Recent advances in technology are providing new and exciting ways for us to interact with each other and the world around us. The possibilities of extending these technologies beyond the consumer realm to the enterprise are seemingly endless. This includes enhancing the how companies service their customers. Only a decade ago, it was somewhat of a stretch to conceive of thermostats that could predict occupancy and usage and optimize its settings automatically or watches that could monitor and report on your health, but the Internet of Things have increasingly become an integral part of our lives.
Companies can reap the benefits these technologies provide to offer an improved customer service experience. Data from connected devices can provide valuable information on a consumer’s preferences and most commonly encountered issues, allowing a company to better tailor service proactively to that customer. In other cases, the information can be used as context to tailor any interaction with a customer so that they get what they need with the least amount of effort or with a potential opportunity to up sell additional related products and services to that customer.
It is equally important, in planning a customer strategy, to keep track of up and coming technologies that could eventually be incorporated in enhancing the customer service experience. One technology that holds promise in the not so immediate future is virtual reality, or VR. While VR remains in its infancy, it is quickly maturing into a viable medium for humans to mash up meatspace with cyberspace. We’re not quite talking about Neil Stephenson’s gargoyles … at least not yet. But the pace of innovation in VR continues to accelerate, and the cost of these devices is expected to drop rapidly as more consumers adopt VR. Given this, the application of VR to help companies service their customers is not as far fetched as it may seem.
Two VR technologies that are leading the way in VR are Facebook‘s Oculus Rift and Microsoft‘s HoloLens. While both Oculus Rift and HoloLens boast a robust VR experience and a powerful developer toolkit that can integrate them into other hardware as well as software environments (think gaming), both take very different approaches to merging the real world with the virtual world. In the case of Oculus Rift, a person can be immersed into a virtual environment making them an integral part of that virtual reality. Microsoft’s HoloLens takes a markedly different approach to VR. In the case of HoloLens, a person overlays virtual elements onto the real world, augmenting their real world experience. Both approaches open the door wide open to countless applications that can do everything from simulating in person meetings to providing a highly immersive gaming experience.
So what does this all mean for customer service? Consider the difficulties encountered today when a customer needs help troubleshooting a product. Remote troubleshooting is clunky at best over the phone or even chat … and let’s not even discuss email. In most cases, representatives must try to figure out what the issue might be by relying on a customer’s description of the problem, which may not be accurate given that they do not have enough technical experience. Troubleshooting is often slow and done in a step-by-step manner that may be difficult for the customer to understand and follow. It is equally difficult for the representative to determine if the customer has properly followed the steps indicated. Representatives can push instructions to customers, but they still cannot visualize how well a customer is following those instructions. Two-way video communication mitigates this to a degree but is not commonly implemented (privacy reasons are often cited) and the 2D experience is still somewhat clunky.
A VR interaction would solve this problem. By having the customer share what they are seeing and doing with the representative as if they were in the customer’s shoes allows them to better guide a customer through the troubleshooting process. More interesting, in fact, is that the representative can highlight what the customer needs to do next as clearly as if they were there. The applications of this approach can be as simple as basic plumbing repair or something as complex as rebuilding a combustion engine.
Immersive VR also has numerous applications for customer service. Consider a scenario where a representative offers a customer a tutorial hands on video on how to replace a computer storage drive. A 2D video is, of course, helpful, but what if the representative could inject the customer into a virtual training studio where they can take a hands on course on replacing the drive? Better learning retention gained from the virtual hands on experience ensures that the customer can do their own replacement unassisted in the future. If they need a refresher, they could simply re-run the VR session.
If this all seems quite amazing if not a little surreal, keep in mind that the cost of devices is dropping rapidly. Better bandwidth at affordable costs is more widespread. The availability of potential applications is increasing rapidly with a large ecosystem of developers jumping on to the VR bandwagon. Experimentation with haptics promises to bring a tactile dimension that will significantly enhance the VR experience. And promising research in the field of brain to brain communications could open up the doors to additional avenues of service down the road, such as direct training. All of these initiatives are contributing to accelerating VR innovation.
To be sure, the practical implementation of VR for customer service is still not something that is on the horizon for the immediate future. Devices need to be cost effective and widely available. Integration of VR technology into business applications needs to occur and customers have to learn to accept VR as a medium of interaction for service requests. But companies are rethinking how they service customers, with more and more marketing departments rolling customer service into a more holistic customer life cycle management process. This makes the traditional method of service customers, the silo-ed contact center approach, increasingly non-viable as a result, with VR only accelerating this trend.
Just because VR may not be in any immediate plans of a company’s customer service strategy does not mean company’s shouldn’t be planning for it down the road. Companies spend a significant amount of time planning for future implementations, and advanced consideration of new technologies needs to start earlier in the planning process. This provides sufficient time to consider, evaluate and prototype this technology both internally and with trial customers to validate the feasibility of implementing it in a broader way. And with marketing owning more of the end to end customer life cycle process, weaving in up selling with service opportunities, potentially through the application of context, will not only solidify existing customer loyalty and promote new customer acquisition but also increase opportunities to sell more into the existing customer base.
VR offers an exciting new immersive experience by creating a mash-up between the real and virtual worlds. Different approaches extend the realm of possible applications VR can enable and integrate with. Already, VR has shown tremendous promise for enterprises, including how they service their customers. It behooves all companies to start looking now at the potential ways VR technologies can be incorporated to enhance the customer service experience. Any way you look at it, VR is a real game changer in a number of areas and customer service is no exception.