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The impact of Covid-19 and the resulting social distancing has accelerated our online journey, pulling new businesses and customers onto digital platforms.

While this holds the potential for more positive, optimised customer experiences, it also prompts the question: how do we sell to customers online without alienating them?

We recently held a panel discussion in partnership with MarketforceLive, called “Connected customer: Human and the Digital”. Our conversations during that event reflected the need to lead with human connection when we build our customer journeys. This is a multi-layered task that requires a deep, holistic understanding of our customers to design better digital experiences, and to use digital to improve how a brand is viewed as a whole.

It’s not an issue of human versus digital anymore but, rather, a complementary relationship between human and digital. Alan Linter, Innovation and Data Science Director at Capita, elaborated on this: “I think it's not an ‘either / or’, it's an ‘and’.”

This is great in theory, but how can companies implement it in practice and at scale? Charles Instone, Chief Marketing Officer for The Drugstore, shared how the business experienced a huge influx of traffic and online sales during the lockdown. Its e-commerce revenues doubled, giving it a vast amount of data to sift through. The experience changed the way it ran the customer journey.

He said: “We invested heavily in getting to know our customer, forming a bond and delivering above expectation, from customer service to fulfillment, how people interact in the chat on our site, how automation flows post-purchase and all the way down to fulfillment.”

The Drugstore analysed what ‘customer’ meant to it, not just from a financial point of view but the time that people spent interacting with its customer service team. Thankfully, intelligent technologies offer us vast amounts of data that enable us to analyse customer behaviour at every touch point. As Charles emphasised, when customers are treated personally by a company from their initial contact to after their purchase, they’re more likely to stay loyal, spend more and view the company in a positive light.

Digitisation at scale comes with its own challenges, but also its own opportunities to address pain points quickly. Jade Denham, Head of Digital UX & Product at Holland & Barrett, spoke about how to approach digitisation in a way that doesn’t compromise customer behaviour.

Following a steep rise in orders during lockdown, Holland & Barrett found that customers couldn’t place their orders and have them fulfilled efficiently. The company swiftly isolated pain points in its order process and, with all hands on deck, automated the query process in just two days.

However, while the company could have fully automated its order management processes, it wanted to maintain the human connection, understanding that digital works best when it makes the most of human skills and knowledge.

Alan shared Capita’s approach to the customer journey: “We focus very much on what we call life moments, when we look at customer journeys, to understand the context of people’s interactions with organisations. That really puts us in a person’s shoes and explains the emotions behind each action.

“I think the danger is that, rather than being a customer-centric exercise, automation can often be viewed as a way of saving money in terms of taking cost out of business rather than creating brand advocacy.”

Pete Buckley, Communications Planner at Facebook, said that customers appreciate their enquiries being dealt with quickly and easily. If digital solves these challenges, the customer will appreciate that and be loyal to the brand. He shared data from Kantar that shows that, in a four-week period reported in May 2020, 39% of people had messaged a business, with 42% of them doing it for the first time. There is real and important growth happening in automation.

He said: “Automation is very good at low complexity, high scale operations and that's where you should really focus. I sometimes think that, because there's a lot of excitement around automation and chat boxes, people try [to] do too much with them and try [to] get them to do things that maybe they're not actually designed to do.” It raises the question of where we should invest in automation and where we should continue to invest in human contact.

This, as Jade explained, is an opportunity to determine which touch points are best for the customer while using the available qualitative and quantitative data on their pain points, web flow and interaction.

When it comes to unhappy customers, the omni-channel customer experience comes into its own. Pete argued that, at that point in the process, their ease of access to human interaction is crucial, as are feedback touch points to find out whether problems have been solved. Charles saw it as an opportunity for deeper customer insight: “We really try [to] get the customer to voice what their issue is and really articulate why they found it frustrating. It's almost like a small counselling session between customer and brand. That mends the relationship a lot better than just trying to automate or saying ‘well, they had a bad experience, we lost this customer’. It also provides great learning as well for that future transition between automation and human.”

What steps can companies take to begin digitising their customer experiences now? Aldo Agostinelli, Digital Officer at Sky Italia, shared his steps to achieving a successful digital transformation:

  • Carefully analyse the nature of the company and the market it hopes to reach
  • Develop a wide-ranging vision that spans and integrates all departments
  • Execute with frequent testing to verify if the digital journey is going in the right direction
  • Invest in the right technology for your business – this doesn’t necessarily mean the flashiest or most expensive technology 
  • Regularly listen to internal and external feedback 
  • Examine your company ethos – if your business is not customer-centric, no amount of technology will change that. In this case, customer centricity is defined as staying close to the customer, so that you understand their needs and how to respond to them quickly and precisely. 

Alan concluded: “It’s about understanding our customers and making experiences customer-centric, not technology-led; having that focus and really thinking about how you use it to make emotive experiences and interactions with organisations actually key to brand advocacy.

“Achieving customer loyalty in a time of digitally-led interactions and increasing choice may feel difficult. However, technology gives us access to rich data and a deeper understanding of behavioural triggers that we can better serve with responsive omni-channel experiences.

“Ultimately, automation cannot replace the human touch. We’re innately human. Our customer experiences need to reflect this with inbuilt spontaneity, empathy and responsiveness. Interestingly, by automating many manual tasks, we can help conversations to flow more naturally and free our agents to really listen to and focus on customers - technology can, in effect, make human interactions more human.”

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