Futurists predict, part 2: How virtual reality and big data will change the way you interact with customers

By Tina Irgang

(Editor’s note: Part 1 of our futurist series explores the future of hiring and retaining talent.)

We live in an age of constant information. Every minute of every day, customers are bombarded with advertising messages, many of them from your competitors. With companies starting up and bowing out at an ever-increasing pace, how can you possibly connect with new customers — and keep the ones you already have? We asked the region’s leading futurists to weigh in.

In the future, customers will keep asking for options that meet their needs and desires exactly, so businesses will need to consider where their product leaves room for customization or at least greater variety, says John Mahaffie, principal of Leading Futurists LLC in Washington, DC. Even large, established brands like Coca-Cola and Nike have had to embrace this kind of thinking to remain relevant, he notes. For example, Coca-Cola’s Freestyle vending machine allows consumers to pick flavor combinations based on at least 100 different beverages. Nike’s NIKEiD program allows shoppers to customize athletic shoes based on different color, design and fabric choices.

So how do you go about finding opportunities for customization in your product lines? Embrace “what if” thinking, suggests Mahaffie. For example, Mahaffie encouraged one of his clients, a mass-market business making millions of identical consumer units, to think of itself as a deli that’s trying to cater to a customer who wants a custom sandwich. What different things might customers ask for? And what options can you offer?

Protecting the brand

However, make sure you don’t take customization too far. It shouldn’t come at the expense of your brand, because if customers don’t know what you stand for, why should they buy from you?

In fact, defining exactly what your company stands for and what it does best should be another one of your top priorities, says Anirban Basu, chairman and CEO of Baltimore-based Sage Policy Group, Inc. “When branding doesn’t take place successfully, companies often have a problem. It’s hard to know what JC Penney stands for” and that’s among the reasons it has struggled to stay afloat, he says.

But your work doesn’t just entail defining the brand — it entails protecting it. “We’re in the era of no secrets and no lies,” says Jonathan Peck, president and senior futurist at the Institute for Alternative Futures in Alexandria, VA. “You become increasingly vulnerable to losing massive amounts of market share almost overnight” for any perceived missteps that become public, he warns.

One way to prevent this outcome is to ensure you have a board that will promote independence, transparency and corporate social responsibility. “Twenty years ago, it was fine if you had a buddy board,” says Peck. “Now, you see the demand for independent board governing members.”

Reading the customer’s mind

It’s hard to know what exactly it is customers want at any given moment, but it just might get a little easier in the future.

At the moment, big data uses your past choices online to suggest similar future purchases, notes Chris Miller, founder of Innovation Focus in Lancaster, PA. But in the future, “big data will become smart in ways that it provides the flavor, as well as the standard fare, of what you want,” he says. “It will know more about what you are likely to want than you do.”

For example, rather than simply suggesting books that are similar to other ones you’ve read, Amazon might suggest unrelated books you are likely to develop a future interest in.

“I think one of the biggest problems with companies right now is, they don’t have all the information about a customer in every place,” says Brad Grossman, partner, founder and CEO of New York City-based ZEITGUIDE, a publication that examines future trends in business.

Let’s say you’re calling a credit card company to report a charge that you believe is fraudulent. You talk to one person, tell your story, and you’re transferred to someone else — who needs the whole story all over again. “Customers are going to want every single person in the company to know about them so they can do things very quickly,” says Grossman.

New technologies like Amazon’s Dash button, which enables instant re-ordering of household supplies, will help companies amass that kind of institutional knowledge, he says. “Organizing that knowledge about the customer is going to be the future of customer service. … The loop in the customer service journey is going to be a lot more circuitous, as opposed to … starting over and over.”

Get them with the experience

Let’s say you’re trying to acquire new customers. Traditionally, if you had a retail presence, one way to do that was to entice people to stroll into your store, browse and buy a product.

Many have predicted the demise of the brick-and-mortar store due to the greater convenience of online shopping, which in some instances can already deliver items to your door within the hour.

That means the trouble of going out to a store for the purposes of shopping simply won’t be worth it, says Miller. “It’d be so much better to spend that time experiencing the product and the value of it.”

But that doesn’t mean physical stores are going the way of the dinosaurs. Instead, the nature of those stores is going to change.

“Retail is going to go from being a delivery mechanism, a place where you shop and buy, to a place where you experience entertainment and fun and a connection to products and brands,” says Miller. “The idea that you should have to carry a bag around the mall for the next two hours is kind of old news.”

What’s more, retail locations won’t be just for companies selling consumer products anymore. If your company builds machines, for example, the way of the future will be to create an in-store, virtual-reality experience that immerses potential customers in that machine and how it works, says Miller: “Instead of looking at the schematics, I can also experience being there in the machine, around the machine.”