Last year, we saw a plunge in retail foot traffic as the pandemic kept consumers at home and a corresponding explosion in e-commerce as shopping shifted online. Year-over-year e-commerce sales growth was up 49% in April 2020 and topped out at 78% that May. While the dust has settled to reveal more modest e-commerce increases, the point is that the buyer’s journey has gone through significant shifts. According to McKinsey & Co., three-quarters of U.S. consumers have experimented with new shopping behaviors during the pandemic due to COVID-19’s impact on their priorities, financial situation, and store closings.
Despite these changes to the buying process, customer experience should remain a North Star for brands wondering how to navigate future tumult. Before COVID-19, the customer experience was one of the most important brand differentiators. And though 38% of customers care about the experience to the same degree in our new climate, another 59% care about it even more. In other words, 2021 is the year to examine customer experience closely before you lose customers.
To make meaningful improvements and set yourself up for success, follow these steps.
1. Leverage data and technology.
The modern customer experience is all about personalization, but it’s getting more difficult for marketers to keep up with the growing number of customers across a dizzying array of channels. To Diane Keng, CEO and co-founder of Breinify, AI is the obvious answer.
“AI can monitor millions of users in real time and make effective, personalized decisions in an instant,” says Keng. “Rather than replacing marketers, AI technology saves them from getting bogged down with manual and static segmentation or in curating and activating content for general segmentation. Think of it as data science without the data scientists.”
The lingering effect of the pandemic on the economy means that budgets are being viewed under a microscope, but opening up the coffers can help your organization realize tremendous ROI and keep customers engaged. Adding AI to marketing workflows will free up human resources to focus on the high-value tasks that require expertise while still delivering the personalization that customers demand.
2. Focus on improving customer service.
Nothing turns customers off quite like giving companies their money and then being treated poorly, and research from Glance shows that just one bad experience is enough for almost 80% of consumers to change their mind about a purchase. Despite the high stakes, many organizations continue to rely on outdated, reactive approaches to customer service.
When you wait for the customer to initiate an interaction with your service department, you’re all but guaranteeing the relationship starts on the wrong foot. Customers don’t reach out when they’re satisfied—they reach out when there’s a problem. It’s up to your service reps to diffuse the ticking time bomb. Adopt a proactive approach where you consistently reach out for feedback, offer helpful tutorials, or just check in. This will improve satisfaction and decrease the number of customers who call your service department with an issue.
It’s also important to view customer service as an investment instead of a cost center. According to Yaniv Masjedi, CMO at Nextiva, “More than 40% of our company’s 1,000 employees work in customer service, and they are all in-house. Why do we devote so many resources to our customers? [We want to] show them day in and day out, through all of their interactions with the company, that their needs are valued and prioritized.” Outsourcing this service can be a tempting way to cut costs, but you’ll ultimately pay the difference by devaluing your customer experience.
3. Improve your mobile and web applications.
With the emergence of innovations like Amazon’s free two-hour delivery, you’d be forgiven for thinking customers are more difficult than ever to please. Yet about two-thirds of customers simply want their favorite companies to value their time. That means long hold times and extended email exchanges are out of the question when customers need access to critical information.
Take a closer look at the information your customers need most, and revamp your mobile and web applications to put that information front and center. FAQs are a great way to intercept a huge number of queries before they can bog down your service representatives, but they also improve your customer experience by giving customers exactly what they’re looking for.
You should also invest in content that helps your customers—even if it doesn’t include mention of your product or service. By turning your site or app into a resource with valuable information, you’ll benefit from increased traffic and improved credibility with a broad audience of potential customers.
4. Implement self-service checkouts and contactless payment methods.
Self-service used to be no more than a way to cut costs; now, it’s about delivering a better customer experience. Your customers don’t want to ask for help, and they crave a frictionless buyer’s journey. When you help them help themselves, you’re broadening your appeal to the 13% of people who prefer self-service while also enabling your company to deliver a better experience for all.
As the pandemic drags on, customers also want contactless payments when they’re in stores, and they’ll notice if you’re only 95% of the way there. After all, a touchless transaction isn’t touchless the moment it needs a signature scribbled on the payment screen. B2C systems are adopting solutions such as Venmo’s peer-to-peer QR code scanner, and you should consider similar solutions to stay relevant. In fact, 74% of SMBs say they anticipate consumers to continue to prefer contactless payment methods even after the pandemic has subsided, according to research from Visa.
As vaccine distribution accelerates and coronavirus case numbers begin to decline, we can feel people starting to breathe a little easier, but that doesn’t mean business will revert to “normal” anytime soon. Customers have been exposed to a virus on a scale never before seen in our lifetime, and they’re understandably hesitant to venture back out into the world. While the pandemic continues, it’s difficult to predict precisely how customers will behave, but you can bet that customer experience will still be moving markets.