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COVID conversations: Customer experience

17 Dec 2020

Trends, technologies, key topics, and issues around Customer Experience (CX) that are shaping up the industry in the COVID-19 era.

The business landscape as we know, has changed significantly over the past several months due to COVID-19. With the virus continuing to worry businesses, many organisations will be using the first few weeks of the year to look back on how well they adapted to the changing business landscape and determining if their strategies need a review.

I caught up with Scott Turton, our Customer Experience (CX) expert to understand how the agenda for CX strategies has changed over the past few months and how businesses have adapted to the change in the business landscape.

How has COVID-19 pushed your portfolio’s agenda and which sector has made the most progress in this regard?

The general trend is one of improvisation.  That’s a word we often view negatively as it hints at a lack of planning and preparation, but the crisis has been a real test of everyone’s ability to think on their feet.  Those with greater organisational agility are generally the ones that have been able to spin up new online commerce channels, for example, or significantly pivot their offer.  Gap created its first B2B proposition, selling facemasks, in around a month.  HMRC launched the new Job Retention (furlough) scheme from a standing start in just 18 days.  Pre-Covid, these turn-around times were considered impossible so there’s a lot for our industry to be proud of.

For business leaders, a light has been shone on the (lack of) flexibility of their technology estates, the talent and culture they need to create compelling experiences quickly and, crucially, the ability to listen to and deeply understand their customers.

These things have long been important, of course, but the pandemic raises the stakes. Your product or service may be less viable in a practical sense, so you need to offer something different to survive.  On a local level, my nearby tap room has weathered the storm through a new home delivery service and an outdoor seating area.  And bigger business is no different.  Pret a Manger has introduced a subscription model for coffee as commuter traffic slumps.  Unilever has re-prioritised spend towards essential products (like cleaning and packaged food) and away from beauty.  Airbnb is evolving to a become a lifestyle and events platform.  Several dating platforms have introduced video as a means of connecting members. It’s all about adapting to stay relevant and useful.

For others, the challenge is about removing new-found friction in existing customer experiences.  Like implementing virtual assistants to ease the load on contact centres and websites, or reconfiguration of physical stores for social distancing and touchless payment.

But businesses need to think beyond the practical. Their customers are changing; their spending power, priorities, attitudes and values and their buying behaviours.  Now is the time to be clear about the purpose of your brand and to make compelling connections with your customers at every touchpoint.  That’s a CRM, content and personalisation challenge that many are ill-equipped for and we’re having a lot of conversations around how we can help.

It’s also important to acknowledge that there are businesses that have thrived during the pandemic.  Food grocers, delivery and logistics companies and collaboration software solutions have all seen demand soar almost overnight. For them, the key question is how they can scale safely and profitably and keep customers happy along the way so that business is retained once our normality shifts again.

What has been the most unexpected outcome of COVID-19 for your portfolio area?

The most surprising yet reassuring aspect has been the overall demand for CX capabilities across the industry.  We’ve had the disappointment of seeing some client programmes go on hold as belts are tightened yet in overall terms, we’ve never been busier. I think this reinforces the view I’ve long held that when the chips are down, CX will make or break your company.  It’s no longer realistic to think of investing in experience as a nice-to-have.  It’s the very essence of any business.

What trend/practice/process has ended forever?

It’s premature to make a call on anything ending forever. Most clients are trying to work out whether that cliched “new normal” is here to stay or what the “return to normal” might look like.

We’re seeing fewer big platform investments just now, with a renewed focus on driving value from previous technology investments.  In the same space, composable architectures are rising in popularity, not least in commerce, as alternatives to wall-to-wall CX packages.

What skills are coming to the fore in your portfolio area as a result of COVID?

As I said, it’s all about understanding customers and giving them a great experience, fast.

Design skills are at the forefront of this – user research, service design, design thinking and traditional UX/UI.  Product ownership and product management are key, ensuring that voice of the customer is balanced with business objectives to create a clear vision for digital products, services and experiences.  Making that real needs great technologists – developers and devops engineers that can create the digital real estate and get it to market quickly and efficiently.

All these skills are in huge demand and we’re working with many clients to deploy whole squads of talented people or to co-deliver with them, raising their internal bar for CX delivery maturity and capacity.

There is a lot of buzz around customer data platforms. People used to talk a lot about the holy grail of a single view of a customer – usually a fraught journey towards data consolidation and liberation.  The emphasis on CDP is data aggregation for the marketer – to reveal insights, orchestrate engagement and automate decisions.  More and more large businesses are recognising that consistency and personalisation at scale is practically impossible without embracing these technologies and I see this as an area of significant growth for us and our partners next year.

There have always been businesses that are sceptical of distributed working in a CX context, much more so than in most other areas of IT delivery.  Proximity to the business is important and that requires clever solutions when using offshore teams, for example.

Through COVID-19 though, we’re seeing a forcing of distributed working and an increasing adaptation within our clients to really make this work. We’re starting to prove more widely that we can retain intimacy and passion for business outcomes even when we can’t meet face-to-face.

As clients grow more confident, this will open up our global talent pool to them in new and interesting ways.

Has the changing business landscape also changed your approach to how you interact with the industry?

Well we’re bidding for and winning work with people we’ve never met, which has been a fascinating learning process for everyone!

Personally, I really do miss the face-to-face interaction with my colleagues, clients, and my broader professional network.  I imagine I spend a lot more time on LinkedIn, read more articles and papers and am really trying hard to schedule lots of catch-up calls amongst the challenges of day-to-day work.  As we exit the crisis, I’ll be glad to move to a balanced model of home and office working that will be better than ever, I’m sure.

Meet the expert

Scott Turton

Expert in Dig