Brand executives have totally misunderstood what kind of experience consumers want online

No, he does not want to try it in virtual reality.
No, he does not want to try it in virtual reality.
Image: Reuters/Paul Hanna
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Take a quick glance across the digital landscape and you’ll see brands trying just about everything they can think of to connect with customers digitally. There are dedicated mobile apps, chatbots, virtual-reality experiences, all sorts of connected devices, and more.

Brands—and the executives running them—know a strong digital presence is no longer optional. But less clear is what customers are seeking from their technologically enhanced experiences.

To determine if brands have a handle on what shoppers want from digital interaction, IBM’s Institute for Business Value surveyed upwards of 600 executives from a range of global businesses currently introducing new digital customer-experience (CX) tools. It also surveyed more than 6,000 consumers about their attitudes and experiences with digital interactions. It then compared the responses of the two groups to see how well they aligned. The result: They didn’t match up well at all.

“When we compared the executives’ ranking against the consumers’, the results were alarming,” the report said. “With the exception of ‘convenience,’ all of the executives’ top picks were near the bottom of the consumers’ list.”

Executives, for instance, believed the top two factors driving people to use digital customer-experience technologies were a desire for more control over the interaction and a general increase in digital savvy. The top two driving factors consumers identified, however, were speed and convenience.

At least according to IBM’s survey, consumers want their online experience to make things easier for them, and aren’t much interested in technology for its own sake. The report highlighted Amazon’s checkout solution, which is part of the frictionless customer experience that’s allowing it to eat its retail competition’s lunch.

Uber, despite its damaging PR fiascos, also succeeded by making its app simple to use. “The real genius was showing customers where their Uber vehicle was in real time, along with an estimated time of arrival,” it said. “This feature eliminated two of customers’ top anxieties: Where is the car, and how long will I have to wait?”

The report acknowledged that executives are trying to understand their customers. “Yet, even with mountains of customer data at their disposal, executives are still susceptible to projecting their needs onto their customers with an inside-out point of view,” it said. As a consequence, digital initiatives often miss the mark.

Many also just aren’t impressing shoppers. For instance, about 70% of consumers surveyed who had used virtual reality to explore products, mobile apps that work in a company’s physical store, or voice commands through a computer or phone to engage with a business felt disappointed with the experience and decided not to use these technologies regularly. Many found them inconvenient, confusing, or hard to use.

There were generational differences worth noting. Millennials were most excited about how companies are using digital CX technologies. As respondents aged into Gen X or Baby Boomers, though, they became less interested.

IBM’s ultimate recommendations were that any new digital experience brands conceive should focus first on making the customer’s experience easier. Brands also need to understand what their customers want and craft their digital efforts around that knowledge. Don’t devise a fancy new technology and assume people will use it because of how cool it is.