Predicting the Future: What an Engineer from the 1900s Can Teach Us About Customer Experience Today

In the early 1900s, a gentleman by the name of John Elfreth Watkins Jr. penned an article for Ladies’ Home Journal, titled “What May Happen in the Next Hundred Years”.  As a civil engineer working for American railroads at the dawn of a new century, it was fitting that Watkins would take an interest in the technological advances that might shape America’s productivity landscape. Several of his prophecies were busts: humans averaging ten miles of walking a day and the eradication of cockroaches were among Watkins’ ambitious ideas that missed the mark.

However, his technology-focused predictions look eerily similar to the modern capabilities that we take for granted today. Watkins foresaw a world where “photographs will be telegraphed from any distance. If there be a battle in China a hundred years hence, snapshots of its most striking events will be published in the newspapers an hour later…. photographs will reproduce all of nature’s colours.” In Watkins’ future, humans would have the ability to instantly access real-time information (the internet, anyone?), something we take for granted in today’s world of constant connectivity.

What inspired Watkins’ insightful predictions? Was it a hidden, Nostradamus-like sense of things to come? Perhaps Watkins was less of a clairvoyant, and instead he simply paired problems with practical solutions. In an era of evening newspapers, he sensed the frustration with the delay in delivering news and visuals, driving his prediction for the ability to instantly transmit images from around the world.

Watkins’s prophecies prove that the needs of the user, or the customer, lie behind every new widget, service offering, and innovation.

I am not proposing that I can predict the future as Watkins did, but I am confident that customer and societal needs will continue to drive trends and advances in technology. While the technology itself will shift and grow, one constant – the customer – will always remain, and their opinions will drive future innovations and changes.

With this in mind, how might business leaders prepare for the intimidating unknown that is the future?  The answer is simple: Do everything you can to understand your customer. Keep in mind, however, that what your customer wants on day one will probably be different from what that same customer wants on day 857. And what a particular customer truly wants will probably be different from every other customer that you serve. Therefore, when thinking strategically about the future, always begin with the following five questions:

  1. Who is your customer, and what do they care about?
  2. How does your customer interact with your product or service?
  3. How are customer perceptions shifting with industry trends?
  4. How do you integrate your customer feedback into your vision for your company’s future?
  5. What unmet customer needs can we meet today?

My prediction for the future: For an organization to remain relevant, it must obsess over their customer so that their customer will obsess over the brand. Regardless of how technology changes over time, the customer and their ever-changing needs will continue to be the driver of companies’ innovations.

Returning for a moment to our favorite clairvoyant, I have to say that Watkins would have been better off sticking to his day job. Also on his list of predictions – that there will be no C, X or Q in the alphabet in 100 years.  On this point, he missed the mark entirely: CX (Customer Experience) lay at the heart of innovations 100 years ago, and I confidently predict that it will still be there, 100 years hence.

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