The pandemic has dramatically redefined how we live, work, play and interact with each other. Our daily routines, relationships of all stripes, simple indulgences, even our personal hygiene have been upended. No one really knows if this will turn out to be a seismic interruption of some duration after which life slowly returns to BC (Before COVID) or if “normal” has been indelibly altered.
Regardless of what tomorrow looks like, one thing remains unchanged: the underlying rationale for focusing on Customer Experience.
CX is a business strategy rooted in the proven premise that the experiences a customer enjoys (or endures) today will affect their relationship with and behavior towards a firm tomorrow. It is incumbent upon the firm to deliver those experiences that motivate the customer behaviors that create value for the company, while minimizing the likelihood of customer behaviors that destroy value.
Same Game, Different Rules
While the objectives behind CX remain unshaken, the context, the operating environment has been shaken to its core by the pandemic shock waves.
1. All modern economies are consumer driven and, mostly, decentralized. That is, customers have options and create business winners and losers by the choices they make. The concept of consumer “choice” has new meaning, however, when the unemployment rate is the highest it has been in 90-some-odd years. No one working today was in the work force the last time the US saw similar levels of unemployment (as well as underemployment).
2. For those fortunate enough to be employed, spending patterns have been disrupted: savings rates have climbed sharply, while discretionary spending is down. This household fiscal conservatism may be prudent financial management, but it isn’t a very good way to reignite the economy and boost business.
3. Distribution channels have been broken, disrupted and redefined. Both the supply chain into the firm from its suppliers and the outbound channels have been affected.
4. Employees are frenzied, almost apoplectic. To say that employees are worried and treading water in a sea of uncertainty would be an understatement. They are trying to navigate between and cope with the lesser of two evils, the dual threat to their family’s health, on the one hand, and their economic well-being, on the other.
5. Customer experience delivery systems have been upended, redefined or taxed to breaking. For most firms, their employees were their CX delivery system. The in-person dimension is just beginning to come back on-stream, albeit in new ways. Phone, chat and video conferencing have catapulted in importance, but we just don’t know how this will affect customer relationships over time.
Digital solutions certainly saved the day for many companies – the more digitally prepared a company was going into this mess, the more likely they were to not see a serious disruption in the experiences they delivered. Virtually every firm has seen its customer touchpoints and journeys disrupted, redefined and pushed to their limit.
6. Customers are frustrated: some want to return to life Before COVID as quickly as possible and are impatient for the world to reopen. Others are reluctant to jump back in too quickly. All are faced with an environment where the economic, health and familial issues are compounded by political dimensions that color everything.
The To-Do List
Companies need to focus on those challenges that most affect them and where they can have an impact.
Employees are front and center. It will be a Buyer’s employment market for years to come, with plenty of “warm bodies” to hire – but attracting and retaining the right talent will require a reciprocal bond of trust between employee and employer. Companies need to understand and empathize, in both words and deeds, and smooth the transition back to a new working normal.
• Make sure you involve employees in the process of re-acclimation to whatever the new normal becomes. Ask for and respond to their input . . . then ask again, and again, and yet again.
• Companies must make their employees feel safe. This will, at some point, inevitably lead to a conflict with a customer who is, shall we say, is a bit more cavalier in their attitude and behavior regarding the pandemic and health risks: the customer may be royalty, but the firm must support their employees in their efforts to protect their safety.
There has been a secular shift away from in-person experiences to experiences delivered remotely. For the most part, customer have been understanding of the challenges companies faced in shifting to all remote interactions, but the digital and electronic world make shopping around and switching easier. When the smoke clears, companies will need to be more nimble than ever in delivering experiences where, when and how customers feel most comfortable – and that location, time and mode of interaction are likely to evolve over time, especially if there is a second wave.
Ultimately, of course, it’s about the customer and how to meet their needs and expectations. Let me offer three suggestions.
• First, assume that all prior measurements and key driver models need to be revalidated and/or updated and regularly monitored until we come out of the other end of the tunnel. If nothing else, you will need to add new items to measure around health and safety and gauge their impact on customer experiences and loyalty.
• Second, borrow a page from the scientists and the way public health experts and policy makers have responded to the pandemic: take a data-driven approach to decision making. All of us have heard people wax on about the pandemic numbers, the shape of the curve and the latest predictions. Yes, the data changes and the models evolve, but they are the only sound criteria for decision making.
• Finally, this is a perfect scenario for what we at Confirmit refer to as VoC/E: augmenting your VoC work with direct input from employees regarding how to redress customer experience problems and shortfalls. When customers flag a performance failure or disappointment, mobilize employee input for possible solutions. This is a great way to generate ideas for how to respond to changing customer needs and concerns and actively involve employees to both improve the customer experience and boost employee engagement at the same time.
The business imperative for CX may be the same, but the environment presents a host of new challenges demanding attention. Companies need to respond smartly.