30 January 2021 officially makes it a year since the World Health Organization (WHO) declared the outbreak of COVID-19 to be a Public Health Emergency of International Concern. In the year that has passed since the declaration, the world has undergone a series of changes ranging from the unbelievable to the downright catastrophic. Individuals, families, businesses and nations have been forced to reimagine culture, livelihood, sales, travel and life in general. In this period, a number of new developments, some fleeting, others not so much, have emerged. For instance, in the summer of 2020, the news of Walmart’s potential stake in TikTok, the short form video-sharing app, made it rounds. Although one could infer that a bold partnership of such nature was imperative to abate the concerns and threats of US regulations against TikTok as traced in the New York Times, the specific interest of Walmart, US’s largest retailer, took industry experts by surprise, and left in its wake, questions around interest, intended gain, and strategy behind the possible deal.
Fast forward to mid-January 2021, barely into the new year, an unforeseen trend began making its rounds on TikTok and social media at large. Tagged the fufu challenge, the trend brought fufu, the traditional West African staple dish made from boiled and pounded starchy crops (such as cassava and yams), to the centre of the social media spotlight, with people recording videos of themselves eating fufu with accompanying soups, sparking mixed reactions. LA Times reported that #fufu videos have been watched more than 250 million times since the challenge first gained traction.
What do the COVID-19 pandemic, Walmart’s possible deal with TikTok, and the viral fufu challenge have in common?
They reflect the unpredictable and rapidly changing times we live in today. What, in effect, does today’s ever-changing environment imply for business and the world of customer experience in particular? It underscores the need for nimbleness and flexibility in business strategy and execution.
Intrinsically, customer experience cannot be separated from flexibility and change. Customers are human, and evolution is ingrained in the human experience. Therefore, businesses looking to adapt and win in these uncertain times ought to embrace and emulate the unassailable circumstance that is change, not just because it is inevitable but also because it offers new chances at growth and profitability. This prospect of yield is underlined in Walmart’s official response to inquiries around their interest in TikTok. The retail brand hinted at the advertising and e-commerce benefits a deal with TikTok presents in line with their vision to grow a third-party marketplace and offer omnichannel experiences to their customers. Notably, a rapidly growing number of US adults use TikTok, and of its 800 million users globally, 90 percent access the app on a daily basis, according to Oberlo.
Nimbleness is not a new term in business jargon. In fact, much has been said of nimbleness in corporate culture, business strategy and workplace values.
What comes to mind when nimbleness is regarded within the specific context of customer experience?
From this point of reference, a simple line does – meeting customers where they are. A nimble customer experience strategy moves in the direction of the customer and evolves as customers evolve. In this case, how then can businesses incorporate nimbleness in their customer experience strategy?
What are the sure-fire ways to ensure that a business braves shifting times and changing consumer habits?
Here are three ways, or more evidently, “Es”, that proffer guidelines using applicable case studies:
1. Expansion and Evolution
For many businesses, COVID-19 iterated the need for diversification to include digital channels of service delivery. Museums turned to virtual tours and online exhibitions. Schools and businesses shifted to online classes and work-from-home practices. These demonstrated that nimbleness in customer experience requires a readiness to expand one’s strategies, outlets and practices to cater to the market and to consumer demand.
Expansion doesn’t always call for replacement, as can be seen in the case of the resurgence of drive-in cinemas and theatres to reinforce connection and collective art consumption in a clime rife with online streaming. At its crux, expansion requires a culture and habit of willingness to alter the status quo and reimagine the typical when necessary. Sometimes, this becomes the grounds for strategic partnerships as can be seen in the collaboration between Uber and Dettol in Australia to deliver sanitary products to drivers. In other instances, expansion surfaces as an additional rung in the ladder of co-creation, as seen in the case of Airbnb, already a collaborative platform, pivoting to a fuller lifestyle offering where hosts offer virtual events ranging from cooking to meditation.
In as many ways as the need for care shone through especially during the early stages of the pandemic, the desire for entertainment as a source of pleasure, escape, and an antidote against boredom, shone just as bright. Demand for streaming services increased in this period as Forbes reported. The well-worn need for customer engagement took on a new angle, buttressing an additional need for customer entertainment. For some big brands, the infusion of entertainment in customer experience had been actualized in literal terms even before the pandemic, as in the case of the hotel giant, Marriott International which had taken on the media market through its travel magazine, TV shows and short films, thus positioning broadscale life-time value offering to customers.
Yet, with the pandemic reinforcing entertainment as an embedded experience, coupled with trends such as watch parties and recipe exchanges, it became more apparent that customer experience is moving in the direction of handy, steady entertainment. The good news is, the multiplicity of new and emerging entertainment trends goes to show that for brands willing to keep up, there isn’t a one-size-fits-all. There are diverse ways brands can go about incorporating entertainment in their customer journeys and delivery, and many of these are yet undiscovered and unexplored.
With information overload and skyrocketing individual responsibilities amidst large-scale uncertainty, the global landscape can be said to be on a swing between demanding and difficult. Ideally, no brand would want to add to existing burdens borne by their customers, hence the need for ease and simplicity across customer touchpoints, support mechanisms, and communications. According to Siegel+Gale’s annual global brand simplicity index, brands are leaving $98 billion on the table when they do not simplify; 55% of consumers willing to pay more for simpler experiences, and 64% are more likely to recommend a brand because it provides simpler experiences and communications.
But what does ease of use and simplicity look like in customer experience? One needn’t look too far for an immediate reference point. Google’s search bar – a curved edge rectangular box on a plain white background – says it all, and yet further emphasizing nimbleness, the option to customize depending on specific user preferences, exists.
Simplicity in customer experience management is not a dismissal of complexity, but rather, an absorption of it in the process of adding clear, direct value. In practice, easy customer experience either offline or online incorporates the best tenets of human centred design, user experience, personalization, information architecture, product development, interior design, sanitation and good old hospitality. A smooth experience on an e-commerce site can be likened to a seamless experience in a walk-in pharmacy. One desires a clean space, accessibility, clarity in placement and labeling of items, quick checkout, friendliness in the entire process either through a nice and beautiful interface or a warm interior design and hospitable reception.
Yet, at the crux of ease and simplicity in customer experience is the fact that a product, service or experience must deliver on what it promises, both in purpose and quality. It must essentially solve the problem a customer purchases it to solve.
In all, businesses must reimagine their customer experience strategies to incorporate the “new normal” in the shifting market and evolving consumer landscape, but it doesn’t end there. The “new normal” is inherently a shifting phenomenon; thus as “newer normals” spring forth in 2021 and beyond, businesses which already uphold these essentials – ease, expansion/evolution and entertainment – will be better fit to ride the waves alongside their customers.