Fresh off last month’s CES, there’s a lot of talk about 5G again. In 2019, the word on the street was that the concept was compelling but that the reality was lacking. This year, everyone agrees that the reality has started to come into focus, particularly as it relates to networks and devices. What’s still in an utter state of confusion, however, is the collective understanding of exactly what 5G will do for people and companies and what it won’t.
I work with Fortune 500 executives to deploy AI and automation for customer experience transformations, and I have heard many hailing 5G’s speed as the forthcoming savior of customer experience. Unfortunately, looking at 5G in a vacuum, that’s pretty far from the truth. Let’s take a realistic look at 5G’s expected impact on customer experience and where companies need to be investing to deliver on the potential.
5G will initially underwhelm.
As with any emerging technology, we’re going to see people playing fast and loose with terminology from a marketing standpoint. Initially, many situations in which we hear “5G” will not actually be 5G.
Remember when carriers rebranded their 3G networks as 4G LTE? It wasn’t the same as 4G. Likewise, we’re already seeing a lot of “almost 5G” announcements hit the market, but none are truly 5G. There’s still confusion and variability out there around implementations, and that’s not going away anytime soon.
Meanwhile, 5G’s first big real-world test in South Korea didn’t quite live up to expectations. According to a report (paywall) from The Wall Street Journal, download speeds did indeed rise, but not nearly to an extent that could match the hype. It’s also worth noting that the reason 5G became a reality so quickly in South Korea was that the government put serious resources and pressure behind it. We’re not going to see anything like that in the U.S., where the government’s role will be largely regulatory. Thus, implementation will be slower and much more fractured in nature.
The digital divide will widen.
Of course, faster speeds will become a reality, and faster speeds enable better customer experiences. After all, no one likes latency. But people like inconsistency even less than latency, and inconsistency is a virtual certainty when it comes to the 5G rollout.
In the short term, 5G will work in some places but not others. The resulting wavering customer experience might frustrate customers even more than having no 5G access at all. Customers crave immediacy, and once they have a taste of 5G, their latency frustrations with 4G will heighten. Companies that build experiences for 5G and don’t discern where they can be accessed will see a period of time in which certain people in certain places can’t appreciate these experiences, and their exasperation will be directed at those companies rather than the telcos that deliver the inconsistent 5G access.
Faster products won’t be enough.
As we’re already seeing, 5G will have a significant effect on product development, as tech providers look to enable greater speed through their devices. But 5G isn’t just about faster networks and faster products. Rather, it represents yet another shift in customer expectations that will have a number of trickle-down implications for companies of all kinds — even for brands and companies that might consider themselves far afield from the effects of the 5G transformation.
If companies want to compete on customer experience, they’ll need to not only deliver faster products and services, but also be “always on” in terms of providing feedback and assistance to customers. I believe 5G is ultimately going to accelerate the death of call centers as consumers increasingly refuse to tolerate wait times. Likewise, restricting assistance to “normal business hours” will shift from being a mere irritation to consumers to being downright unacceptable.
In a 5G world, I believe companies of all kinds will have to provide around-the-clock engagement options and digital self-service to stay connected with consumers who have become even more accustomed to immediacy in their lives.
Design will trump all.
Even when 5G networks and 5G-enabled devices become the new normal, a significant burden will still rest on the shoulders of companies to help customers realize the benefits of these new technologies. Companies must design experiences well if they are to take advantage of 5G and deliver on new customer expectations.
As technology accelerates, we’re going to see a bigger divide between well-designed interfaces and those that can’t deliver on the capabilities of the newly upgraded 5G infrastructure. Some companies will rise to the challenge and deliver personalized journeys and immersive experiences via the latest interfaces, including voice and augmented reality. The companies that lag behind, clinging to their current non-mobile-optimized webpages and clunky web portals, will find that their road to extinction has become significantly shorter.
Right now, we’re entering the crucial period in which the winners and losers of the 5G world are making the decisions that will determine in which bucket they will fall. To become a 5G-capable organization — in other words, to prep your organization to take full advantage of the 5G opportunity — business leaders need to reenvision their customer experiences for the 5G reality before it’s fully rolled out.
5G-enabled customer experiences will pay dividends for the businesses that implement them, both in terms of customer satisfaction and competitive differentiation. Those that wait will be too late.
This article was originally published in Forbes.