No one expected business in general to change the way it did in 2020. Regardless of product, service or geography, all businesses were impacted by the pandemic. Customers’ needs changed greatly since the way they worked, studied, shopped or spent their leisure time all changed. As customers’ needs changed, their relationships with brands changed too. People began choosing brands that offered value and convenience and were easily available. Online companies, especially ecommerce, drove most of the engagements with customers. Consumers began expecting other companies to match the customer experience levels provided by these tech companies.

In fact, a survey done by Zendesk in 2021 revealed about half the respondents felt customer experience was more important to them than it was a year ago. Nearly 65% of the consumers preferred companies that offer quick and convenient online transactions. And 75% are willing to spend more for a better customer experience. Customers now demand a high level experience across whatever channel or mode they use to access a retailer. According to research conducted by PWC, almost 80% of companies have invested in an omnichannel experience.

While companies are investing more in tools and technology to help them provide a better customer experience, most of them continue to rely on survey-based systems that have been used for many years. However, companies have begun to realize that survey-based CX systems do not provide enough information to base strategies and tactics on. Moreover, surveys do not give companies a way to measure CX or identify opportunities. Nor do they clearly indicate the root cause of customer dissatisfaction.

However, some companies have chosen to go beyond surveys. Companies have access to huge amounts of data about their customers that can be used to predict individual customer behavior. These include personal, financial and operational data. Companies are also beginning to use machine learning algorithms to predict customer satisfaction and values such as revenue, loyalty and cost to serve for each customer. Select customer information is shared with employees at different points in the customer journey, including customer-facing employees, so that they can provide a more individualized customer experience as well as iron out any problems through swift action.

Omnichannel Service: Many retailers adopted omnichannel service as the pandemic began. Across the World, omnichannel service such as ecommerce, Buy Online Pick up In Store and curbside delivery have seen quick adoption by customers who are hesitant to buy from stores like they used to. Caratlane, an omnichannel jewellery retailer in India, was a well-established ecommerce retailer before Covid-19 struck. The retailer already had a number of experience centres across the country that catered to the desire of customers to try out jewellery before they bought it. To overcome the hesitancy of customers to come to the experience centres, Caratlane began offering their customers the option to try the jewelley at home without any commitments. Try@Home has quickly become a popular service. In areas where the service is not available, Caratlane offers an online live video demonstration.

Companies that invested in CX initiatives, such as omnichannel service, as a reaction to the pandemic will find that their staff and processes have got accustomed to providing the service. Customers will still choose companies that offer them a combination of physical stores, e-commerce and door delivery. However, in order to offer a better customer experience,  companies will need to invest in technology in areas such as self-service, self-checkout, traffic management and customer complaint management.

Hyper-personalization: Companies can no longer wait for customers to come to them with their requests and complaints. Many companies are using the data already available to them through their websites or loyalty programmes to deliver hyper-personalized marketing campaigns. Prominent among these companies are Amazon, Netflix, Starbucks and Spotify that use the data they have to suggest products and content that the customer would like. Other companies are using the data with the permission of their social media followers to deliver social media campaigns that are hyper-personalized. Chocolate maker, Cadbury, used photographs and videos from their fans to create hyper-personalized gift ideas for them.

Chatbots and AI: Customers are already communicating about your company on online forums, review sites and social media. Today’s customer is more likely to voice his or her complaint on social media than pick up a phone and call a customer service representative. There are AI based customer listening solutions today that not only detect every instance that your brand is mentioned in social media but also differentiates between your brand name and its generic equivalent (for example, if your brand is Apple). Godrej Group, a 125 year old personal care to aerospace multinational group from India, actively uses social media listening to quickly identify issues, escalate them to the necessary department and resolve them within 24 hours or less.

Traditional IVR based systems have their drawbacks. Usually customer waiting time is big and there are limitations to adding more call agents. Not only do AI based chatbots make the problem resolution process smoother they also reduce the cost of providing 24/7 customer service. Chatbots can also be incorporated with IVR systems. Customers can either choose to interact with the bot to begin with or the bot can be provided as an alternative if the IVR waiting time is more and in case the bot cannot solve the issue, it can be moved to the live agent. For example, a European telco employed a chatbot in a pilot program on a set of common customer queries. The bot resolved 82% of interactions by itself. This number rose to 88% of interactions when combined with live intervention by a human agent. This level of performance was reached with only a few weeks of training the chatbot.

In fact AI can actively listen to mentions of a company’s brand name and route complaints according to the sentiment. For example, if an angry customer posts a bad review, AI can detect it, open a ticket and route it to an agent who will be able to handle it better than a bot.

CX for B2B Companies: The pandemic has forced many B2B buyers to shift from conventional in-person sales contact to remote human interactions and digital self-serve. Even when economies opened up gradually, the number of B2B customers who chose remote interactions and digital services did not fall much. A study by McKinsey in February 2021 found that even for critical stages like identifying and evaluating new suppliers, almost two-thirds of B2B buyers preferred remote human interactions and digital self-service.

As remote and online services become more popular amongst B2B customers, companies will begin to pay more importance to their B2B Customer Experience. As with B2C companies, companies should first pay attention to the Voice of the Customer. This can be  complaints that customers lodge with the company, conversations with call agents, discussions on social media.

The Way Ahead: The success of brands and companies in the future will depend on how prepared they are for the customer of the future. This means preparing the people, processes and technology to deliver the customer experiences that will be in demand in the future. One major prerequisite is that customer-centricity is the driving philosophy of the company and that CX is not owned by any one department but is the collective responsibility of all departments. The responsibility for a superlative customer experience should not rest with the marketing department alone but should be driven by the company’s top leadership.

The next requirement is to take stock of the technology on the company. What data does the company have on it customers at present, who manages it, what analytics does the company do on the data and how are the results applied. These are answers that companies must answer before going ahead.

Data allows companies to join the dots and complete the picture on its customer. Understanding the customer is imperative and the same data is shared with all departments involved in the customer experience. Without consistency in data it is impossible for employees across the organization to present a consistent experience to the customer.

Build a human connection. While technology assists in creating the link with customers what binds brands to customers is the human touch. Technology frees marketing to focus on building brand stories and creating a customer connect. Brand authenticity is driven by the message, the brand’s tone of voice and its visual imagery. All these require human intelligence and creativity. Technology and AI plays a supporting role.

Be willing to continue to change and innovate quickly. Recent events have demonstrated the need for agility in delivering customer experience. Whether it is in moving contact centres to a work-from-home scenario or whether it is customers moving from offline to online. In future too, companies will need to be willing to adapt quickly. Sudden and rapid change is now more the norm than the exception. Companies will have to predict what their customers may want a decade from today. Not all companies will get everything right but as we have seen being shortsighted is a strategic risk for any organization.

First Published in the International Marketing Review, July 2021.

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