(Virtually) Walking in Our Customers’ Shoes

We are starting to see practical evidence that virtual reality combines the scaling potential of e-learning with the experiential impact of face-to-face training.

At some point in our lives, most of us have experienced the scene where we had to engage in a difficult conversation with a customer agent—the last flight out cancelled (OK, sooo last year!), those beautiful, expensive shoes where the sole started to fall off after a week, the broadband installer not showing up in the agreed time slot, and so the list goes on. Let’s concentrate for a moment on those conversations where, despite the missed expectations, we come away feeling so much better about the situation. These “good” customer experiences tend to boil down to some combination of:

  • The person was empathetic to the situation I was experiencing.
  • I felt listened to.
  • The person was genuinely curious about figuring out the best path forward.
  • I was presented with different options.
  • The person was empowered to solve my problem.

These are complex behaviors for inexperienced customer-facing staff and yet are seminal to turning around a bad initial customer experience. And too often for many consumers, mastery only comes after years of experience or costly, time-intensive, face-to-face learning programs.

Tethr Chief Product and Research Officer Matt Dixon says it succinctly:

“While the journey toward exceptional customer service used to set leading businesses apart, today’s customers are more interested in an excellent customer experience (CX). How a customer feels when they interact with your organization and brand is now arguably as important as the products and services themselves.”

Behaviors really matter within the customer experience as they are a direct determinant of how your customers feel when engaging with your company.

One proven solution to accelerate the mastery of these complex behaviors is by developing automaticity through learning, deliberate practice, and feedback, often known as feedback loops. It turns out that the power of immersive virtual reality (VR) helps us do that in a modern, time-efficient, scalable way.

Experiencing the Situation in VR

The use case developed is to help a retail agent engage effectively with a challenging customer. The customer is upset because the expensive merchandise she purchased last week is damaged. Imagine you are that retail agent, standing by the register and a customer marches in brandishing a shoe box. She comes face to face with you and she’s visibly upset. She starts shouting about how frustrated she is and waves a shoe in front of you where the sole is starting to separate. She’s complaining about you, the shop, the situation. How do you react? You get to choose. Do you:

a) Blame the supplier

b) Say you are sorry and hurry to get your manager

c) Apologize and acknowledge the emotion the customer is displaying

In the cool light of reading this article, the answer is probably clear. Yet in the heat of the moment, virtual reality feels so lifelike that our amygdala gets triggered and we just want to get our manager to deal with this frightening person.

So you make your choice and then the barrage starts again… Or does it? It depends on your selection. The immediacy of the response based on your selection has a dramatic effect on users’ emotions and learning. If we can provide users with feedback responses to their actions as close as possible to real time, then give them an opportunity to change those actions, it pushes them towards better behaviors.

And that’s exactly what users do.

The user travels through their 360-degree virtual interaction with the challenging customer, selecting different choices as she goes. When the scene is complete, she receives a personalized feedback report informing her of her score, the areas she did well in, and where she could improve. She also gets some reflection steps that help her absorb the positive and development feedback and implement specific changes in real life. Total experience time? 10 minutes.

So it sounds straightforward, but, in fact, the learning science that sits behind the VR learning format is multifaceted and contributes tangibly to a powerful, high-impact learning experience.

Agency and Presence

In a 360-degree video, carefully crafted story lines allow you to choose where to look, and this permits you to “create” your own personalized version of the story in virtual reality. This freedom of choice is called “agency” and is one of the major differences between 360 and standard video. It creates a level of investment on the part of the user, which we call emotional immersion. “Presence” is created by the ability of virtual reality to trick users into feeling they are somewhere else. The greater the belief they are actually in the virtual environment, the greater the potential for users to react to stimuli as if they were in the real world. A recent PWC study found that VR learners felt 3.75 more emotionally connected to their content than classroom learners (https://www.pwc.com/us/en/services/consulting/technology/emerging-technology/vr-study-2020.html).

Deliberate Practice

Deliberate practice requires clear goals and feed­back on those goals. Goals are easily integrated into the learning scenario and can vary according to the skills required. It is critical that the positive and developmental feedback provided in the report is linked to those goals. One benefit of VR is that it is possible to extract automated feedback metrics from these data, meaning it is possible to generate valuable perspectives at scale about your organization.

Learner Engagement

In a study by imotions, using EEG (electroencephalography, a measure of brain activity), they could detect differences in learner engagement. Comparing the level of engagement for participants in the VR world versus those in a 2-D environment, a clear picture emerged from the EEG data, with the mean engagement score for VR 20 percent higher than that of the 2-D video (https://imotions.com/blog/measuring-virtual-reality-immersion-case-study/).

PWC’s study also substantiated the engagement finding, reporting that VR-trained learners are up to four times more focused during training than their e-learning peers.

In summary, we are starting to see practical evidence that VR combines the scaling potential of e-learning with the experiential impact of face-to-face training.

Sarah Schwab is founder and CEO of The Experience Accelerator, an Edtech start-up that fuses the power of VR, machine learning, and virtual coaches to improve the world’s behavioral skills at scale. Visit https://theexperienceaccelerator.com to start a conversation.