Building stronger digital customer connections has been a core focus for businesses throughout the pandemic. But with the rate of change in the customer experience accelerating, how can customer choice unite people with technology?
The customer journey may have once been simple. Go to a store. Purchase an item. Maybe return that item. Maybe call a customer care centre. Maybe get a catalogue and make a purchase. Maybe tell a friend about your experience. Simple.
That journey has been in flux for decades now. But, the last two plus years have further exacerbated the rate of change. Now the customer journey has to consider online entry points, physical stores, call centres, chatbots, returns, deliveries, social media and more.
And it could be easy for companies to get lost in all that complexity; to focus on the tech and lose what really matters – the human. But, for companies succeeding at delivering a modern customer experience, the human is still the heart of the journey, whether they are engaging with the brand online, in person or in the cloud.
Jo Ager, head of partner care at ClearBank, says the way companies are approaching digital customer experience has changed. “Two years ago, people said ‘It’s too much money; it’s too much of a risk. There’s too much to do.’ But companies don’t have a choice now. They have to change, and they have to do it quickly if they want to retain and continue to grow their customer base.”
ClearBank is a fintech, so its digital purpose is built into the brand. But even for traditionally offline brands, like Nuffield Health, which operates a gym and health network across the UK, customer experiences have been shifting to integrate digital options. During the pandemic, Nuffield Health launched a home workout app, Nuffield Health 24/7, that became incredibly popular. Now, Jacqs Harper, Nuffield Health’s digital director, says users want more from the app. The organisation is developing to include behavioural change nudges that will help customers stick to their fitness and wellbeing goals whether that’s through an on-site gym or a hybrid workout model of on-site and at-home exercise.
It is no outlier, either. EMIS provides connected healthcare software and helped support the NHS with the Covid-19 vaccine programme. During the pandemic, the NHS updated its electronic patient record, allow people to have greater online access to health services. EMIS saw a 75% increase in the number of registered users signing up for Patient Access – a web and app-based service for connecting patients to local health services – from the start of the pandemic. “There was huge disruption and a huge shift,” says EMIS’ group chief operating officer Bob Brown. “And I’m delighted that we see things like the digital transformation agenda - it looks like we’re going to continue with that momentum – so that we can see healthcare evolve beyond where it was.”
Simon Wingate, managing director at Reed.co.uk agrees: “What we had to do was to embrace a more digital relationship with a lot of our customers. Where we would traditionally have gone to see them face-to-face, we had to change our approach. It has made us think very clearly about the way that we want to interact with our customers in future.” He adds that Reed is now more heavily considering how customers want to engage with the brand in determining its future customer strategy.
One of the ways companies are changing their customer journeys is through an omnichannel approach to customer care. Gone are the tedious, long waits for call centres. Now, customer journeys can be augmented by different forms of communication – whether that’s through chatbots, social media or SMS and WhatsApp messages – to ensure customers can interact with brands where and when they want to do so. However, experts agree, it is essential to retain human-to-human touchpoints like call centres, even for digital-first businesses.
This hybrid approach to building digital customer connections has required companies to consider their internal processes and structures more carefully.
And, despite the clear horrors and challenges the pandemic has posed, it has also changed the world of work. For some employers, hybrid working has helped plug the talent gap. “It’s opened up the employment market,” Ager says. “We can employ anyone from around the country because they can work online. So actually, we can tap into a broader talent pool.” This helps bolster the company’s tech capabilities and can help it improve not only its employee experience, but its customer experience too.
But the future will bring further change to the customer experience. Data will play a big role, all agree, in personalising the customer journey, delivering better communications and positively impacting the bottom line. Ager notes, though, that the use of digital tools will have to be balanced with ongoing human touchpoints – a strategy that can be informed by effective data analysis – to ensure that customers can reach people when and where they need to.
“I couldn’t agree more on that balanced approach. This omnichannel approach – dealing with the right customer at the right time to suit them through the channel that they want – is incredibly important,” says Wingate, “All of these amazing pieces of technology are only going to grow that human connection with someone. Finding the balance between technology, automation and human connection is really important.”
Harper adds that personalisation will contribute to a better ability to foster a community relationship between a brand and its customers. “Community is something that we saw come out of the pandemic too. As human beings, it’s important to us to be part of a community. In healthcare, tech can enable people who have been through a similar experience to get together and support each other.”
Maybe it was once simpler. But that doesn’t mean that companies are unable to deal with the complexity of modern customer journeys. In fact, they might be more adept at handling things because of – not in spite of – the technologies available to them. “There’s been an acceleration of change over the past two years,” says Matthew Parker, country manager UK&I at Vonage. “Giving customers channels of choice in whatever form they want is a very common thing now. It’s definitely something that everybody is adapting to,” he adds, whether that’s in the recruitment arena, customer service or in the shift to hybrid work.
Companies are changing, as are the ways their audiences are interacting with them. Simple? Perhaps not. But for those companies that can marry digital customer connections with an authentic human relationship, the future is bright indeed.