In a matter of months, the COVID-19 pandemic has altered all that we know about customer experience. The rapid and continuous changes happening on a daily basis have left some of the biggest companies worldwide struggling to find ways to cope. Who would have thought that Louis Vuitton and Channel would someday be manufacturing and distributing medical face-masks? Or that instead of buying cosmetics and perfume from Garnier and Bulgari, you would buy their newly produced hand-sanitizers? As medical protection gear become the new fashion trend of 2020, and healthcare professionals finally receive their well-deserved title of true heroes, it is time for businesses to accept that radical change will accompany this pandemic and last beyond it. Ideas group (ig) team delivered a webinar on April 30th, 2020 to address the topic of innovation in customer experience, and how this can assist businesses during and after COVID-19. The three main points tackled were:
  1. Focusing on Fundamentals: Care and Connections.
  2. Building Agility and Innovation Capabilities: meeting your customers where they are today.
  3. Re-imagining your Customer Experience for the post COVID-19 era.

Focusing on Fundamentals: Care and Connections

Care for your customers Today, more than ever, people are in need of extra information, guidance and support to navigate through uncertainties. Most of us are struggling to keep our families safe, to home-school our children, and work from home with all the distractions. When customers seek businesses today, they search for a source that is trustworthy, supportive and safe. According to PWC, 64% of customers choose to buy from socially responsible brands. This was the case before the pandemic, however, the focus on this area has increased even more. For that reason, each organization has to choose a role to play for the sake of its customers, employees and community, as this will leave them with long-lasting memories. Offering genuine support will reflect a company’s true values. For example, in the United States, when college students had to vacate their dorms in a rush due to the pandemic, a well-known storage company offered students 30 days of free storage. Companies should remember to deliver their products and services with empathy, care and concern. Care for your employees Remember how the flight attendant gives the pre-flight safety briefing? We are always asked to put on our own oxygen masks before helping others. The same goes for organizations. Some companies have led with employees in mind. For example, in his letter addressed to employees worldwide, Nestle CEO Mark Schneider first shared his fears as a husband, father and colleague. He then thanked front liners for all their efforts, and reminded everyone of the company’s values: resilience, courage and family spirit. He also asked everyone to take care of their community and expressed his hope in the future without setting any false expectations. Many companies worldwide, such as Danone KSA, have pledged to continue paying hourly workers at their regular rate, even if they need to remain at home due to illness or store closures. On the other hand, in companies that are still fully operational, employers are providing new tools, trainings and support to help employees deliver superior customer experience in this new environment. Care for your community Today’s industry leaders have demonstrated that genuine care should extend beyond the immediate customer base. Italian companies such as Armani, Moncler and Ferrero have donated hundreds of millions of Euros to local hospitals to combat the virus spread. Luxury-goods companies such as Garnier, Bulgari and Menarini have refitted cosmetics and perfume production to help produce hand sanitizer while Louis Vuitton and Chanel shifted to producing face masks for European municipalities to distribute to their citizens. Other fashion brands produced protection gears for the healthcare teams. On the other hand, remote conferencing services companies such as Microsoft, who are already benefiting from the shift to virtual meetings, have provided free video conferencing platforms for ministries of education and schools. Today, consumers have a wider range of choices and channels. In such an environment, the simple and integrated solutions focused on the fundamental core values of the company, will win the loyalty of the consumer. The golden rule is to build trust and foster relationships with your customers during the pandemic.

Building Agility and Innovation Capabilities: meeting your customers where they are today

