The COVID-19 pandemic, and its associated lockdowns and restrictions, have impacted virtually every aspect of people’s lives this year. Many organisations have had to rapidly transition to remote working setups, in addition to overhauling how they provide products and services to customers in a safe and sustainable way.

Man sat on a chair outside, using a tablet device

Throughout this period of great change, digital channels have come to the fore in serving, updating and communicating with customers. Today, consumers not only expect to be able to do things digitally, but may even prefer the convenience and flexibility of these interactions over traditional channels.

As we look ahead to a post-pandemic world then, it’s clear that digital platforms will continue to play a major role in any strategic plans. And while customers may have accepted compromises in service while companies were adjusting to the ‘new normal’, a renewed focus on improving the customer experience will be vital to safeguard long-term trust, loyalty and success.

In this blog post I’ll be exploring some of the most important elements organisations will need to address when planning the future of their digital strategy, looking specifically at how COVID-19 has surfaced new needs, constraints and customer expectations that may change our understanding of what makes a truly exceptional cross-functional customer experience.

What is a good customer experience?

How your users experience your product or service is informed by every aspect of their interactions with your brand, across all touchpoints both physical and digital. Good customer experience management should provide users with relevant, timely information, and guide them through tasks in a way that’s intuitive and is centred around their needs, constraints and contexts of use.

Key elements of the overall customer experience include streamlined and seamless cross-functional journeys within and across your different touchpoints, information and actions that are clearly defined and signposted, and value-add ‘delighters’ that increase usability and, ultimately, satisfaction.

Close up of tablet device with laptop in background

Why is customer experience so important?

There’s an enormous incentive to create a good customer experience, as the better users are able to navigate and interact with your products and services, the more popular and profitable they become. Conversely, a bad experience can prevent users from achieving their goals, damaging your brand reputation and making it less likely that they will buy your products or use your services again.

The power of customer experience management has become clear during the coronavirus pandemic. As organisations seek safety in 2021 after a year of upheaval, a significant proportion are looking to existing markets in the year ahead – according to the Gartner CMO Spend Survey, 79% of CMOs plan to rely primarily on these markets to fuel growth.

Organisations have also had to rapidly react to changing customer needs and extremely high levels of uncertainty, with new information, services and business models. In these situations making things easy for users – and so fostering trust and customer loyalty – is more important than ever, particularly in the face of growing customer expectation. Indeed, even prior to the pandemic research found that marketers increasingly expect customers to place emphasis on trusting relationships, with the 2020 CMO Survey reporting a 40.2% growth in this area year-on-year.

The future of customer experience

COVID-19 forced organisations of all shapes, sizes and sectors to rapidly and radically overhaul their ways of working, to maintain business operations and respond to a changing landscape. These innovations will undoubtedly play a major role in how the overall customer experience is shaped, delivered and managed in a ‘post-pandemic’ world.

The recovery will be digital

As has already been mentioned, digital channels have played a critical role throughout the pandemic, and COVID-19’s impact on digital adoption has been astonishing. Businesses are now interacting digitally with their customers in a way that is 3 to 4 years ahead of where it was pre-COVID, and the move towards digitised product or service offerings has sped up even further – by between 6 and 10 years, depending on locality.

Laptop showing man on video call, with book and other person in foreground

For customers, the pandemic has led many to turn to digital channels for the first time, to complete everyday tasks such as shopping, banking and communication. Even for customers already familiar with digital technologies, these channels have now become a central aspect of daily life, playing a prominent role in supporting remote working and social interaction.

With a greater number of customers now more experienced in and comfortable with using digital in a range of different ways, it’s clear that digital technologies will need to be at the heart of future strategies in order to maintain high levels of customer experience, not to mention competitive business advantage. This is true no matter what scale your business operates at; for example many local businesses have built a greater online presence in recent months, in response to customers wanting to show support while physical premises remain closed or operate at limited capacity.

Emerging from the disruption of 2020 then, McKinsey is predicting a 2022 ‘COVID-Exit’, with 2021 being the pivotal year for organisations investing in, developing and launching their digitisation plans. What this means is that, if you’re not already there, it’s time to start defining your own digital requirements and priorities to inform a long-term roadmap that will enable you to keep up with demand, as well as reveal potential opportunities for efficiency, automation and consolidation.

This latter point is driven by another unfortunate impact of the pandemic, as businesses seek to recover from what may be a significant downturn in revenue, and are forced to look realistically at where costs can be saved without affecting the quality of their output. Here investment in digital technologies can present a valuable opportunity to streamline processes and reduce administrative overhead, allowing innovation to continue and even increase. Bringing customers online can also deliver cost efficiencies, and by improving the customer experience you’ll be able to retain them more easily, boosting satisfaction to maximise interaction with the customer, alongside engagement and conversions.

Service matters more than ever

Particularly in times of crisis, a company’s behaviour matters more than ever, and can have a lasting impact on customer sentiment and relationships. At the same time the shift from face-to-face interactions can make it more difficult to connect authentically with customers – meaning it’s vital that you build digital support channels and services that keep the user and their needs at the heart of all activity.

