A line of people using their smart devices
PHOTO: camilo jimenez on Unsplash

Today's customer is "always on." That is, they are connected to the internet and other devices via their smartphone, IoT devices, SmartTVs and even their automobile all the time. How has the digital experience evolved and how does it affect the customer experience?

As always, the customer journey is changing, and customers are now able to be fully connected 24/7/365, no matter where they are. A 2021 Pew Research report revealed that 31% of US adults are online “almost constantly.”

The “fully connected customer” takes it a step further, and is capable of interacting with a brand while they are driving their car, waiting in the doctor’s office, scrolling social media, at the supermarket strolling in the aisles, at work, watching TV and while getting ready for bed at night. This omnichannel experience follows the customer wherever they go. Over the course of 24 hours, instead of one or two intersection points, customers may have up to a dozen interactions with a brand.

“Our connected world has created an environment in which commerce is everywhere and this trend isn’t going anywhere,” said Rory Mitchell, executive managing director of the Americas at Criteo, a commerce media platform provider.

“From shoppable video ads on your favorite website to digital out-of-home ads while running errands, there are increasingly more interactive touchpoints between a consumer and a brand’s digital advertising.”

Apologetics Are so Yesterday

For the last two years, consumers around the globe kindly and compassionately dealt with one excuse after another from businesses that blamed their shortcomings on the pandemic.

At this point in the vaccine economy, consumer pandemic goodwill has worn thin, and apologies for poor service, shortages, long lines and a lack of digitalization — excuses that may have gotten a brand by last year — are no longer going to be accepted.

That means a brand’s omnichannel customer experience, which encompasses every single touchpoint a customer has with the brand, must be exceptional and consistent.

When consumer expectations are combined with digital transformation, IoT and a “fully-connected customer,” expectations run higher, and being able to provide an emotionally positive connection is even more challenging for brands. Consumers today have more choices available to them than they have had in the past, and their expectations for what exceptional customer experience and service means have risen drastically.

What has changed for consumers? Lots, including:

  • A greater variety of in-person entertainment options
  • Shopping centers
  • Shopping in big-name box stores
  • Restaurants
  • Bars
  • Window shopping
  • Get-togethers

Digitally, a lot has changed as well:

  • Consumer robotics getting more sophisticated and AI getting smarter
  • IoT beginning to be used across industries and in more locations
  • Mobile becoming everything, with desktop now the exception
  • Cars getting smarter by default, no options required
  • Web3 and the metaverse continuing to be topical, with brands paying attention to digital twins and digital landgrabs
  • Augmented reality and virtual reality hardware improving, with big tech brands closely watching how it plays out (VHS vs. Betamax comes to mind)
  • Cryptocurrency taking a nosedive, though it’s likely to come back strong, as blockchain is the foundation of Web3

For your average 20- or 30-something consumer, their level of connectivity has dramatically increased over the past decade. With such an improvement came a huge increase in the amount of consumer data that was produced.

Consumer data privacy issues have taken center stage, and privacy itself is once again in the spotlight. Google Analytics 4 is being (forcefully for some) adopted by brands, third-party cookies are dying a slow but well-deserved death and Web3 promises to enhance customer data privacy while giving content creators more control of the money they make.

“Data is the key ingredient in delivering personalized experiences,” said Radhakrishnan Rajagopalan, global head for Technology Services at Mindtree, a digital transformation, IT services and solutions provider. “This has led to increased awareness about data ownership.”

“As a result,” Rajagopalan continued, “customers are evolving to a privacy-first mindset through the use of ad blockers and third-party cookies, a trend further backed by regulations such as GDPR and CCPA. In addition to triggering privacy initiatives such as Google’s Topics and Apple’s Intelligent Tracking Prevention (ITP), this has also created the possibility of walled gardens and ecosystems across your device usage, be it mobiles, cars or homes.”

Related Article: It’s High Time Knowledge Management Went Omnichannel

A Day in the Life of a Connected Consumer

The lyrics to the Beatles’ song “A Day in the Life” talk about one person’s daily routine in terms that aren’t so different than how someone would describe their morning routine today. Many of us still wake up, get out of bed and comb our hair. What’s not mentioned in that song is all of the ways people are electronically connected in the world we inhabit.

