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Navigate Trends, Maintain Focus - Innovating Around Consumer Preferences

comfortable An IndustryVoices post 

Over the summer, headlines everywhere proclaimed that TikTok is overtaking Google as the top search engine. For those in the business of cutting-edge CX, this news may have caused someraised eyebrows in your professional circles—I know it did in mine.

Many of these headlines put sensationalism ahead of data accuracy: the real story here is that Google’s internal data shows that among Gen Z respondents, almost 40% of them currently prefer TikTok and Instagram search over Google Search or Maps.

This isn’t a new trend: when Yelp first took off, we could have seen headlines proclaiming the same sort of changes in generational consumer behavior, but Yelp and other food apps didn’t signal the death of the search engine. Instead, they opened the door to a wider world of consumer preferences, habits, and ways that brands can build more meaningful connections and stronger relationships.

I am far from a statistician. While I do care about trends and the why behind facts and figures, I am a marketer at heart and far too often want to editorialize using stats to prove my point. (Blame years of debate club for this – our formative years all too often create unbreakable patterns that are etched deeply into our personality.) But the idea that consumer preferences have changed shouldn’t be seen as alarming or negative.

Sure, the big yellow phone book of yore is pretty much extinct in terms of household staples, but the core purpose of the phone book remains foundational in every generation’s life – no matter your age, you still need to look up stores, find addresses, and find the phone numbers of casual acquaintances. Whether a phone book, an app, or a search engine (or a search engine app) helps you with these needs is beside the point – what matters is that there are tools that match everyone’s preferences and sensibilities, regardless of how old we are, where we live, or what our personal history has taught each of us.

Choice is core to an individual’s lived experience today more than any other time in the past. This is possible because of the technological advances we have made the world over. Because we are able to tailor experiences based on backgrounds, interests, habits, and preferences, we’re able to create more cohesive, satisfying, and delightful experiences than in the years and decades that came before. And while we can group people by common traits (I even do it here by referencing Gen Z vs Millennials vs Gen X vs Boomers) – we need to be careful not to push people back into confining boxes. There are numerous ways we can identify and group people today, and to create a truly effective, personalized, empathetic experience, we need intersectionality between those groupings.

Professionally, I spend my days obsessing over how to meet the needs of every human who interacts with a brand – and how I can make that experience easy, effective, and personal. I think about how we can automate and streamline interactions between brands and consumers – something that has often been thought of as soulless and ham-fisted – to create more empathy between company and customer, to enable brands to build deeper relationships with each individual, and to make every consumer feel like the information they are getting is tailor-made for them and them alone.

I know it can be done – and I know that automation and artificial intelligence is the key to making that dream a reality. What once might have been considered counterintuitive (we herald concierge experiences as best-in-class, and now I’m here to tell you that AI can create better top-tier experiences?) becomes a rational and understandable point of view; technology has advanced so rapidly that it eclipses what individual humans can accomplish in terms of scale and scope. Regardless of how smart, how well-trained, and how dedicated to your craft you are, a human being has absolute limits. With smart artificial intelligence, created and trained with that cream-of-the-crop human-led data, AI can always do more, faster. That doesn’t take the human element out of the equation; it puts the best parts of what humans bring to incredible interactions and taps into that so that we can give that experience to more people, all the time, anywhere they need it most.

People want to solve their own problems and find answers to their own questions. Everyone’s schedule is different, and how we get work done varies wildly. No matter what industry you are in, or who your customers are, you should embrace this diversity and increase the number and types of choices you provide to consumers. It’s what they want, after all: more choices to solve their own problems. The magic of providing choices is that if you do it right, as a company you see benefits to your bottom line: more people are helped faster, with less overhead, and are more satisfied with their choices. And counter to what many people might assume as we hear increased concern about jobs being outsourced to robots, employees who often had to bear the brunt of ever-expanding demand can spend more time on higher impact projects, strategy around the direction of AI and its involvement with an organization’s processes, and efforts that require human interaction, leaving the increasing number of more routine tasks to AI.

Every single business should create a focus area in their 2023 strategy planning around building better digital self-service and AI options for their customers. Whether you are B2B or B2C, enterprise or SMB, packaged goods or subscription services, giving your customers more options to help themselves is the most impactful way to increase both profitability and customer satisfaction.

There’s a flip side to this prediction, too: companies who don’t focus on this in 2023 aren’t going to just lag behind, they are going to lose. The data already shows that consumer preferences have diversified and that consumers are choosing brands who are meeting them on their terms as well as where they want to interact. So, if you aren’t there, your consumers are going to leave. The gap between how quickly this happens is great – almost half of all consumers say they would leave a brand after one or two disappointing interactions. If you model that out, it gets dire fast for companies who don’t prioritize preferences and empathetic automated interactions.

The rate of change is accelerating every single day: innovation even a decade ago moved at a snail’s pace compared to what we’re experiencing today. That acceleration is going to continue and change – and it’s not going to slow down to a linear path any time soon. We are bound to see expansion in ways that we cannot currently predict, using new technologies yet to be created. That means that embracing change, and new technologies, is paramount to future success.

More than that, understanding how your customers think, and where and how they prefer to interact are questions perhaps even more important than what they want. Thinking only of the latter can lead you down a limited path that only serves the majority, in the ways you already know about. The majority isn’t good enough. You need to meet the needs of everyone, every time they raise their hand, and you have to do it the first time they reach out. It has to feel personal. It has to be authentic. It needs to provide empathy.

AI-lead automation may be helping us evolve beyond the need for human-led interactions, but it is not causing us to evolve past the need for empathy, and to feel heard and understood. At its heart, this is what the change in consumer preferences is all about: standing up and saying, “I hear you. I understand what you want.” That’s why Gen Z is having success searching TikTok: they know what they want and the experience they prefer to have, and the technology is listening – and responding – to meet that need.

Let’s not fear the death of Google search. Such claims are greatly exaggerated. Instead, let’s see this for what it is: a celebration of people who are empowered to expect high-quality experiences that fit their lifestyle. Whether at work or at home, that’s what we all want – and 2023 is the year for brands to take notice and make it their number one priority.