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How companies are rethinking digital customer experience in wake of pandemic

The Covid-19 pandemic has exposed much digital rhetoric as hollow, as companies are now rethinking the digital customer experience, leveraging instant messaging and other tools

Customer service is getting worse. Many organisations failed to offer customers a positive experience during the height of the pandemic and are showing little sign of improvement as we begin taking our first steps back to normality.

According to the UK Institute of Customer Service, complaints are at the highest level since 2009. People are losing patience with Covid being given as an excuse for poor service, and the pandemic is exposing a lack of proper investment in the customer experience.

“The pandemic exposed the lie that was digital transformation,” says Alan Webber, program vice-president, customer experience at IDC. “Companies said they were really far along, and then all of a sudden we had the pandemic and you realise they’re not as far as long as they thought they were.

“We just went through the great reset when it comes to customer experience. It’s still integrating the analogue experiences that we all need and want, but it’s really about digital-first and should be across the totality of the customer journey – it isn’t just marketing or sales. A large majority of the companies out there are still in their initial steps.”

The pandemic caused many businesses to reassess their approach to customer experience. Retailers had to close physical stores and go online only; banks had to support staff working from home rather than offices; and the travel industry had to shift to customer support. Customers were changing their behaviour, their channels, their brands and suppliers. Organisations that didn’t shift their operations to meet these new customer demands soon found that even their most loyal customers had gone elsewhere.

The pandemic made it critical for teams to have constant access to customer data to serve customers better, says Suvish Viswanathan, head of European marketing and technology evangelist at India-based IT company Zoho.

The firm is seeing more demand for customer service tools with options to integrate with telephony providers, as staff teams are working in remote locations. In addition to customer data access for employees anywhere they may be working, organisations need features in digital tools to help their teams collaborate and resolve customer issues more quickly, as well as to provide proactive service and training.

Zoho has also seen a considerable rise in demand for instant messenger tools, as customers want to connect with suppliers instantly to buy new products quickly or find answers to questions instantly.

“There are new developments in instant messaging technology that help provide a better experience,” says Viswanathan.

“Bots have been around for a while, but customers are not keen to interact with scripted bots. New platforms use machine learning to train bots to respond better in ways that resonate more effectively with customers. It’s a volume game – the more the data a platform has to learn, the better the adaption will be.”

“There are new developments in instant messaging technology that help provide a better experience”
Suvish Viswanathan, Zoho

Shawbrook Bank started using Zoho’s customer relationship management (CRM), document management system and e-signing platforms to help improve its customer experience during the pandemic.

Sally Conway, senior marketing and strategy manager at Shawbrook Bank, says that when the pandemic hit, the business wanted to find a way to better support customers of its partner finance offering – the bank underwrites loans for retailers in the home improvement space.

“When we look at our partners, how we work with them changed quite radically,” says Conway. “A lot of them, being retailers, had to shut their doors. There was definitely a lack of consistency, a bit of inefficiency when it came to that area, which is where had to accelerate our digital aspirations to pull together all the data we had from the division and make sure we have this one source of truth for our B2B side of the business.

“It was so hugely stressful on the guys that couldn’t actually operate, so we needed to be as close to them as possible so we could understand what we can do as a business to support them for this period.”

Although digital transformation had been in the pipeline for years, Shawbrook Bank had to reprioritise this project in response to the pandemic. Previously, the business held a lot of data on spreadsheets and documents housed in different systems, and not everyone recorded information in the same way.

The new Zoho system ensures there is consistency across everything the bank does, turns manual processes into automated tasks, streamlines how it communicates with partners, and provides one hub of information, allowing the firm to offer a better service to customers during this challenging time.

Focusing and rethinking during the pandemic

Ed Thompson, distinguished vice-president, analyst at Gartner, says many organisations realised the need to shift their attention to customer-focused investments in response to the pandemic. He gives the example of a car manufacturer that had 50 projects planned last January as part of its transformation plans. It then whittled these down to 12 – two focused on security and 10 customer-focused – which is a common trend, says Thompson.  

The pandemic has allowed some organisations to rethink how they provide customer interactions. Thompson gives another example of a French bank that already had almost 40% of its customers using its mobile app. Since the pandemic began, that has shot up to 70%, thanks mainly to a shift in older generations switching to the app instead of visiting branches or making payments in cash during lockdowns.