Typically, it may go something like this:

Your Amazon Alexa alarm goes off, letting you know it’s time to begin the day. The lights automatically turn on, slowly getting brighter as you awaken. Coffee starts brewing as part of Alexa’s “wake-up routine.” You listen to an audiobook on your smartphone while you get ready. When you get into your car for your morning commute, the second and final of your hybrid workweek, the car’s AI system wishes you a good morning and resumes the play of your audiobook.

The car’s computer monitor displays your location on a map, as well as the day, time and your schedule. You stop at a department store for an errand, and as you walk down the aisle, a store display sends your smartphone a notification letting you know that a product you regularly buy is on sale today. You get what you came for, and resume your trip to work. At work, you’re notified by an alarm on your smartphone that you have a meeting in 30 minutes.

This connection with technology continues throughout the day for many people. Some don’t use always-on technology, and others can’t imagine living without it. These tech-savvy consumers expect the brands they do business with to reach them wherever they go — at home, in their car, at work or even in an unfamiliar place — day or night.

“It has become a strategic imperative for businesses to deliver exceptional customer experiences across various touchpoints,” said Rajagopalan. “The ability to respond to customer needs instantly and effectively requires a quick understanding of the changing forces, attributes and pain points of customer behaviors, and being agile and innovative in modernizing the operating model.”

How Is IoT Impacting the Customer?

IoT, the Internet of Things, refers to the exponentially-growing network of connected objects (such as thermostats, cars, lights, refrigerators, aisle displays, kiosks, Fitbits, etc.) that collect and exchange data in real-time using localized embedded sensors. According to a report from InsiderIntelligence, by 2025 there will be 3.74 billion IoT mobile connections worldwide and by 2026, over 64 billion IoT devices installed.

The most widespread use of IoT for consumers is smart home technology, with products such as the Amazon Echo, Nest Thermostat and Ring Doorbell allowing people to use their voices to control various aspects of their homes.

Another widespread use of IoT is wearable technology such as smartwatches, fitness trackers and sleep monitors, all of which provide consumers with data they can use to improve their convenience or health. In 2021, according to Statista, consumers purchased more than 533 million wearable smart devices, indicating a 20% year-over-year growth.

“IoT allows businesses and brands to gather data about customer behavior that allows them to design better in-store and digital experiences aligned with what consumers actually want,” said John Li, co-founder and CTO of the lending company Fig Loans.

“In many cases,” added Li, “data gathered through IoT enhances the experience by being passed right back to the consumer. Take your smartwatch or Fitbit tracker, for example. Users might create a fitness goal and adjust their daily behaviors based on the feedback they receive — Apple Watch users can enable notifications to tell them to get moving when they’ve been sitting stationary for too long.”

One of the most futuristic uses of IoT is that of the smart city. A smart city is an urban area that uses various electronic devices, digital and voice methodologies and sensors to collect and send data. Businesses and municipalities use that data to manage assets, resources and services more effectively. The IoT data comes from people, devices, buildings and assets and is used to monitor and manage municipal systems such as traffic and transportation, utilities, water supply systems, wastewater treatment systems, crime detection, schools, hospitals and more.

Connected automobiles now have embedded 3G, 4G or 5G cellular modems that enable them to continually connect to the internet. Deloitte estimates there will be 470 million connected vehicles on highways by 2025, (or 305 million by 2035, according to Statista) each of which produces approximately 25 gigabytes of data per hour.

These connected vehicles generate car data attributes (which come from electronic control units (ECUs), Controller Access Networks (CANs) and entertainment systems) that specify the location, engine status, fuel level, door lock status, speed and more. Connected cars can provide the driver with advanced GPS navigation, traffic alerts and maintenance warnings, and since their introduction, have resulted in a 20% drop in fatalities per 100 million miles.

"We are living in an era of increased digitization, ranging from the traditional digital footprints left behind by our mobile and online lives, to smart homes and connected cars,” said Rajagopalan. “This has led to an exponential increase in data volumes and velocity, laying the foundation for ever more personalized customer experiences.”

