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Unlocking the potential for new customer experiences with 5G

No one knows for sure what a 5G world will look like. Imagine what’s possible if everything we do online can happen at blazing fast speeds, with virtually no latency—what possibilities does that unlock?

The beauty of 5G isn’t that we can do the same stuff faster; it’s that we’re no longer constrained by the limits of the old 4G network and so we can do things that just weren’t possible before. We often see this between leaps in technology. For example, self-driving cars haven’t really lived up to the hype to date. They can’t compete with human driving minds that can consciously read the environment and that also have an unconscious mechanism that causes us to react even before our conscious mind has processed a threat. But with 5G, self-driving cars may be able to process data about the environment much faster. New technologies are being invented that only work on 5G, like C-V2X, which lets cars to talk to each other so they’re less likely to crash at intersections or while passing.

The beauty of 5G isn't that we can do the same stuff faster; it's that we're no longer constrained by the limits of the old 4G network...

5G is poised to boost The Internet of Things (IoT) which apparently takes up a lot of bandwidth on 4G and therefore processes slowly. So we may, after all, wind up with refrigerators that respond to what’s been stored in them and warn us when the milk is getting low; thermostats that manage cooling in separate rooms, or automatically adjust around the number of appliances in operation.

Advances in telemedicine could transform the industry, even enabling feats like remote robotic surgery. So if the best heart surgeon is in another country, you can stay in your home hospital and have the rockstar surgeon fix you remotely. (That is, if insurance catches up to 5G).

New things are possible and businesses have to prepare for a 5G world where people will expect even more from their experiences. How can businesses prepare? Already customers want things more personalized, that are faster, and more convenient. What impact will 5G technology have on those expectations?

Already customers want things more personalized, that are faster, and more convenient. What impact will 5G technology have on those expectations?

It’s time to get creative

Digital Transformation (DX) is all about reimagining a company’s processes, services, products, and even business models around the way customers live, using technology that makes these changes possible. Companies around the world, and in all industries, are working on DX—and 5G will make DX even more important.

[Read also: Digital transformation: hard, expensive, and worth it]

Colleen Berube, chief information officer at Zendesk, points out that once customers have had a stellar experience, they expect the same from all the vendors they encounter. As an example, Berube cited the passport control experience on a recent trip to Australia. Usually passing through passport control is arduous. Exhausted and jet-lagged, travelers have to queue up for long periods of time so that a security officer can check their passports and photos. But Australia has implemented a new system whereby facial recognition software verifies travelers’ identities. The system can process one person every 24 seconds and allowed Berube to sail through customs in five minutes. Not only is Australia’s system faster, but it’s more accurate. Customs officers apparently don’t fare better than the average person in spotting fake identifications and when presented IDs by people who don’t actually belong to them, they miss one out of seven. So theoretically, 14 percent of the people on a given plane could be using fake identifications.

Customs officers apparently don't fare better than the average person in spotting fake identifications and when presented IDs by people who don't actually belong to them, they miss one out of seven.

“In San Francisco,” Berube said, “I wait in a long line just to scan my passport on the digital screen, answer the usual questions, receive a ticket that I take to another line where I present the ticket to a person. You can imagine how I felt returning to San Francisco after zooming through immigration in Australia. Going through the process I was thinking, ‘Why the hell aren’t we doing [what Australia is doing]?' My experience expectations had quickly changed.”

In another recent example, she said, she ordered contacts online. Instead of having to make an appointment with an optometrist, take time off work, drive to the office, wait, have the examination, and get a prescription, she merely held the phone up to her face in several different directions, and took an eye test with the phone placed 10 feet away. Voila! That was it and her contacts were delivered to her by mail.

“How does 5G play into this? All of these experiences are precipitated on mobile access and extensive use of data, and not just collective data where you input your name—but image data, video data,” she said.

[Read also: To excel at customer intimacy, you will need data]

Frequently, video and heightened functions like AR and VR were impractical for businesses to use because they were subject to latency—the slow loading that happens on a 4G network, especially when it’s busy. But 5G means that companies may reopen the door to using or offering VR or AR customer solutions. So theoretically, customers can virtually try on clothes or makeup using an exact avatar of their body shape or match of skin tone; they can virtually shop a boutique in a distant city—complete with ambiance—while sitting at home with a glass of wine. They can craft their future physique and have an app tell them exactly what workouts they need to do at the local fitness center to get the body they desire. They can use their phones to ascertain whether their bags are too big to qualify as carry-ons. They can use AR to ascertain how to best outfit their homes with alternative energy. They can sign up for a service with their local bank or credit union to tell them in real time how a particular purchase might impact their savings plan and where they can offset the cost. If companies aren’t already imagining new ways to serve their customers, they should be.

So theoretically, customers can virtually try on clothes or makeup using an exact avatar of their body shape or match of skin tone; they can virtually shop a boutique in a distant city while sitting at home with a glass of wine.

Prepare for a paradigm shift

This is true of customer service as well as the customer experience at large. A blog post by customer experience expert Bruce Temkin noted that some of the biggest issues in the customer journey has to do with complex, multi-step issues, such as making an airline reservation, fixing a technical software problem, or selecting the product or service that best meets your needs. He further noted that inability to resolve customer service issues has the biggest impact on customer recommendations.

Today, Berube says that many customer service organizations still operate on the system of the customer submitting the problem and the agent working to track and resolve the problem with limited information about the customer, what they own and their other experiences with the company. “When you have this new technology that vastly opens the pipes for the amount of data you can use, you have the potential for an immersive experience. It opens up a whole new realm of possibilities, only some of which I can envision.”

[Read also: Personalization's deep data foundations]

With disappearing latency, a customer might be able to access an AR helper to troubleshoot an error code rather than hanging on the phone with tech support or reading a dozen forums. They might be able to video chat with an agent and share screens rather than navigate a phone call with numerous holds. Or, even better, tech might be able to track a customer’s experience in real time to avoid problems before they begin. The bugaboo, though, is privacy. Capturing personal data—the shape of your body, the contents of your fridge, the uses of your software—makes it liable to hacks. More data means more risk. Companies could theoretically manage customers’ products and services in real time and prevent problems. But to do so, they have to have access to more information about the customer.

“Privacy is a consideration companies already have that will be magnified with the potential of 5G,” Berube said. “We will have more data than ever and we have to be thoughtful about what data we’re collecting, how to use it, and how to manage it.”

Countries are coming out with new laws and regulations about data use, and businesses will have to decide how to comply with those regulations.

[Read also: Regulating AI—a call for transparency and ethical use]

“Early in my career, one CTO said to me, ‘If you think about any tech change over history, whenever the tech first comes out people always try to take advantage of it using their existing paradigm,’” Berube recalled. “It takes a while to develop a new paradigm.” With moving pictures, she noted, they started by holding the camera in one place, as per a viewer in a theater. It took time to evolve, playing with the possibilities of different camera angles and effects. With 5G today, many people will think in terms of building on the status quo, but making something work faster or more reliably. But others, the true innovators, will be thinking about what they can do that is new.