Who could have imagined that simple tasks such as a trip to the grocery store or a dinner with a friend will become difficult, risky or even prohibited? Demand patterns have shifted overnight where digital options started and will continue to grow in popularity from now and onward. Accelerate digital options The disruption caused by COVID-19 has accelerated digital adoption across several industries making companies’ previous transformation strategies obsolete in a matter of weeks. In order to ensure continuity, the only option is to speed up the digital transformation and pivot core activities by trying the “Do it at Home” approach. It’s important to offer digital value-added services such as advice and education tips. If you already are digital, you can make selected services such as trial or downloads free to help your existing customers and to broaden your reach to a new audience. Fitness companies are a good example. They are deploying this strategy through extended free trials for their online and application-based classes, where application downloads and new sign-ups have grown from 80% at the beginning of the lock-down to more than 250% in recent months. Adapting to the digital demand is not affected by the company size or expertise: While some leading companies, such as Amazon, are struggling to process and fulfill the surge in orders, tech-enabled businesses were able to move at speed, such as the Indian food-tech Zomato, which used its platform to work with grocery start-ups and help meet surging online-order demand. We need to be aware that it is most likely that many customers who have converted to digital services will stick to them after the crisis is over. Bring your business to customers’ homes Due to this pandemic, home delivery has gone from being a convenience to becoming a necessity.  A hotel booking agency in Netherland (HomeSuiteHome.co), for example, is offering a complete hotel experience in the comfort of your own home. “The Most Homely Hotel Stay You Will Ever Experience” says their ad. The package includes a remote concert, a concierge service and a curated box with local products. Some fresh meal delivery start-ups have experienced a monthly demand boost of 25% and are experimenting with bulk versions of their offering. In the gulf region, Etihad Airways is delivering boxes with fresh ingredients and the recipe to their VIP clients to cook “Iftar” at home. They are also offering ready-made meals for people affected by the pandemic as part of their community service. In some countries, home delivery options have expanded beyond food:  pharmacies are offering free trials on their prescription delivery service and some car dealerships are offering to pick up and drop off vehicles that need repair or maintenance. Make physical operations touch-free As we are shifting to a low-touch economy, organizations need to consider converting the customers’ journey from a physical channel to a contactless operation. This is why Walgreens, for instance, has introduced a drive-through shopping experience. Even grocery chains and pharmacies who have kept their physical stores open to shoppers, are adding safety measures such as plexiglass “sneeze guards” at every cash register to protect customers and employees. Keep a real-time pulse on changing customer preferences Maintaining a strong customer experience during a crisis requires being customer-centric through staying updated on the new market dynamics and arising customer needs, and using agile innovation to address them. We need to keep a real-time pulse on the fluctuating customer preferences. As these conditions can vary frequently, the quick and novel way to get this pulse is social media: In Italy for example, since the beginning of the crisis, Facebook has seen almost 50% increase in usage. While traditional customer insights techniques, such as surveys, often have an 18- to 24-day lag between launch and results readout, social media insights offer an opportunity to rapidly understand consumer sentiment and develop new ideas. Listen to your employees Front-line employees are a company’s eyes and ears on the ground. Seek and collect employee feedback: it will help you determine how customers are feeling and how daily interactions are changing.  Communicate with them. Be transparent, empathetic, and supportive and empower them by trusting their judgment. Adopt agile innovation The sooner companies can fulfill new consumer needs during this time, the better off both will be. This often means: accelerating the marketing of new customer experiences, rapidly prototyping and adjusting, and releasing innovations in their “minimum viable” state, rather than waiting to perfect them. Don’t be afraid of adopting a “trial and error” strategy. Companies need to build agility across functions to handle new circumstances. This strategy will have long-lasting benefits. However, don’t assume that your customers will automatically migrate to existing digital and remote platforms. You need to actually raise awareness and support the adoption of these experiences. You need to adopt an approached filled with thoughtfulness and this will require a customer-centric mindset where the focus is on delivering the best solution.