Related Article: 4 Ways the Internet of Things Is Enhancing Customer Experience

SmartTVs Are Getting Smarter

The difference between a SmartTV and an internet-ready TV may seem inconsequential, but the difference is the interconnectivity that a SmartTV provides.

SmartTVs seamlessly sync the user’s smartphone, Skype, Facebook, Netflix, Amazon Prime and more. A user watching a video on their smartphone can seamlessly switch to a SmartTV without missing a beat. Plus, all of the user’s social media accounts can be assessed via the SmartTV.

Users can sync most SmartTVs with other smart devices, such as Google Nest, Amazon Alexa and Bixby. Users can ask Alexa to find all movies with Brad Pitt and a list will appear on the screen. They can also use Skype via the TV, providing a larger screen area with plenty of room for all attendees.

“Connected TV (CTV) and over-the-top (OTT) are great examples of platforms that offer a huge opportunity for both media companies and brands, as video is becoming an increasingly important part of the advertising ecosystem,” said Mitchell. “In fact, according to Criteo research, video streaming services have influenced purchasing decisions for 44% of Americans in the last 12 months.”

Users can select images from their photo gallery to present a slideshow on a SmartTV. They can also use the tech as an extension of their smartphone.

The experience for the connected user should be seamless and follow the user from their car, to their home, to their bedroom, kitchen, living room and entertainment center. The trust consumers have for brands they regularly interact with allows them to feel comfortable in whatever channel they happen to be interacting in.

“Customer experience has evolved towards a more connected experience in the case of brands the customers trust,” said Rajagopalan. “Leading platform players are striving to connect ecosystems such as homes, home appliances, cars and the rest of the digital world to create a more holistic experience. As it stands, that experience is largely in the works.”

The Fully Subscribed Customer

The fully-connected customer is unlike traditional, “on for a moment then gone consumers.” Many of the technological aspects of their lives are subscription-based — everything from Netflix, Amazon Prime, Microsoft 365, Spotify, Scribd and more. Because they are subscribed to “as-a-service” platforms, they can connect to those services anywhere, from nearly any device, 24/7/365.

"A big shift in the digital experience for customers is that the products they use are becoming more subscription-based, also known as as-a-service,” said David Sovie, high tech industry lead at Accenture, an international IT services and consulting provider. “These as-a-service business models from product companies are helping create deeper customer relationships. Subscription businesses are inherently more customer-centric than traditional models.”

Sovie explained that customers benefit from these experiences in many ways. “They are getting service updates and adjustments made directly to their device to improve their experience. Subscription services also gather data that helps providers better understand how customers are behaving, the proactive support they need and other services that may be appealing to them.”

Related Article: No Service Design, No Customer Experience

Data Overload and Hyperconnectivity

Many “fully-connected” customers are innovators or early adopters of technology, and as such, are living their best fully-connected lives. They were the first to use AR glasses and VR goggles, and as these devices evolved, they began to be part of people’s daily lives.

These are the folks standing in long lines during the cold winter months to purchase or upgrade to the latest technological device. They are the same people who for years have had personal voice assistants, smart thermostats and smart doorbells. They’ll also be the first to introduce futuristic tech into their lives, such as robots and, potentially, flying cars.

Many fully-connected users are beginning to suffer from information overload and the burnout associated with always-on-demand. In a 2021 article on information overload, the phrase is defined as a “situation in which the information supply exceeds the limited human information processing capacity. As a consequence dysfunctional effects such as stress and confusion arise and a decreased decision quality is the result.” The authors of the article concluded that information overload leads to less efficient performance and decision-making.

Anyone who’s stared at a Firestick home screen for hours trying to find a movie to watch, only to be overwhelmed by the vast number of options available, recognizes the problem. Information overload is a real thing, and brands must determine just how much is too much, especially when combined with incoming data from 10 other connected sources.

Final Thoughts

The fully-connected, always-on customer has very high expectations, and like most consumers today expects to have an exceptional, consistent experience across all of a brand’s channels.

Like most early adopters, they understand that with new technology comes bugs and gaps. But as the technology evolves, the fully-connected customer looks at connectivity and interactivity as the means to have an amazing, emotionally positive connection to friends, family, work, entertainment and the brands they do business with.