Digital CX: COVID crisis highlights need for greater empathy and personalization

The COVID-19 crisis gave a jolt to efforts to improve customer experience through technology and online channels. However, much of it is still a work in progress.
Written by Joe McKendrick, Contributing Writer

What do customers want? That's a question that's been on the minds of business people for millennia. In recent years, and especially in the turbulent months of 2020 going into 2021, the question has had to be asked in a new context: What do customers want online? The answer, it seems, is quite simple: the same tender loving care they expected with in-person transactions. But getting there isn't quite so simple. 

Over the past year, in response to the COVID-19 crisis, we saw an unprecedented push to deliver superior customer experience (CX) through digital channels, thrusting information technology departments into the limelight with high expectations of responsiveness, scalability and security. At the same time, however, it's important to remember that customer experience still needs to be built on centuries-old, tried-and-true principles, such as personal engagement, sincerity and follow-through. Empathy also became extremely important in engagements over the past year. Have companies learned to deliver these bedrock principles digitally as well?

As customers "spend more time at home with their devices and less time in stores or places of work, the shift toward digital channels has accelerated," the latest research of COVID-era CX trends from Salesforce finds. "At the same time, the share of organizations offering in-person customer service plummeted, and channels such as online chat, messenger apps, and video support saw double-digit adoption gains." Eighty-seven percent of service professionals say customers have increased their use of digital channels during the pandemic.  

That empathy -- and the personalization that goes with it -- requires more than simple electronic transactions, "Personalization isn't just a marketing buzzword, and many brands are getting it wrong," according to Stephanie Nerlich, CEO at Havas Creative Network, North America. "To customers, personalization is knowing them beyond inserting their name into an email. It's removing friction from the experience, based on their previous interactions with your brand."  

This confirms what many corporate and IT leaders intuitively grasped: Delivering superior CX via digital channels is difficult, but a matter of survival to their businesses. "Pre-pandemic, service professionals were already racing to meet rising customer expectations," the Salesforce survey's authors report. "Many of those expectations demand digital experiences, self service, speed and convenience. Those are still critical. But 2020 underscored the importance of something a little more human: empathy."

Empathy and personalization are golden. Online, 73% of "prosumers" and 56% of mainstream consumers responding to a survey of 2,000 consumers released by Havas finds that they not only want real-time human connection, but one-to-one shopping advice, curated choices and help making decisions. "Model personalization in the way local store owners treat regular customers, not the latest tech capabilities," Nerlich says. "Technology is a means to meet the needs of customers. While it helps us know a lot about them, data should be used to improve their experiences first and foremost. In a world where consumers are more mindful of privacy and how their information is used, showing how it can create positive, helpful experiences for them is essential."  

Such personalization tools will likely include emotion detection and management technologies to influence customer engagement and purchasing, according to predictions from IDC. This is part of an emerging $553-billion market, with customers "more technologically connected than ever before and now have amazing technology in their hands, on their laps, and on their desktops from phones to tablets to smart home systems, smart speakers, and wearables," the consultancy's analysts state. However, "the actual impact on the customer experience in a dynamic market and the resulting impact on the bottom-line revenue for a brand remains a question for many executives." 

The technology needed to boost superior CX through empathy and personalization is still lagging, the Salesforce study finds. Fifty percent or more of CX professionals say the COVID crisis has exposed shortcomings in their technology, "but the current state of service channels, operations, and skill sets have also proven inadequate for an unexpected jolt to business." Issues include siloed data, and inability to gain a full view of customer trends.   

Disparate, siloed technology also has a direct effect on CX, and these problems also came into full view during the crisis. Most customers (76%) expect consistency when interacting with a business, but 54% say it feels like sales, service and marketing don't share information, according to the Salesforce survey. "Teams are more geographically scattered than ever. While most agents say they can access data remotely, many are struggling to get a complete picture of customer interactions. Agents' visibility of marketing interactions lags sales and ecommerce worldwide. About 65% of agents say they have a complete view of marketing interactions."

CX itself is still an emerging discipline, meaning that resources and executive attention may still not be fully baked into organizational cultures or budgetary plans. Despite the urgency brought on by the COVID crisis, "many teams note that their organizations are still in the early stages of a mature, established CX practice, with 60% of the people surveyed indicating their organization either doesn't have a CX strategy in place or is only reacting to issues as they arise, a recent survey by UserTesting.finds. 

