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December 17, 2020

Contactless commerce: Covid-19 and the customer experience

Heightened expectations for digital customer experiences will remain after the pandemic has subsided.

By Claudia Glover

Long before the Covid-19 pandemic, customer experience (CX) provided by companies through digital channels was already acknowledged as a pivotal point of competitive differentiation, in both consumer and business-to-business markets.

In the wake of the 2008 global recession, companies with a ‘leading’ CX delivered three times the return to their investors than CX laggards, according to a study by management consultants McKinsey. And as of February 2020, 90% of companies had appointed a ‘chief experience officer’ or equivalent to lead their customer experience (CX) initiatives, IT analyst Gartner found in a survey.

Since then, of course, the pandemic has increased the importance of digital channels, especially for businesses who ordinarily interact with customers on a face-to-face basis, such as retailers and hospitality providers. But it has also accelerated the evolution of digital user interfaces, as people sought experiences that compensate for a lack of physical interaction in their lives and businesses vied for their customers’ attention in an increasingly competitive online marketplace.

These heightened CX expectations will remain after lockdowns are lifted. In 2021, therefore, technology leaders will be challenged to ensure that customer data, which underpins compelling experiences, is well integrated, available and of sufficient quality to keep their organisations at the cutting edge.

“Everybody knew [their] customer experience needed to be okay,” says Jeroen Janssen, co-founder of Dutch CX agency TCXA. “But now those needs are much greater.”

The evolution of digital CX during Covid-19

With many countries in lockdown for much of 2020, online channels were often the only way to reach and interact with customers. But even when they were allowed out, people sought to minimise physical contact, says Gracie Page, director of emerging technology at global brand experience agency VMLY&R.

Consumers now want to interact minimally with humans and surfaces.
Gracie Page, director of emerging technology, VMLY&R

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“Fuelled by weariness of spreading and contracting the virus, consumers now want to interact minimally with humans and surfaces that aren’t their own private property when enjoying leisure moments out and about,” says Page.

One of the most visible technology implications of this has been the resurgence of QR codes. Although widespread in markets including China, QR codes had fallen out of favour in the West. But customers’ desire to avoid physical contact in the businesses they do visit has created new demand.

In restaurants, for example, QR codes dispense with “the need to ask for, wait for, fumble with, and give back sticky or beaten-about menus that provide sub-optimal customer experiences on-site,” explains Page.

Similarly, mobile apps became a tool for customers to use even while they are inside a business’s premises, says Page. “British pub chain Greene King has developed its own app that houses not only the entire menu, but also allows for waitstaff-less ordering, payment with Apple and Google Pay to dispense of the need to bring a wallet or card with you at all, and allows consumers to input table numbers so the only face-to-face interaction required is food and drink delivery from a (latex-gloved) hand”.

Meanwhile, Page explains, digital innovators have been experimenting with augmented (AR) and virtual reality (VR) in order to recreate the benefits of the physical retail experience, such as the ability to try out a product before buying it.

In June 2020, for example, online craft marketplace Etsy introduced a ‘See it in AR’ feature that allows buyers to see what home furnishings would look like in their rooms by overlaying a 3D model over their smartphone’s camera view. “Features like AR are another way we’re creating experiences that help create buyer confidence, which we believe could mean more sales for you,” Etsy told sellers on its platform.

Etsy's "See in AR" feature

Craft marketplace Etsy introduced an augmented reality feature in June 2020 (Photo courtesy of Etsy)

AR is also helping to combine the benefits of online shopping with the social aspects of brick-and-mortar retail, says Page. “Previously, trying-on 10 lipstick shades wouldn’t have been possible or practical in a real-life store. Now, scanning between shades, screen-grabbing and sending to mates for review is as easy as a couple of clicks.”

Customer data underpins CX innovation

Front-end innovations such as these are the most visible facets of CX innovation. But they are almost always underpinned by effective customer data management and analysis.

In particular, providing a personalised and responsive CX means that up-to-date customer data must be shared across departments – for example, between marketing and customer service – in a timely matter, so that customer-facing functions can respond accordingly.

“That data needs to be connected with your internal listening architecture, which includes web care, social listening, customer service,” says TCXA’s Janssen. “If there is no connection in between departments, the customer needs will not be heard.”

Indeed, companies identified by IT consultancy Accenture as ‘CX leaders’ are more than twice as likely to be able to translate customer data into action than others (55% versus 26%).

This is why creating a truly competitive digital CX requires not just innovation at the front-end but also a commitment to customer-centricity across the organisation and its IT architecture.

Lead photo by Bignai/Shutterstock

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