Why we’re expecting too much of customer expectations.

We all have our expectations. If you’re reading this, you might be expecting a mildly amusing (but informative) discourse on how we can meet customer expectations, perhaps using the latest technology. We hope you won’t be disappointed. But are customer expectations really a reliable guide to digital strategy? Ian Henderson suggests not.

Customers invariably arrive with expectations – to a website, a shop, an ad, a meeting. They might have an idea of our brand, they might know exactly what they want or they might just be idly browsing. As marketers, we have lots of clever tools that can give us a fair idea of where they’ve come from, what they’re looking for, what they think about us and so on. But customers are people (mostly – though when our shopping is all done by robots is when things will get really interesting). And because they’re people we can’t really know what’s actually going on in their heads.

One day soon machines might get better at reading our minds – by recognizing the microexpressions that subliminally betray our thoughts to other humans, for instance. Or by instantly learning from the decisions we make and offering a response faster than our brain can become aware we’ve even made that decision – which really would feel like the computer was reading our mind. But until then, the best guide to their expectations customers themselves can give us is their feedback. Which is always after the fact, and it’s not very reliable.

We all know the stories about Henry Ford and his revolutionary Model T car (“if I’d asked my customers, they’d have asked for a faster horse”), Steve Jobs and the invention of the ‘1000 songs in your pocket’ iPod that nobody knew they needed, or even Genyo Takedo – less famous, but he designed the Nintendo Wii by watching how non-gamers behave then building a video game console that they would actually use. All highly innovative, highly successful – and created despite, not because of, customer expectation.

I occasionally work with some very clever product designers who shape customer experience for the world’s favourite airline, what the inside of a luxury car should feel like or how an office chair should do its job so the user can get on with theirs. We describe the people-first approach as ‘feel, think, do’; it’s about observing real behaviours until reaching a level of real empathy with the customer, followed by rigorous analysis and research, followed by prototyping, refinement and a reductive, almost minimalist approach to actually building the airline, the car or the chair. Which is jolly comfortable, by the way – their last one took six years to develop.

The reason for all that work is that if you simply give customers what they ask for, you cannot innovate. Innovation is about looking ahead, through insight-driven inspiration, to what customers don’t know they need yet – like Ford, Jobs or Takeda. Which is why fintech, and the applications of digital innovation to financial services, is so exciting just now – thousands of dewy-eyed startups trying to define thousands of new ways to deliver financial products and services, in ways that customers don’t even know they need yet. Business Insider says it’s the most profound era of change for financial services since the 1970s.

No-one knows what to expect from all this change, and least of all your customers; that’s another reason their current expectations are not a reliable guide to what they will want next. (Or even, according to brain scientists to their appetite for risk – which means risk profiling is at best, ah, risky.) The great thing about what’s happening in fintech, and in the digital revolution more generally, is that an almost infinite range of choices can be offered to customers almost in real time. Being digitally agile is about responding to those choices as they are made, opening new pathways and possibilities up for the customer along their journey.

Which leads us to the next massive thing – on-demand marketing. All the technology is here, it’s just not joined up yet – artificial intelligence, facial recognition, near-field communications, chatbots, superfast data. What it means is marketing that makes every moment, every interaction, exceptional. One day soon we might be able to build digital experiences – VR, websites, whatever – that are literally created in the instant it takes for a customer decision to make it from the subconscious brain to the aware part. Imagine a website that only exists for you and you alone, which only comes into existence the moment you’re looking at it. You wouldn’t be aware that the environment was created just for you – but you would be aware that it was taking you precisely, perfectly where you needed to go.

That really would be meeting customer expectations with digital agility.

This is an edited version of a presentation given by Ian Henderson at the Platforum Digital and D2C Conference 2016 in London.