What Is Ambient Customer Experience?

By: on November 30, 2016

Ever been walking along listening to tunes, minding your own business when—BAM!—your earbuds get ripped out of your ears? While it was probably a simple case of the wire getting caught on a door knob or something, it felt for a moment like the greatest affront to humanity since the Hindenburg went down.

Why does a seemingly insignificant occurrence such as getting de-headphoned by a door knob cause such a powerful reaction? Partly because it’s a sudden, unexpected interruption in whatever experience you’re enjoying. This is also why alarm clocks and TV commercials are not at the top of people’s lists of favorite things.

You might be wondering what this has to do with providing better customer experiences.

In the context of the customer experience, there’s a nearly infinite supply of potential disruptions that could drive customers away. They create similar feelings of annoyance, frustration or pure rage in customers, and will over time change what a consumer thinks of your brand, services and products.

In this report, we introduce an up-and-coming concept called ambient user experience. It will help you create smooth, uninterrupted customer interactions and avoid going down like an explosive blimp.

What Is the Ambient User Experience?

In the Gartner report “Top 10 Strategic Technology Trends for 2016: Ambient User Experience” (available to clients) the goal of a great ambient user experience is to “seamlessly blend[s] physical and virtual environments, providing a continuous experience that preserves continuity across devices, time and space.”

The quality of a customer experience is based on an increasingly
complex web of interconnected technologies
Source: Top 10 Strategic Technology Trends for 2016: Ambient User Experience

While we recognize this diagram is confusing and “continuity across devices, time and space” sounds like the tagline from a science fiction film, it’s actually an easy enough goal to work toward.

Customer journeymaps are an example of one tool used to identify and address CX problems. They’re also a great way to begin evaluating your customers’ physical, digital and ambient experiences. (We’ll discuss them in more detail below.)

Ultimately, a good ambient user experience is one that preserves a customer’s feeling of continuity during all interactions with a brand, regardless of how (with which device), when (at what time or for what reason) or where (at home, at the office, on the road) they occur.

Continuity Creates Contented Customers

Seamless continuity for end-users is what keeps your customer experience from going down in flames. Jonah Sachs, storyteller and author of Winning the Story Wars, has a great quote that gets at the underlying reason for continuity: “Your brand is a story unfolding across all customer touch points.”

Of course, he’s a storyteller, so he would say that—but, he’s correct. What sets a story apart from any old series of events? It’s the feelings that tie those events together, making each individual event part of a whole continuous progression.

In much the same way, a series of customer experiences that don’t feel continuous won’t strengthen the customer’s perception of the brand. Though each interaction may be “good,” the individual experiences are too disjointed to create a great story or strengthen brand perception.

Stories trigger feelings, and feelings are powerful motivators. They can compel us to buy things which our logical minds know we don’t need. They can make us swear off doing business with a particular company ever again, just because of a negative feeling you got from one or two interactions. They can even make us get very upset at headphones and doorknobs.

The Gartner report, “Top 10 Strategic Technology Trends for 2016: Ambient User Experience” explains:

“A ‘continuous’ experience preserves continuity of UX across traditional boundaries of devices, time and space. Users can interact with an application in a multistep sequence that may last for an extended period. The experience flows seamlessly across multiple devices and interaction channels—including nondigital channels—to complete a user journey.”

David W. Cearley, Brian Blau, Brian Burke, Mike J. Walker, Gartner Analysts

Platform providers, the report continues, are beginning to offer some advanced tools that will help preserve a continuous end-user experience. Apple’s Continuity with Handoff and Samsung’s Flow are two examples. But you needn’t be a multinational enterprise to start moving in this direction.

A Journey of a Thousand Miles Begins With a Single Journeymap

(Apologies to Laozi, but anyone who writes “That thing of which I speak is the thing about which no one can speak” should expect to be misquoted.)

Customer journeymaps are a perfect first step for companies trying to make sense of the overwhelming web of variables shown in the graphic above. They’re a great first step for any company trying to improve the experience it offers consumers.

Example journeymap of a customer shopping for a mortgage.
Source: Lono Creative

A journeymap is a visual depiction of the steps a consumer takes while seeking a particular goal.

It shows all the touchpoints between the consumer and the company, and explains the prepurchase, purchase and postpurchase contexts. A journey map presents everything from the consumer’s point of view, so it avoids putting touchpoints in the context of function-based business processes (such as sales, marketing or customer service).

Now, examine your journeymaps in the context of the continuity discussion above. Look for all the transitions your customers make, whether between devices, places or points in time. Identify those transitions and find ways to increase the customer’s perception of continuity when encountered.

See if you can identify the discontinuities in the following examples:

  • A mobile website that doesn’t match the look, feel and organization of the desktop website
    • Call center scripts that require every call begin with the same questions, even if the customer is calling back to resolve an ongoing issue
      • An app that lets customers check the balance on their loyalty rewards card, but that can’t substitute for the physical card when making purchases
        • Using different customer ID references (phone number, account number, email address) in different interactions
          • A customer service department that’s disconnected from the sales department, so customers needing support must first explain their purchase history
            • Marketing messages that don’t match the tone or style—or worse, functionality—of the products or sales processes

            Make Mobile First, Expand From There

            We’ve written before on the challenges of providing a good support experience to customers on mobile devices. A hassle-free mobile support experience is a prerequisite for improved digital and ambient customer experiences.

            Therefore, if you haven’t investigated your company’s mobile support experience from the customer’s point of view, make that a priority.

            If your company is already taking steps toward providing a great mobile experience, consider that a base from which to expand your brand or product’s footprint. Otherwise, begin by implementing these best practices:

            • Don’t assume your customers don’t look for support on mobile devices. Research has shown that 63 percent of U.S. adults use mobile devices at least several times per month to seek customer support.
            • Ensure that your mobile site displays correctly on both iOS and Android devices. Check that page elements don’t overlap or become illegible on smaller screens
            • Strengthen the search function on your online self-support resources. While nearly all consumers try to use search functions, 75 percent have experienced “unhelpful” results.
            • Understand what your customers want from your website. Use journeymaps to contextualize the mobile touchpoints and design updates to better meet their preferences.

            A well-designed mobile website puts the functions
            consumers use most often front and center.

            Next Steps

            We act on our emotions more than we like to admit. As a business, improving how your customers feel about your company, your brand and your products and services is an ongoing process. Consistency and continuity are good guiding principles, both of which you can greatly improve with the right customer service software.

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