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Customer experience market made leap forward during pandemic

The discipline of customer experience management made significant advances during the Covid-19 crisis, according to practitioners and advocates

Last year’s pandemic-driven crisis led to a huge leap forward by organisations that had already invested in improving the customer experience (CX), with many of them moving beyond simply gathering customer insights to adopt new, more sophisticated approaches.

Bruce Temkin, head of Qualtrics XM (experience management) Institute, points out: “Last year was extremely important in accelerating customer experience. In fact, the discipline went through a metamorphosis that ultimately will be very good for its long-term evolution.”

For example, one large credit card company began using its CX systems beyond just tracking ongoing customer scenarios, but also to actively support and underpin its decision-making activities. To this end, executives started holding weekly meetings to discuss what was changing and how best to respond – a schedule that has since eased but has remained regular.

An Australian local government organisation, meanwhile, used its CX capability to inform affected citizens about a Covid outbreak following the arrival of the Ruby Princess cruise ship in Sydney in March 2020, an interaction that included what to do and where to get medical help. It also created workflows to make it easier for people to see a doctor quickly and connect to relevant services in order to access everything from food and prescription medicine deliveries to mental health support.

“It used CX not just to obtain feedback from citizens, but also to use the insights about what they were thinking and feeling in the moment to trigger workflows,” says Temkin.

A third, relatively widespread use of CX has been the reapplication of its principles to an employee experience (EX) context for workforce management purposes. Examples include using CX systems to understand whether staff had the right tech set-up in place during lockdown, whether they were starting to experience burnout, and whether they needed to quarantine because of Covid symptoms.

“Large organisations with a CX effort have the ability to understand how a customer is thinking and feeling and what is working or not in general terms, so they can take the information and act on it,” says Temkin. “It’s the same thing applied to the employee experience – it’s just that the platform and processes used when dealing with customers are applied to employees.”

Another key change has been the shift from digital being just one component of CX to becoming a core element of it – or as Temkin puts it: “Digital was the side door, but now it’s become the front door.”

Read more about customer experience software

Before the pandemic, digital was “still fairly early on in its evolution”, he says, which meant that although most companies had something in place, a commitment to it being a key means of reaching customers was low, a situation that Covid has now forced. As a result, using customer insights to create a better digital experience has become an important focus.

For example, over the year ahead, Temkin expects to see a growing use of “leading indicators” to help spot trends or issues early before they hit the mainstream, based on input from a small segment of customers. The aim in employing such indicators is to neither miss a potential opportunity nor be in the position of having to deal with problems once they have snowballed.

Another growing trend will be the use of sophisticated “preference analytics” tools to decipher customers’ choices and understand how they come to make decisions in order to anticipate their requirements.

Two other areas that organisations have also been concentrating, says Herb van der Raad, director of strategy and consulting at Wunderman Thompson Technology, are extending the “reach” and “ease and convenience” of their digital interactions.

In the first instance, the focus has been on engaging consistently and cost-effectively with customers over multiple channels, ranging from email to social media. The second has been about dealing with basic hygiene factors, such as speed, performance and providing easy ways to complete transactions, particularly in an e-commerce context.

Here are two companies whose investments in CX have enabled them to thrive even during difficult times in the pandemic.

Case study: Butternut Box

At times of high stress, such as lockdown, people start attaching even more importance than usual to their close relationships, which includes their pets.

As a result, when the time came for Butternut Box, which provides a tailored fresh dog food delivery service, to upgrade its customer service system last year, the focus was on moving away from resolving individual queries towards understanding its clients better and building a more personal relationship with them.

Harriett Treadwell, the online company’s head of customer love, says: “It’s our mission to ensure the health and happiness of as many dogs as possible by learning what our customers want and understanding their pain points so we can do something about them. It’s also about value enhancement by enabling personal communication and connection with the customer.”

To this end, Butternut Box opted for Dixa’s cloud-based system, which enables customer service staff to handle phone, email, messaging and chat using an integrated front end. The offering, which was rolled out in November, was also integrated with the firm’s back-end customer relationship management (CRM) system and quality assurance applications to ensure consistent service quality.

