Customer experience programs take different forms across organizations. Their scope and responsibilities can vary from only gathering and reporting customer insights to managing all customer-facing areas. Our program, like most, is somewhere in the middle with responsibilities across customer analytics, customer engagement programs, and advocacy.
And, three years ago, we were asked to take a co-lead role in planning our annual customer and partner event. This event provides an opportunity to connect with peers, learn about new solutions, engage ideas, share successes, and collaborate on best practices. In co-leading this event, we use a combination of design tools and methodologies to focus on enhancing customer interactions and driving engagement. In short, we viewed the event from the customer’s perspective and helped the other planning team members do the same.
Annual Conference Goes Virtual
Like many organizations hosting onsite events this year, we were faced with making the difficult decision about whether to hold Engage, our annual customer and partner event in May, due to the onset of COVID-19. After careful consideration and prioritizing the safety of our customers and employees, the executive team decided to postpone the onsite conference scheduled in Dallas and provide a virtual event.
Our event and marketing teams certainly felt like they were entering uncharted waters in planning the first virtual event of its kind for our company. We maintained the goals to design the experience so we could connect one-on-one with our customers, gather feedback, and provide the deep product education that they anticipated each year. But I had serious concerns about whether we could achieve those goals and provide a truly engaging experience in this type of format.
Once the decision was made to move forward with the virtual event—one that was intentionally much smaller in size and scope than Engage—the team had approximately two months to make it happen. The process began with researching virtual event providers. We selected a flexible digital platform that we customized from the user interface to branding and everything in between. But that was just the beginning. Our event and marketing teams moved mountains in the few weeks following including:
- Establishing event goals and project team
- Developing the agenda and project plan
- Enlisting customers to participate in sessions
- Developing online and session content
- Recording and uploading the presentations within the environment
- Providing our customer advisory board with a sneak preview of the event for feedback
- Developing and executing marketing, social and PR plans
I’ve said it before, “In CX, the mission stays the same, it’s the tactics that change,” and this situation wasn’t any different. Verint had never produced a virtual event of this kind before so a strategic and focused approach was needed to ensure we provided the customer experience our attendees came to expect. My concerns about going virtual remained. I couldn’t see a path where we could produce an interactive environment that would encourage the two-way communication and engagement that was essential for an event experience. However, I was quickly convinced once I saw how committed our team was to provide our customers with relevant content and a chance to connect. We came up with several strategies that shaped the outcome of the event:
- Building in two-way communication channels into every element that would allow us to connect with our customers in a meaningful and helpful way (chat rooms throughout the online event environment, live sessions/Q&A’s, forums, happy hour, etc.).
- Developing a new, highly visible awards video where we could recognize our customers for their accomplishments instead of the annual elaborate awards gala.
- Creating awareness of the Verint Elevate customer experience and advocacy program through interactive activities, strengthening and building relationships through engagement.
This virtual event had a happy ending! It attracted thousands of registrants over two days with global representation from more than 70 countries. Many of our best customers shared their amazing success stories.
Back to the engagement strategy. In terms of our annual awards and recognition, we typically hold an extravagant event acknowledging the winners with an awards ceremony, dinner and gala, where they are recognized for their achievements by our executive management, given crystal awards and announced in a press release. Additionally, all award winners are featured on stage the following day during the general session to further trumpet their achievements and success.
Unfortunately, there was no stage, bright lights or ballroom full of colleagues dressed to the nines. Initially, we had decided to forego awards in the virtual format. But we weren’t comfortable with that decision for very long. We wanted to recognize our customers’ hard work over the past year, regardless of format.
So, we scheduled live conference calls with the winners in advance of the event to surprise them and captured their reactions to the news in this video. All the pomp and circumstance in the world can’t measure up to the genuine and heartfelt appreciation that radiated from the winners at Navy Federal Credit Union, U-Haul, and Vera Bradley. The video was front and center on the event’s online plaza when the conference opened and was included in the press release announcing the winners.
