How the Covid-19 pandemic has changed the future of customer experiences

Large portions of the world are currently in or progressing toward lockdown. It's an extremely sad reality that many tourism, hospitality, service companies and entire industries could potentially be (save massive government intervention) completely wiped out. I have numerous friends and family who have been laid off, or seen revenue fall to zero. Make no mistake, this is probably one of the most challenging times to be in business — not merely for the underlying economic conditions, but the human toll this will take and the still high levels of overall uncertainty.
That said, some of these industries have the ability to mitigate and shift slightly. Faced with the closure of most theatres, Universal has been able to deliver new releases via streaming. Some drive-thru theaters are opening for renewed demand springing up on the outside walls of theatres. Studios and distributors also have a deep back catalog that may be re-marketed to a world stuck indoors and starved for distraction. 

Other sectors will need to adapt in other ways. There is a bit of dark humour going around Twitter at the moment:

In a very real sense, there is truth to this. Digital is now the primary (if not the only) channel for many companies. The shift to digital transformation has been occurring for quite some time for various reasons (and Contentful has been a big part of this trend), but now elements will move far more quickly, and others will change dramatically.

Redefining omnichannel

Some retail stores have spent the last few years establishing new systems that will allow them to weather this storm — but they may be forever changed by the experience. Loblaws, the largest grocery chain in Canada (and a Contentful customer), has seen a dramatic surge in their delivery and “click to collect” operations. It’s feasible that adapting to this new way of consumption and convenience becomes the norm for customers, even after the worst has passed.

In some other cases, the old ways may make a comeback. The age of the print catalog seemed to disappear with the internet; however, it’s entirely possible that the experience of flipping through a well-produced catalog with beautiful visuals will become a well-needed escape from a life otherwise lived on screens. Restoration Hardware had been bucking the trend by keeping the catalog as a means of reaching the aspirational luxury space, and these trends which worked in their favor now also apply to a much larger audience.

The safety, comfort and productivity of home

It’s possible that our living spaces will receive more attention; adapting spaces to serve as part-time offices or daycares (or both simultaneously) may mean new purchases to remain productive. It’s one thing to work for a few hours at your kitchen table, but an entirely other thing if you’re working remotely full time. This means, at a minimum, upgrading your chair. (Please don’t forget your ergonomics in all of this!) 

Similarly, your home is literally your sanctuary. Ensuring a calm, well-ordered space with a good sense of design will help get you through the day.

As a result, we may see home decor as one of the few relatively healthy sectors. Augmented reality may become an expectation replacing the showroom experience. BRP already uses Contentful to help drive the experience through AR, and other brands may follow. Even prior to the current situation, companies such as IKEA and Tesla have shown that you deliver excellent digital customer experience to sell what was previously entirely a showroom or salesperson experience.

Online messaging is the first line of communication — not the last

Online chat has often been seen as a communication channel of last resort. Many brands would even implement AI chatbot solutions, given that the primary use was for simple and common tasks (asking for opening hours, locations, etc.). However, as customers shift to online-only activity, they will be expecting far more interaction from these facilities — meaning that this channel will need to shift to actual people operating it, unless your chatbots can cope with the increasing depth and diversity of questions

The question becomes, how to scale a customer support operation to include virtual teams? How do you build and scale a corporate culture entirely remotely? How do you ensure they are trained properly and have the correct information in front of them?

Communication expectations will change

Covid-19 emails tend to fall into two categories: useless or critical. These emails deluged my inbox, and few contained context or steps to take. They just added to the noise. The most useless Covid-19 “update” email I received contained three sentences:

“We’re living through turbulent times together. Our booksellers are your neighbors, your friends and family. Your stories are our stories, and we know how resilient our communities are.”

Don’t be that marketer.

However, anyone providing services around the bottom of the Maslow’s hierarchy of needs — such as infrastructure, food, housing and utilities — needs to be clear and prescriptive about their plans to stay operational and where they provide additional support. For example, temporary mortgage payment relief. 

In the case of providers continuing to operate without interruption, informing customers about availability and restocking schedules will help in planning and maintaining a sense of comfort. In the case of food, toilet paper and electricity, downstream food supply capacity is running at 200%-500%, but you wouldn’t know that based on store shelves. Reassurances are key. 

If my power went out in the past, it was no big deal. But in a heightened sense of vulnerability, actively communicating (vs. passively reporting) about these events is key — particularly when so many people work from home. Previously, electricity to residential areas could have been considered a low priority as long as companies completed repairs by 5:00 p.m.

What about privacy? 

One of the consequences of HIPAA is the understanding that any communication regarding medical status is extremely protected personally identifiable information (PII). As a result, the majority of communication between caregivers and patients is done in person, and most tools for remote communication were banned. The Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) has lessened this restriction because of Covid-19.

This is an understandable step. But once it’s taken and the genie is out, it’s extremely hard to put that genie back in a bottle. Platforms that were optimized for speed of communication will probably find that information will leak out in a very public fashion. Indeed, some large corporate calls during this time have already been subjected to troll “ZoomBombing.”

While we adapt in an agile fashion, information security should not be forgotten. Bad faith actors will take advantage of this lapse in normal policy.

Out-of-the-box experience and virtual storytelling

Many luxury brands such as Bang & Olufsen and Apple had done an excellent job of unifying the product discovery and browsing experiences from online to in-store channels. The mantra “the experience is the product” rightfully made many retailers rethink what a store experience needed to be, by including wonderful design, ample browsing space and a well-trained staff.

Brands will do the best they can to emulate this experience in this new reality. In many cases, they already have a browsing and discovery experience that has the required brand vision — but may have lacked in details as they could depend on an in-store associate to provide this all-important link between research and purchase.

Maintaining this human connection will be key. It would not surprise me to see sales associates in a full visual chat, rather than simply texting. They might need to have a product on hand to demonstrate features to help relate to the product or how it might look on the person on the other side of the video.

Similarly, the “out-of-the-box experience” (oo-bie) will be key. This might become the first (and possibly only) in-person interaction between your brand and your customers. Direct-to-Consumer (DTC) vendors have developed strategies to improve the oo-bie, and they’ll need to accelerate as more traditional brands join this mode.

If your organization does not already have a plan for content strategy, now may be a good time to consider your organizational approach to both this epidemic and your overall customer experience in phases.

Both Gartner and McKinsey suggest studying your overall strategy based on short-, medium-, and long-term outcomes, but also with a view to the understanding there may not be a return to “business as usual.”

“Having experienced a new way of living, consumers are recalibrating their spending, increasing the likelihood that spending may permanently shift between categories and that online services could get adopted far faster.”

Above all, be human — your team is the surest way to adaptation and resilience 

These are going to be trying times. How your brand interacts with customers will not be forgotten anytime soon. This works both ways. Compassion and callousness will be noted (and probably discussed on social media) in an amplified way. This includes how you treat your staff; working sick or under conditions of duress will manifest itself in frustrated and miserable interactions with customers. As Forrester notes, brands need a “Bias Toward People, Not Profit.”

As humans, we have the capacity for adaptation and resilience. Those brands that have the means to shift the means of interaction and delivery have an opportunity to reshape the customer experience in significant ways which will likely outlive this and become the new norm. 

If customers get both a good brand experience as well as the convenience and comfort of online shopping, but with an elevated level of understanding (and ultimately less cost to maintain storefronts) these trends toward other interaction and delivery channels may simply become the new normal.

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