The bank is now considering shutting down its website to streamline the security process, as customers already have to go through two-factor authentication with their mobile phone.

“You’re getting acceleration of decline of what were quite big channels,” says Thompson. “The interesting bit is, it’s not young, cool 25-year-olds – they changed very little, they just carried on. The most distinct group are people over 65.”

Doing well in customer experience means going to where the customer is. That does not necessarily mean offering an app – they do well for certain sectors such as banking or frequent travel, but there is little point in a life insurance company building an app. But it does mean going to where people live on the first screen of their smartphone, for example messaging services such as WhatsApp.

Airline Volaris and WhatsApp

Mexican airline Volaris started experimenting three to four years ago to see whether it should use WhatsApp as a service channel. In the first month of going live, it went from zero to 30% of customers using WhatsApp to contact inbound customer service. In response, Volaris decided to cancel its SMS product and use the money saved from the telco to invest into integrating that with WhatsApp.

A year later, Volaris decided to stop sending boarding passes through email and just use WhatsApp. By early 2020, the airline was running 81% of in- and outbound interactions via WhatsApp.

When customers do need to call, Volaris asks them to call via WhatsApp. Agents can refer back to their WhatsApp history and use that information to predict queries and resolve problems sooner. 

“That’s a high-risk thing to do, but from their standpoint, very effective,” says Thompson. “Customer satisfaction scores are higher, first-call resolution rates are better, average time to interact with the customer is better. So it costs less and the customers are happier.”

And WhatsApp looks set to grow in popularity as a customer service tool. Zendesk is also seeing a massive increase in the volumes coming in via the messaging service, so consumers are clearly expecting to use it as a support channel. It has advantages over channels such as email, which is hard to respond to because it is so free-format and is difficult to redirect to the right expert without potentially having to do an extensive diagnosis.

“This is where more structured channels like self-service are really great,” says John Walls, regional vice-president, customer success, Europe, Middle East and Africa (EMEA) at Zendesk.

“It’s only in certain scenarios – for example, in travel, it’s generally when something has gone wrong – that you want to speak to a human and be able to trust that human’s going to follow up.”

Which channels are appropriate to offer as a luxury retailer where the average transaction value is $300 are going to be very different from a food delivery organisation where the margin is so low that its needs to keep costs below 50p per order, says Walls. Although Zendesk expects huge growth in WhatsApp, whether it is appropriate depends on the particular organisation, which sector it is operating in and what the brand is within that sector.

Read more about digital customer experience

However, technology is available that can deliver huge efficiencies, both in helping customer service teams handle more contacts and helping customers serve themselves, whatever the organisation.

“Those brands that haven’t challenged themselves to answer more quickly than 48 hours per email have just missed a trick,” says Walls. “The opportunities where you can improve customer experience while reducing costs, they are there. I don’t think all organisations have got that.

“For cheaper transactions, there are certain brands that hide behind that. But you can save money and drive up customer experience.”

As well as tools such as self-service and WhatsApp, there is plenty of other technology available to help firms improve customer experience, from analytics for social media or sentiment, customer data platforms (CDPs), experience management and voice of the customer. However, although personalisation may have been a goal in the past for any of these technologies, now it is all about context, according to IDC’s Webber.

“The whole concept around personalisation completely failed,” he says. “I get mail almost every day, my name’s misspelt, stuff that doesn’t interest me. Personalisation really doesn’t work, and when you throw GDPR [General Data Protection Regulation] into it, it makes it really hard to personalise any type of experience.

“What you see is we’re moving towards contextualisation, where we contextualise the experience based on the data we get around the customer and what we know the customer has given us data-wise. You’ve got to be able to adjust your experience based on the context of the customer. The two key technologies to make that happen are the CDP and the analytics.”

Take the example of a car dealership, says Webber. When you walk in to buy a car, you’re one person, you’re one context, you have one reason. When you bring that car back three months later to get it serviced, you’re still the same person, it’s the same car, but the context is completely different.

“What you need and how you get treated needs to be different than it was in the first place,” he adds.

Although Webber says this contextualised approach will eventually be widespread, currently there are very few companies doing it. This isn’t down to a lack of technology – they simply don’t have the data and the culture isn’t there yet among most businesses to understand its importance.

But as firms like Volaris show, those organisations that are taking risks and rethinking their approach to customer experience stand to not only cut costs, but keep customers happier too.

Read more on Customer relationship management (CRM)

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