How customer experience is helping brands succeed on the acid test of Covid-19

The achievements of this year’s CX50 members prove an organisation-wide customer experience mindset is a blueprint for the future as well as the present.

When companies talk about a mission to support their customers and to deliver best in class customer experience (CX), it can sometimes seem a little trite. What role does it play in the purchase of, say, a chocolate bar or a pair of shoes?

But organisations that have been in the habit of prioritising customer experience – because it delivers greater brand loyalty or differentiation, for example – have come into their own in recent months. The coronavirus pandemic has pushed customers to the brink financially, physically and mentally. Brands, and their marketers, have had to step up and do what they can to offer solutions – though they and their supply chains have been equally affected.

For the third year running, Marketing Week has partnered with Zone and Cognizant to compile the CX50 – the top CX professionals at the forefront of delivering for customers in the UK today. The list takes on a slightly different flavour this year, with many entries also featuring the projects these executives have spearheaded to help customers during Covid-19.

Read the profiles of all the CX50 2020 members here

We began compiling the list before the full extent of the pandemic and lockdown were known. It speaks to the importance of having a CX vision across the organisation that so many on it were able to react quickly and meaningfully to the crisis. Many will no doubt become gold-standard case studies of an agile CX response in the future.

We spoke to a few of these executives to find out how CX fits into their wider remit, and the philosophy of their businesses, and asked which key attributes they thought had allowed them to act decisively and sensitively in tough times.

In the first couple of months we did 116 web releases, 15 million emails and more experimentation on websites in a 12-week period than over the last three years.

Mark Evans, Direct Line Group

With the prospect of lockdown looming, being able to manage commitments was a big customer concern. Russell Davies, VP of marketing at Bulb Energy, one of the UK’s fastest growing ‘challenger’ energy brands, explains his approach: “Before lockdown, when it was obvious it was coming, we contacted all our prepay and pay-as-you-go members to offer them help and advice on getting top-ups done if they were self-isolating.

“We’ve been very careful not to over-dramatise things. We’ve not wanted to send tons of those ‘in these unprecedented times’ emails from the CEO. People have more important things to worry about than their energy supplier – and we’re delivering business as usual – so they probably don’t want us bombarding them with updates,” he adds.

Set up for success

What has been notable about many of the executives on the CX50 list is that they have been at the forefront of driving business integrations since long before the pandemic. This has meant that they already have a joined-up approach to customer data and cross-silo collaboration to help make decisions faster.

CX50 2020: The UK’s top 50 customer experience professionals revealed

Stuart Beamish, group chief customer officer for Saga, explains: “We have a substantial contact centre operation but we’re fortunate that we were already set up with the right software to make a seamless transition to home-working, almost overnight. The basics of CX are being there for customers. Immediate continuity was so important.”

Beamish also adds that, even with around 1,000 staff home-working, answer rates were 97%, with 80% of those answered in 20 seconds. Mark Evans, managing director of marketing and digital at Direct Line Group, agrees that the race to set up from home was one of the biggest challenges but that, in terms of transforming the business to cope, Covid-19 simply accelerated plans already in place.

“In the first couple of months we did 116 web releases, 15 million emails and more experimentation on websites in a 12-week period than over the last three years. We were on the cusp of moving to full enterprise agility and so it came slightly ahead of time.”

He adds that, while technology is clearly an important enabler of sorting out crisis logistics quickly, it’s the company mindset that really drives the right actions. “It was easier that we set out our principles for this crisis at a high level. Number one, protect our people. Two, protect customers. Three, think long-term. And four, act in the nation’s interest.”

Short-term reaction, long-term vision

In the midst of crisis, it is often said there is opportunity. This pandemic is proving no different. Many of those on our CX50 list have discovered new insights into consumer needs and behaviours, or new ways of working more effectively and efficiently, that will endure long after the pandemic has left our shores – or, indeed, if it never does.

“We’ve paid a lot more attention to social listening under lockdown, looking for situations where our members might need help but aren’t directly tagging us,” explains Bulb’s Davies. “For instance, pay-as-you-go members have been using Facebook to try to find people who can help them top up. We’ve been looking for those conversations and connecting people with voluntary services. We’ll probably continue that sort of thing under the ‘new normal’.”

Davies also notes that person-to-person conversations have been something of a revelation. “There have been lots of occasions where our energy specialists have been talking to people who are self-isolating and have been able to just chat with them and share some human contact – that’s a real social boon for everyone. It’s great to see that happening and to have confidence that the human touch will always be an important part of our service delivery.”

We’ve paid a lot more attention to social listening under lockdown, looking for situations where our members might need help but aren’t directly tagging us.

Russell Davies, Bulb

From the point of view of consumer behaviour change, Direct Line Group’s Evans believes there will be a permanent switch to more digital sophistication across all age groups. “There’s been a big increase in digitisation – Tesco doubled its online capacity, for example – and a spike in digital sales and servicing, but also in this digital sophistication. Three million people have met with their doctor virtually to gain medical diagnoses and prescriptions. It’s quicker and easier, and will be permanent.”

For Saga’s Beamish, there has been some insight into creating new products, such as three-year fixed-price insurance. While the idea that retirees are frequently on fixed incomes is not new, the economic pressures of the pandemic put that into sharp relief, so it’s something that Beamish feels is a benefit not just for today but for the long term.

The company has also refreshed how it looks at its digital publishing. Saga Magazine is well-known in the market but, with the company’s target audience of over-50s being the one most affected by lockdown in terms of restricted activities due to shielding, it got creative with its offering.

“[The challenge we set was] how could we be a digital publisher that inspires and entertains an audience that is told not to go out? So we launched the Not Going Out Club and partnered with celebrities for a range of content. We’ve had a weekly podcast running since the start of this, with Dame Kelly Holmes doing fitness, and John Sergeant doing blogs. We have increased the frequency and depth of customer and colleague listening,” he reveals, adding: “All of these things I see now as part of the fabric of what we do.”

It is inevitable that, when the crisis recedes, many of the good intentions laid out by brands at the start will also peter out. After all, how many of us actually finished that novel or language course before real life started to creep back in? But what the professionals on the CX50 list have shown is that by embedding customer experience-driven thinking across the whole organisation, it is possible to adapt and even identify new opportunities during a time of high drama.