To deliver superior CX in the COVID and post-COVID era, enterprises need to rethink the way this is delivered:

Remember, it's not all digital

Superior CX is a rich hybrid of digital as well as in-person interactions. "As voice assistants like Siri and Alexa become a common vehicle for simple tasks, their prospective role in customer service is intriguing," the Salesforce study authors observe. Fifty-seven percent of service professionals believe voice assistants will become a key service channel. But another, more familiar way of asking for help -- over the phone -- remains a preferred channel for many. Customers rank the phone as their second most-preferred channel after email.* Agents also prefer the phone for complex issues that require two-way conversation, and don't see the phone being replaced any time soon. However, how agents answer and process phone calls is evolving. The majority of service agents -- aside from those on underperforming teams -- are more likely to handle voice calls through a computer than a desk phone."

Ramp up support for distributed CX teams

The COVID crisis meant CX teams needed greater flexibility and empowerment to provide empathy needed for customers who may have been experiencing stress -- especially since team members were working remotely and likely under duress themselves, the Salesforce study shows. However, most CX teams did not always have the tools to keep up, the Salesforce study finds. Only 32% of agents say they can access the information they need on a single screen, delaying resolution time. "As more service organizations incorporate remote work into their long-term strategies, digital tools including cloud telephony or 360-degree views of customers can empower agents to better support customers when they need it most."

Fight for more CX budget resources -- or devise more efficient ways to do things

There was increased pressures on CX budgets as well, stretched to the limit during the COVID crisis. Time and resources were significantly impacted over the past year, which in many cases meant more work with fewer resources, according to UserTesting. Nearly 70% of those surveyed reported reductions in spending or workforce resources due to business changes caused by the crisis. Fewer resources impacted nearly half of those surveyed with 53% reporting an increase in workload. The Salesforce study also finds service demand surged in 2020, "but budgets didn't." Globally, 54% of service professionals say case volume increased and 75% describe cases as more complex. Despite mostly flat budgets, agents were left with a larger number of more complex cases. 

Build collaboration across the enterprise

The Salesforce report finds 79% of service professionals say "it's impossible to provide great service without a complete view of customer interactions." This is an important area where IT teams need to work closely with customer service teams. "As service becomes increasingly digital and connected experiences more expected, partnerships with IT are critical," the study's authors state. "Eighty-eight percent of customer service decision makers call IT a strategic partner. For most service organizations, technology strategy and selection is a joint effort with IT. In a sign of how important a confidant IT has become in a digital-first world, a mere six percent of decision makers say their technology decisions are made without IT involvement."

Dismantle silos

Data and application silos have long been the bane of enterprise IT advocates, and the challenge is seen within CX deployments as well. "Decision makers have a heightened appreciation for the role of data in identifying what, when, and where resources can and should be allocated as conditions shift, according to the Salesforce study. Seventy-four percent say they are more reliant on data than they were prior to the crisis. "Still, organizations have a long way to go in building the agile business units that can quickly adapt to whatever comes next. Thirty percent of decision makers excel at using data to make strategic business decisions."

Automate as much as possible -- without losing the human touch

Almost paradoxically, the more automation there is, the more of a human touch that can be applied. Automation can come to the rescue, to help scale growing CX operations, to maintain the human touch while addressing a wide customer base. Technology itself might be the best way to keep delivering superior CX with relatively flat or even declining budgets. One-third (32%) of service decision-makers in the Salesforce study say they used automation or AI in 2020 and nearly two-thirds say customer self service helped ease pandemic caseloads. "Automation and AI don't just help manage unexpected demand or reduce manual work. They can enhance decision-making and use predictive flags or prompts for more proactive approaches to helping customers. Chatbots, typically powered by AI, are one way service teams can resolve simpler cases faster without involving agents. Service organizations somewhat lag other countries at 35% adoption compared to 40% worldwide, suggesting chatbots might be a quick win for decision-makers."

Yes, these have been difficult times for many organizations, but sticking to the tried-and-true principles of delivering superior CX -- interacting with customers as if they were the only ones that mattered to the organization at the moment of contact -- will ensure their loyalty. The technology is available to accomplish this, and has proven itself through the COVID crisis. Now, as we move forward into the post-COVID era, digital CX will continue to pave the way to serving the ever-changing needs of customers.

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