We’ve seen during the pandemic how digital channels have been relied upon more than ever to deliver information and aid, as customers seek support and confidence as a reaction to new limitations and increased uncertainty. Organisations able to respond effectively to this demand have been able to forge stronger relationships with their customers, and differentiate themselves from their competitors through their support offering.

Woman with headset sat in front of laptop

With digital set to remain a key customer touchpoint well beyond the pandemic and its associated restrictions, it’s vital to maintain this investment in online support and omnichannel digital communications. Customers today demand quick, clear responses to their questions, and an easy means of rectifying things when they go wrong (for example, many retailers have not only increased investment in ecommerce, but are managing their returns processes online too).

Remember though that delivering a good customer experience experience relies on more than just technology, and needs people and processes in place that can respond to updates quickly, to maintain trust and reduce frustration. This underlying infrastructure is also vital for maintaining one-to-one interactions with customers, which will help replicate the in-person experience as closely as possible and enable tailored responses that can help resolve issues faster, drive conversions and even uncover opportunities for future business.

Your support offering should also be cross-channel, cross-functional and holistic, to reduce the risk of confusing or angering users as well as minimise any duplication of effort by your customer service teams. This highlights the importance of service design, which looks beyond individual optimisation activities to understand how all of an organisation’s touchpoints work together to support the customer journey.

Keep customer needs front-and-centre

Customer needs and preferences have evolved rapidly as a result of the coronavirus pandemic, with demand for flexibility and convenience in particular becoming highly prized, as everyday interactions become more limited and complex. As a result many organisations have had to adapt to meet these new demands, making changes to their processes that will enable them to maintain high levels of responsiveness in the post-pandemic world.

There have been adjustments required at all levels, from extending or enhancing existing services (for example, retailers offering a broader range of delivery options) to introducing new capabilities (such as online ordering systems for hospitality venues), to responding to needs that didn’t exist previously (support services from the government and NHS, for example).

Man in mask delivering pizza boxes

These adjustments may have initially been implemented with limited planning and preparation, but the results have shown that by responding to customer needs and prioritising flexibility and convenience – two key elements of a good customer experience – organisations can make a measurable impact on satisfaction, engagement and conversions. These lessons should be carried forward as we emerge from the pandemic, both to inform new opportunities and initiatives as well as build on any changes made during the crisis to ensure they can be maintained and scaled effectively.

It will remain key to keep a real-time pulse on changing customer needs and rapidly innovate, to redesign journeys and experiences for different contexts and motivations. User research will play a crucial role here, requiring that organisations put in place mechanisms to capture insight into new and existing products and gain regular customer feedback, as well as removing any barriers that may be preventing this currently.

It’s also important to consider how your audience may have shifted as a result of the pandemic, particularly when thinking about your digital channels. As I mentioned in a previous section these channels have been increasingly taken up in the absence of in-person interactions, by new users who may not have the same experience or requirements as previous target groups. It’s especially important to gather feedback from a wide range of representative users, to ensure that you deliver a customer experience that’s as inclusive and accessible as possible.

Woman holding credit card in front of laptop, with water jug and glass

Providing support is key to this process too; make sure you include explanations and additional guidance where required to aid in the customer journey. Don’t forget too that some customers may prefer to return to more traditional channels once the restrictions of the pandemic begin to be lifted, so build these into your customer experience strategy and service design plans in order to meet customers wherever they expect to find you.

Future-proofing and innovation

A focus on user research and customer-centric design will help drive your strategy over the long-term, uncovering further opportunities for innovation and transformation that support a positive customer experience and strong business performance. For example, as customers become used to digital interactions you may want to introduce greater options around self-service, increase your range of digital programmes and packages, or build an online community around your products and services.

The pandemic has also highlighted the importance of maintaining business continuity in challenging circumstances, and there may be lessons learned here that you can build upon to make your business more robust for the future. For example, retailers without an existing ecommerce offering have found themselves at a noticeable disadvantage compared to those with a high level of maturity, and the convenience of buying online means it’s sure to remain a popular option even as physical stores become more accessible. Customers will also likely expect the in-person shopping experience to become more streamlined as cash-free and contactless payment methods have grown in availability and capability throughout the pandemic, revealing another potential area of investment.

Person making contactless payment using smartphone

A related consideration here is how you service customer needs in the long-term. Many businesses have had to adopt remote working models in response to lockdown measures, and may wish to continue with this in some form, to provide their employees with greater flexibility and widen their available talent pool. As these ways of working become more permanent you may need to review your processes and invest in new systems to ensure that employees can continue to serve customers effectively while working away from an office environment.

In conclusion

Responding to the pandemic has been one of the largest challenges many businesses have had to face, and its impact will last long after we move into the New Normal, Next Normal, Post Normal or whatever else it might be termed. It has also reinforced however the potential of digital technologies to meet changing needs, and deliver a great customer experience that drives satisfaction and engagement. Keeping customer experience management front-of-mind should therefore remain a priority for organisations in the post-pandemic world, so that they can continue to grow their business and maintain positive and productive client relationships.

At Box UK we have a strong team of User Experience & Design (UX&D) consultants with extensive experience across a range of disciplines. If you’re interested in finding out more about how we can help you, contact us on +44 (0)20 7439 1900 or email uxteam@boxuk.com.