Staffing was also key to our strategy. Much like our in-person event, we had staff assigned to each area of the conference. They were designated with a star next to their names so customers would know who to ask their questions. Some customers interacted similarly to the in-person conference where they found people they knew and struck up a conversation!
Finally, we recognized that many of our customers have attended the conference for years and look forward to seeing each other at each event. So we created a Customer Zone area where advocates could meet and chat with each other, enter a few contests, or recruit other interested customers into the Advocacy Program. It was an area to relax and meet old and new friends.
Keys to Success
While we’re still collecting feedback from attendees, the event was a true success based on registration numbers, session attendance, survey results, and comments we have received to date. For example, 90% of the customers were highly satisfied with the online format and 81% indicated they would participate in future virtual events. Perhaps the comments tell us even more:
“I was glad that Verint was able to come up with a solution to the travel restrictions during Covid-19 so quickly to still be able to hold this conference. We were all looking forward to it and are glad we’re still able to participate. Thank you!”
“I and many of my co-workers were able to attend this year because it was virtual. I am thrilled we had the opportunity and hope you will consider this format in some manner next year.”
“I love that we can still connect with our friends at Verint as well as with other customers.”
What were the keys to success? Empathy, strong content, and fun. Empathy was woven into the entire process. We put ourselves in our customers’ shoes and saw to it that their needs would be met. Our leadership team made sure that team members were on the same mission of putting the customer first in every aspect of producing the event from registration to navigation through the event environment.
We offered on-demand sessions so customers who couldn’t attend the live event in its entirety could access the content at a time that was convenient for them. The virtual event also allowed customers to bring full teams to divide and conquer. This usually isn’t possible for most customers when attending an onsite event due to travel and hotel costs.
The customer relationships that we already had in place also contributed to our success, which led to quality presentations that everyone could learn from. That’s a direct result of our CX program, the strong relationships we have with customers paved the way to their willingness to share their expertise with others.
Finally, we infused fun into the event through games, prizes, and forums, which attendees told us created a welcome distraction.
Lessons Learned and Words of Advice
As this was our maiden voyage with a virtual event, there were definitely some lessons learned:
- Build enough time into the project timeline to allow thorough planning, including feedback from select customers so they can advise on how to improve the overall virtual experience. Our planning time of two months did not allow time for more than the basics. Having even four additional weeks would have allowed us to include customers in the design and planning.
- Bring the most customer-centric people on your internal teams to the planning table. It takes creativity and relentless dedication to the customer experience to design a memorable conference in this format. However, the challenge was keeping all the teams informed so they could provide a connected customer experience while they were feverishly working towards deadlines. We had weekly committee meetings, but we learned that the meetings needed to be more frequent to keep everyone informed and aligned.
- Don’t try to completely recreate your onsite event because some elements won’t translate to the virtual environment. For example, we sponsor networking groups at our conference where customers can discuss common topics. At the same time, be creative and, for events that are important to customers (e.g. Awards) be creative and find a way to make them work in the format.
- Keep the event content focused and provide flawless navigation. Don’t overload it with too many elements or sessions. This will overwhelm attendees who have limited time. Also, provide an easy way for customers to find the sessions they are most interested in seeing. Our agenda contained a series of on-demand and live events and, if we were to do this again, we’d tag the events more clearly so attendees could plan their schedules.
I am really proud of what we accomplished—how we listened, responded, and delivered on our promise to customers in a new way with this event. We didn’t want to wait a full year to connect and engage with them, but we also understood that they were going to attend as their work and personal schedules would allow. While we ventured into this event thinking that a virtual conference was an interesting alternative to the in-person conference, we are now thinking of it as a powerful tool that can be used in conjunction with an in-person event.
With a dedicated team in place that is laser-focused on the common mission of developing customers for life, a virtual event can be a collaborative and engaging experience. And while planning the virtual customer experience has its challenges, it is one more way to engage customers and strengthen relationships to deliver on a collaborative and engaging experience that bridges the gap until the next time you can gather together in-person.