Customer Experience Is Getting Weird...Fast

Things are changing in the customer experience landscape in faster and weirder ways than we thought possible even just a few years ago. We are used to discussing social and mobile channels as disruptive influences in the way businesses and consumers interact. But there are "interactions" out there that are critical and yet they are completely invisible to most service professionals.

How can that be? Consider this scenario, common to most consumers. You go to a retail Web site and fill a shopping cart with various items, then you pause, think better of it, and click off to do something else. You've abandoned that shopping cart. Now there's no way for a retailer to really know with certainty whether you intend to come back or not, whether you're just kicking tires or intending to buy. But that abandoned cart is like catnip to retailers. The data they have on you as a consumer is rich. They know who you are, what your buying history is, and, by using analytics, they probably have a pretty good prediction about whether you'll come back. But who, exactly, knows these things? Is it the contact center or the CRM system user? Neither—it's the marketing and Web analytics teams.

What they are likely to do is wait a predefined period of time and then email you to (a) remind you that you were in the middle of a purchase and (b) incentivize you to complete it with a coupon code or discount. This is standard practice for many retailers and marketers, and shouldn't be surprising to any consumers (or anyone who ponders customer experience issues for a living).

But this is where it gets weird. There are now Web sites that tell consumers which retailers offer discounts for abandoned carts, and how long they have to wait before that tempting marketing email will be sent to their inbox. You can argue that consumers are aggregating their own discrete pieces of information to take advantage of marketing efforts and circumvent the data advantages that businesses have. You could also argue that these aggregations of consumers are themselves using data as a sort of counter-marketing.

You might say that this is nothing more than the natural expansion of customers who avidly clip coupons and share best practices for extreme discounts. That's partly true. But it's important for businesses for two reasons. First, this is an entirely low-tech process—it doesn't require Twitter or Facebook or mobile apps, or anything more than a dogged attention to detail and a low-tech Web site. No amount of money invested by a business in social media mining or interaction management software will be able to monitor and influence this kind of customer behavior.

Second—and more urgent—is the fact that this is going on in a complete dark zone. There are no normal methods for tracking this kind of interaction. In fact, most contact centers would hardly recognize this as an interaction at all. There was no voice call. There was no request for assistance. No escalation or inquiry. Just the opposite—this was the equivalent of a customer walking out of a store. But now that customer walks out knowing you are going to (metaphorically) follow him out onto the street waving a discount at him to get him to come back inside.

In that context, shopping cart abandonment becomes a strategic asset in the hands of a consumer. It is the opening salvo in a nonverbal, nontraditional negotiation between the consumer and the company.

This is an example of customer engagement in which the customer is most definitely engaged. She may even be more actively engaged than the business she's dealing with is. I tried this experiment—I put two pairs of jeans into a shopping cart on, then went about my business. Sure enough, within a day there was an email inviting me back. My total discount came to close to 30 percent, for something I was going to buy all along! Without that effort, they weren't guaranteed a sale, but they can't know if I am engaging them actively or passively. I was going to buy them anyway, so count that 30 percent as a win for me, a loss for Levis.

This is just one example of the dark pool of customer interactions that companies are going to be dealing with in months and years to come. I believe it's the tip of the iceberg. Understanding how customers are engaging requires a great deal more data gathering, analysis, and coordination between service, sales, and marketing departments.

So I have to ask: when you think of customer experience or engagement, are you still thinking about narrow little slices like phone calls and social media distress calls? Because if you're not looking at the complex patterns of nontraditional interaction, you are missing those which are costly and potentially lucrative.