Re-imagining your Customer Experience for the post COVID-19 Era

In mid-February, McKinsey surveyed 1,250 participants across 46 cities in China and found out that there has been a 55% increase in consumers intending to permanently shift to online grocery shopping, and an increase of 6 percentage points in overall e-commerce penetration in the aftermath of COVID-19. This shows us that a lot of the new trends resulting from this pandemic could continue beyond it and become the new normal. So how can you re-design your customer experience for the post COVID-19 era? Find savings without sacrificing experience Once the public health crisis subsides, economic impacts worldwide will persist and cutting costs will unfortunately linger. But this does not have to come at the expense of a good customer experience which can create significant value. One of the ways to improve both experience and efficiency simultaneously is to increase digital self-service and to make smarter operational trade-offs focusing on what matters most to customers. Typical modules are the E-banking and E-commerce. Keep in mind that teams in digital channels can adopt a customer-centric mindset in any cost-cutting exercise such as self-service channels, simplifying the product portfolio or even optimizing self-service agreements. Re-imagine your brick-and-mortar strategy Brick and mortar refers to a physical presence of an organization or business in a building or other structure. When physical stores re-open, the world of brick and mortar may be fundamentally different as more customers including the rural and older crowd will have grown comfortable with digital, remote and low-touch options. Companies should re-examine the role that physical locations will play. Shopping trends such as “buy online, pickup in store” will increase. Some locations may be converted to “dark stores” for fulfillment only. So what will the real role of your physical stores be? A hub? A pick up address? A gallery? One thing is sure, post COVID-19, traffic will not be the same. Therefore, it is now crucial to plan how to capture this potentially lost volume. Re-invent the way you do business The biggest mistake companies fall into is being trapped in the way they do business, especially when hit with drastic changes like the ones resulting from this pandemic. The tough part is to be able to re-invent the way they do business without losing the value proposition. A well-known example of continuous reinvention is Netflix, which evolved from renting DVDs to streaming entertainment based on monthly subscription to creating its own content. Companies must be open to radical reinvention to find new significant and sustainable sources of revenue. Incremental adjustments or building something new outside of the core business can provide real benefits and, in many cases, are an essential first step for a digital transformation. Simply taking an existing product line and putting it on an e-commerce site or digitizing a customer experience is not a digital reinvention.  Reinvention is rethinking the business itself without losing the core value proposition. For many companies, the only option is to accelerate their digital transformation. That means moving from active experimentation to active expansion improved through customers’ feedback. As Mark McCormack once said: “You don’t need to reinvent the wheel, just attach it to a new wagon.” In conclusion, this is a time for companies to look ahead to the future. To survive post COVID-19 where customer experience has adopted a new definition and dimension, you should care, innovate and anticipate the changing customer habits. Let customers know how important they are by keeping their interest first and foremost. By tackling which fundamental shifts are here to stay, how they will turn industries upside down and which strategic options will enhance customer experience, you will be rewarded by customer loyalty and trust. How will you reinvent your business to cater to your customers’ new habits? Will you keep or re-evaluate your value proposition? Below are some questions and answers that were discussed during our webinar.
  1. My company doesn’t have the financial resources to invest in an online platform, what should I do?
The beauty of technology nowadays is that there are a lot of well-established third party applications that you can use, such as Zomato, Toters and OpenTable, that will not cost you anything upfront. If you want to do it yourself you can receive orders via WhatsApp or a dedicated page on your website or social media. On a later stage, when your online business is well established and starts generating money, you can either stay with the third party or invest in a dedicated platform or application.
  1. Employees are tired and insecure. How can I still ask them to be in a customer service mood?
I always tell customer experience associates: you need to think of your shift as a play. Yes we are actors. We need to leave our worries and private issues at the door, enter the scene, perform and leave! The second player is you, the managers: you need to take care of your employees, talk to them, know more about their fears and the uncertainties they are going through. Remember, we don’t all cope the same with change. Be present and motivate them.
  1. Are there certain focus groups I can rely on? Which ones do you suggest?
Yes, there are a lot of online communities and support groups you can join, in addition to webinars and online articles and reports. We at ig also offer support through our online webinars and services.
  1. I work at a bank, how can I deliver my services online?
Today, the switch to e-banking has become inevitable. Dubai and KSA for example are already there; you don’t need to go to the bank to do transactions. Your bank visits are limited to two to three times a year to sign required documents, renew your account, etc. but everything else is done online. The customer experience can be performed online through a virtual platform or by phone.
  1. How can I motivate my employees to focus on customer service?
Make sure that your employees know that customer centricity is the only way to survive and thrive after the pandemic. By explaining this point to the employees, you are clarifying the “why” behind this initiative. Being transparent and keeping employees informed will help boost their involvement and motivation.
  1. Some employees are resistant to the change and switch to online services, how can I deal with that?
There are three kinds of people: the people who will adhere to the change from the beginning and will help pioneer it, the followers who will go with the flow, and the change-resistant people. Usually, for those who are resistant to change, it’s important to clarify what’s in it for them if they choose to adopt this change. If they understand and adhere, it’s great, if not, you have to continue with the process as is, until they witness the benefits on their own and follow through. If you are interested in checking the recording of our webinar, click on the following link and insert the password 1a+9^3!X: https://us02web.zoom.us/rec/share/3t5LM6v3zmRJQImUykCGWrEHM424X6a80yYb_qBfyRmA8LuNKQIWd4uRUlSnXtJc  

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