One of the software’s biggest advantages, says Treadwell, is the ability to add up to 350 tags to customer conversation-based information, indicating, for example, what their query was about and what action was taken. It then becomes possible to see how many times a given query has occurred and how much time has been spent in responding to it, thereby enabling the situation to be dealt with before it becomes a problem.

Using data to make changes in the moment

“It’s about being able to move quickly on the data – because it’s real-time, you are able to make decisions swiftly and make changes in the moment,” says Treadwell. “For example, you can see if response times have increased on a particular channel, so if the wait on phones rises to over a minute, people can be moved around to deal with it.”

But the system is only one element of the five-year-old firm’s wider CX strategy, which is made possible by proactive communications between department heads about any issues taking place in their functions that could affect customer satisfaction. A weekly management meeting is also used as a forum to provide updates and discuss the CX situation, which Treadwell is always careful to back up with data.

“Some customer experience teams go in with anecdotal and qualitative feedback, but it’s important to complement it with quantitative feedback too,” she says. “So, for example, if you look at the time it’s taking to deal with a particular customer issue and multiply that by an employee’s pay rate, you can say this one issue is costing the business this much per week in terms of time spent.”

But Treadwell also acknowledges that, while many organisations see customer service teams as simply a cost, the other heads of department at Butternut Box are “very invested in customer experience”.

“Customer love is a huge source of information that’s a value point for the business and if you deliver exceptional service, you get more customers and they’ll stay for longer,” she says. “So it’s actually a value enhancement for the business, rather than a cost.”

Case study: Biffa

Biffa’s timely response to changing customer behaviour meant it was well on the way to enabling small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) to buy services online when lockdown struck for the first time last year.

The waste management specialist had recognised that business-to-business customers were starting to require a more consumer-grade, online experience on top of existing field and telesales support. So it started its initiative to introduce an e-commerce-based customer portal to accommodate the shift in January 2020.

Naomi West, the firm’s head of digital marketing, says: “We’ve got five business pillars and the first one is about choice and being easy to do business with, and e-commerce plays into that. So it’s not about taking away customer choice – it’s about providing people with an additional channel from which they can buy waste services quickly and easily.”

But in an industry that has not embraced digitisation very widely to date, there was some initial caution internally. “No one else on the market does this kind of thing at any scale or offers a true end-to-end contract process, but it was a nice challenge to have,” says West.

The system, which went live last October, is based on Sitecore’s CX management software and a Microsoft stack, while consultancy Delete worked on the site’s user interface and experience front end. The customer journey itself for ordering services relating to things like general and food waste was mapped by both operational and project personnel, before being automated and integrated with a number of third-party customer-based systems.

New business in a new world

The idea is for the customer portal to enable SMEs to purchase lower-value, straightforward contracts without intervention, if they desire, while the role of telesales and field sales staff is to handle more complex queries and explanations, as well as deals that require more of a consultancy-based sell.

As a result, says West, lockdown “definitely brought us new customers”, not only because small business owners are no longer confined to office hours to make a purchase as the service is online, but the process has also been speeded up considerably. The new system has also led to a number of customers spending more on service options than they would in the past by simply buying individual products.

“If the world had been as it was, the system would have been slower to prove itself,” says West. “But it has worked, so we’re accelerating some of our plans.”

Using data gleaned from interactions, the aim is to provide customers with more tailored propositions in future. For example, while pricing is currently based on how many bins need collecting from where, in future it could be expanded to include different service levels, such as online self-service only, online plus telephone support and so on, in a comparable fashion to car insurance sites.

Other services that are also under development include the processing and disposing of pre-packaged hazardous waste, such as batteries, mobile phones and florescent light bulbs.

“There are many ways you can leverage technology to offer a better customer experience,” says West. “Having data to understand the different drivers behind different customer segments makes it so much easier to provide a tailored offer, as you can really understand what they need.”

Read more on Customer relationship management (CRM)

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