In the space of one year, customer experience has gone from a way for businesses to stay ahead of their competition, to a way for businesses to stay alive.
And there was one reason for this – COVID-19.
Its impact has been keenly felt by businesses and customers right across the globe. Lockdowns forced physical stores to close, often for prolonged periods of time, and day-to-day business was thrown into disarray. Already by September, Yelp.com estimated that nearly 100,000 US businesses had closed permanently because of the pandemic. For those that do make it, a strong focus on customer experience will be vital.
With that in mind, let’s take a closer look at the kind of customer experience trends that came to the fore in 2020.
Even before the pandemic struck, companies were going digital. But with COVID-19 dramatically decreasing face-to-face interactions, companies had an added incentive to move towards digital strategies – in fact, they accelerated the digitization of their customer interactions by three to four years.
Despite the massive upheaval this caused, businesses clearly understood the value of this change – 52 percent of surveyed companies planned to cut or defer investments because of the impact caused by COVID-19, but just nine percent of those were looking to make cuts in digital transformation.
And, it’s not just companies that have had to deal with a shift towards digital. Customers – and society at large – have had to adapt to new ways of doing things, too. For many, it’s been their first experience with the digital world. Companies have therefore had to legislate for providing digital services to an even greater range of demographics.
And it feels like there’s no going back. New patterns of digital behavior weren’t simply a 2020 phenomenon, they will change the very fabric of how businesses serve their customers, taking us towards an even more digitized world in future.
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One of the great advantages of the traditional in-person customer experience was the ability to check out products up close, and in some cases even try them out. But thanks to lockdown and physical distancing measures, this has become difficult and, as a result, customers have been pushed online.
One way brands have tried to address this is by offering free trials, or at least making it far easier for customers to return items so they have the option to try them on at home. Many companies implemented extended return periods, too. The increased availability of pay-later schemes, such as Klarna, are also a boon to customers as they only have to pay once they are certain of keeping their new items. This shift benefits brands as more than 40 percent of consumers cite “free and easy returns” as a key factor when recommending a brand to others.
Finding ways to bring the “try-before-you-buy” approach of in-store shopping into customers’ homes has been a top priority for brands. And, where getting their hands on products hasn’t been possible for customers, technology has stepped in. Spectacle retailers are offering virtual fitting services, with customers using webcams to take a picture of themselves and then try out different frames to see what suits them. Other industries, such as cosmetics, are using similar technology to allow customers to try out different ‘looks’.
The year 2020 has also seen a surge of video solutions. Companies used it to bridge physical distances and replicate the same level of in-store product discovery customers have come to expect. The Canadian automotive dealership Dilawri, for example, uses Acquire technology to conduct online vehicle walkarounds via video, without having customers physically present. Although this rising popularity has been driven by necessity, sheer convenience means we’ll see more of them in future.
Savvy companies have been successful in finding other ways to recreate the in-person experience online, too. In particular, technology such as live chat and cobrowsing has allowed customer-facing staff to continue to personalize the customer experience, providing advice and support to customers during their shopping journey, just as they would in-store.
As is evident by now, tech has played a critical role in reshaping customer experience. But one form of the new technologies deserves its own mention – augmented reality.
With the help of AR and VR (virtual reality), companies have looked to get ‘phygital’ – a portmanteau expressing the combination of the digital and physical worlds. To some degree, this has been a natural progression of existing trends. For example, it’s been commonplace for customers to check products against their own mobile devices in store for a while. But, businesses have now really embraced this trend to look at how they can use digital technology and augment physical spaces.
In fashion retail, companies such as Oak labs have been using smart mirrors to open up a whole new world of interactivity. Virtual changing rooms allow customers to superimpose items and outfits and receive suggested products. The process produces a wealth of rich data, too, with insight into product conversion rates helping brands adjust their offerings accordingly.
The closure of showrooms was offset by the use of augmented reality tech, taking the customer experience beyond even what could be expected in-store. Ikea's app, for example, lets its customers browse the in-app catalogue, choose the item they want, and then move it around on their screen to see how it would look in their room.
AR and VR played their part in bridging the phygital and digital worlds in other ways, too. Second-hand car dealerships such as Vroom used technology to showcase their range remotely. Customers can even see how they might personalize a car based on their individual tastes before committing to purchasing. Even sports companies have got in on the phygital act, with the NBA featuring virtual fans at games this year.
With so many people furloughed or working from home, it’s been anything but business as usual in the world of customer support. However, customer issues still needed dealing with. Simply leaving customers to face enormous wait times trying to get through to skeleton staff would have had a catastrophic effect on customer experience.
And that’s where self-service technology came in this year. More than ever before, it helped companies provide customers with multiple ways to get the answers they need, regardless of time, place, channel, or device. Common self-service solutions include the likes of FAQs, knowledge bases, and chatbots. With all this going on, 2020 has seen websites become much more than mere digital storefronts or ecommerce points-of-sale. They’ve become a source of information that customers rely on.
Customers have a clear appetite for this. According to a Forrester study, 72 percent of consumers say they want to be able to solve problems on their own, without the help of a human customer service agent. And, 91 percent of customers would use an online knowledge base, if it were available and tailored to their needs.
Businesses need to make sure this is the case – and 2020 has seen companies starting to deliver. Some might say this is long overdue. Even back in 2013, 70 percent of customers already expected a company’s website to include self-service.
When used appropriately, self-service technology has not only made a massive difference to companies’ ability to handle customer demand, it’s also helped maintain positive customer experiences. This is particularly true when customers are simply looking for information like store hours and delivery times.
In the midst of a pandemic, it is only right that customer safety has been front of mind. One of the most noticeable ways this has manifested is through no-contact policies. Customers have been kept apart in stores, delivery drivers have stepped back from the door, and a whole host of other measures has been drafted in to keep customers safe.
No-touch methods of shopping have gained a lot of traction in 2020 as a way of trying to mitigate the risk of transmitting disease. This need to minimize human-to-human interaction has increased cashierless check-out shopping experiences such as Amazon Go. And, in fact, it looks as though the contactless experience is here to stay.
For example, as many as 73 percent of customers would prefer a self-checkout option at supermarkets. And 2020 has created a shift in the way customers pay – 82 percent of consumers stated they’re more likely to use digital wallets or cards in the future.
But, despite the loss of actual human touch, this year more than ever, businesses needed to show their human face. Doing so has meant far more than implementing mere practical safety measures. Companies have been reaching out to customers and communities, not only with marketing materials, but with proactive offers of support.
For example, Budweiser used $5 million earmarked for sports and entertainment marketing to help fund the American Red Cross’ efforts instead. Banks also offered mortgage holidays, understanding that many were suffering financially because of COVID-19. It remains to be seen whether this level of care continues once the pandemic has passed.
It’s unlikely that 2020 is going to be remembered with fondness by many. What can’t be denied, though, is the tremendous amount of change that has been ushered in as companies and customers have been forced to adapt to unprecedented circumstances.
We can all agree it would feel wonderful to return to normal – to more human contact and connection – but the truth is there’s no going back entirely to how things were. The developments that took place have set the foundations for new kinds of relationships between businesses and customers, changing the nature of customer experience forever. It’s going to be interesting to see what 2021 has in store.
Benedict Clark is a psychologist and writer, having previously spent 8 years in the digital marketing industry. With a master's degree in Business and Occupational Psychology from Kingston University, he writes about the interplay between customer experience and psychology for Acquire.