really know what makes us tick.

In the past, advertising was designed to jump out at us. It makes us think. That’s what Daniel Kahneman calls “System 2” – when you have to step out of an intuitive mode of thinking and really give something your attention. It no doubt remains a valid approach. But when it comes to our relationship with brands, we know we ought to get the best deal out of the bargain. Now they have so much of our data, it’s about time brands used it to make our lives easier.

This takes us back to Facebook’s latest bot update. It should be crystal clear that its bots are automated – we don’t like being patronised. If it learns from our behaviour and helps us as a result, it will go from strength to strength as a service. And if Facebook gets this right, it will be on to a winner.

We’re comfortable and relaxed when our minds are operating in System 1 mode. Brands should celebrate this intuitive state. Even if it’s subtle, we appreciate it when our lives are made easier. A helpful act never goes unnoticed. If brands solve our problems quietly and are on hand when we have a query too, they’ll have every base covered.

Mark Bell is chief experience officer at Oliver Group UK

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