It may not seem like it while in the middle of the maelstrom but, eventually, crises abate and the world returns to something resembling normality. While the coronavirus pandemic has been challenging, it has thrown up some real opportunities for brands to engage better with their customers. It has also created a unique set of conditions that has allowed companies to find new areas of innovation or develop new product streams and propositions.
Above all, it has revealed the power of investing in customer experience (CX). As we found in the first article in our series recognising members of this year’s CX50 list – the 50 people named by Marketing Week, Zone and Cognizant as the UK’s top CX professionals – companies that already had robust CX strategies in place adapted to the change much more seamlessly than those who didn’t.
Many of those in the CX50 noted that the transition to working from home was less of a challenge than expected, because the systems and procedures in place already handed customer-facing staff the technology and strategies to cope. For others, a prior investment in data and digital paid off as they were able to innovate quickly and deliver new and varied content that met lockdown needs.
For a number of the executives on our list, the way they were able to respond to the challenges of Covid-19 also reinforced the imperative for companies to invest in CX. Several reported net promoter score (NPS) increases, even when their service was impacted by lockdown, because of their workforce’s ability to display empathy and flexibility.
“It’s about making sure that everyone understands the pride they felt when they made a difference and the tweets started coming in,” explains Tete Soto, transformation director, O2. “The executive team continues to champion that.”
But, as we look ahead to a world where coronavirus is – hopefully – nothing more than an unpleasant memory, marketers need to make sure they maintain the momentum of prioritising customer experience. CX is for life, not just a pandemic.
An agile outlook
“How we maintain momentum is in the fact that we have been built from the ground up with a model that is totally customer-focused,” claims Octopus Energy’s Rebecca Dibb-Simkin, marketing and product director. “Everything is done in-house and we’re used to doing things incredibly quickly. We’ve always maintained that agile-driven way of doing things. As we scale it will be interesting to see how we respond to that.”
As a startup or SME, it’s easy to see how being nimble is a natural state of mind, but big brands mange it too. Mark Evans, managing director of marketing and digital at Direct Line Group is also fully behind the agile mindset going forward.
“We saw an increase in NPS directly as a result of our responsiveness and quick iteration, but the net upshot of all of this is that we’re galvanised in the belief that agile is the answer. Having started a process to head up a fully agile head office, we had to go a bit slower during the Covid period, but this is the only way you can iterate and deliver customer experience, but still in a structured and sustainable way. Full-fat agile – I can’t over-state what a big deal it is.”
Soto adds: “I now have the privilege of running our transformation programme so that, rather than thinking of clunky ways of designing our systems for the 1990s, how do we make agile processes so people can make decisions in a really fast way?
“[The leadership team] wants me to go faster rather than slower. They have realised that they need to be much better prepared for these sorts of things in the future and that we are able to respond in whatever way we choose to. We have large resources but, as with anything, it’s a question of priorities. In an organisation of our size, executive sponsorship still has to be there for the cause.”
Tech building for the future
The pandemic drove both brands and consumers into deeper relationships with technology, and many of the marketers on the CX50 list acknowledge that tech is going to play an ever-increasing role in building on customer experience. BMW UK marketing director Michelle Roberts notes that the car maker’s MyFinance self-service portal, where customers can access their finance agreements online, and its New Car Locator, telling people where specific models are currently available, are two tools that have seen an uptick that looks set to stay.
“Self-serve and advances in contactless technology have accelerated at a significant pace during the last months, given the pandemic. Further innovation in this area will be vitally important for the development of the car industry, as well as innovations building stronger links between the physical and digital worlds. Innovation in the area of data integration will be equally important for CX in the future.”
Direct Line’s Evans adds: “Brilliant digital experiences are intuitive and so easy-peasy that customers can see it. But, if they can see the [organisational] silos play out in their experience, you’ve got it badly wrong. The first step is making it easier, then it’s personalising for their needs.”
Even the world of meal boxes has a stake in high-tech operations. Gousto’s vice-president of brand, Anna Greene, says: “Technology is our key enabler and our competitive advantage. We offer double the range of recipes of our nearest competitor. Through our proprietary AI and recommendations engine, we’ve developed a deep understanding of different customer taste profiles, eating habits, likes and dislikes, allowing us to come up with a truly personalised menu.”
She also adds that AI isn’t just about pleasing the end consumer, noting that the systems reduce the potential for over-ordering raw ingredients and give Gousto an industry-leading food waste rate.
Personalisation for differentiation
Data and personalisation were hot topics pre-pandemic and they’re not going away any time soon. “With the granularity of the performance data now available, it is easy to see how powerful it is to meet the needs of customers precisely – and indeed the cost of lost opportunities when there is a break in the customer experience,” says BMW’s Roberts.
How customer experience is helping brands succeed on the acid test of Covid-19It would be easy to argue that empathy, collecting tweets and rising NPS scores are all enjoyable soft metrics but ones that might diminish post-pandemic when it’s back to cut-throat competition and hard figures on the bottom line. It’s also not surprising to hear our CX50 executives advocating for customer experience as an important driver of differentiation and growth. That said, it’s hard to argue against them.
Roberts insists: “CX improvement will help us to deliver growth, especially in the area of personalisation. This means in the future we will know our customers better, be able to prioritise their needs more accurately and engage with them in the way they prefer. This will, in turn, drive efficiencies, meaning we can focus our investment priorities onto other areas in the future.”
Evans concludes: “My view is that the bar on customer experience has been raised through Covid because of new cohorts coming in and because of an increase in digital sophistication. New customers are coming to digital, doing new and more complex things.
“Everyone is going to have to raise their game. We were only ever limited by our beliefs and the gift of the pandemic is that it has shattered the illusion of what’s possible.”