Reimagining digital customer experience and brand engagement


As companies strive toward a frictionless digital experience, they must find ways to improve customer loyalty and trust. How will digital customer experience evolve in the coming year?

The pandemic-induced explosion of ecommerce and the acceleration of digital transformation means that most companies will re-examine and revamp their customer experience strategies and capabilities in the coming year. With customer loyalty increasingly difficult to gain and sustain, pioneering, data-powered technologies will improve the seamlessness of these digital experiences and deliver better brand engagement.

A dozen leaders in the customer experience (CX) space spanning a range of industries – including healthcare, travel, insurance, and banking – met to discuss challenges and solutions, and debate the direction of travel in the coming year. 

The lively discussion, supported by Vonage, a global business cloud communications leader, examined customer loyalty and trust, delivering CX with less friction, and how digital CX and brand engagement might develop in the coming year.

The conversation took off with Jack Smith, director of digital at British Airways (BA), who stressed the importance of ‘human touch’ with CX, an even more crucial point in the digital age. He said that BA is both “fortunate and unfortunate” because it is a well-recognised UK organisation.

When Smith joined BA, in 2017, there was much work to do on the digital CX front. “The challenge was that the digital channels didn’t represent the same human touch evident on our flights,” he said. “The tone of voice was robotic, like a booking system, and there was no conversation.”

While chatbots and other digital solutions are popular, Smith warned: “These wonderful bits of technology and digital channels miss the point if you are led by tech; you have to remember there’s a person at the other end.”

Lucy Jones, vice president of clinical at Oviva, noted that organisations now have the challenge of meeting ever-rising customer expectations. These have drastically evolved with the shift to digital platforms for ecommerce and thanks to the acceleration of digital transformation in health and communication since the start of the pandemic. As a result, retaining customer loyalty is perilously tricky.

Building trust is a must

“Digital loyalty is not like bricks-and-mortar businesses where the cost and complexity of transitioning [to a rival] is enough to buy a little slack,” Jones said. “In the digital space, it’s simple for that alliance to be lost if we are not meeting customer expectations.” Therefore, she added, it is imperative to build trust through “providing a seamless experience, avoiding wait and holding true to your promises.”

Avoiding friction is essential, agreed James Elliott, head of customer and commercial experience at Bupa Global. “We’re desperately trying not to make the mistake of creating infinite loops for customers to fall into,” he said. “We are attempting to educate customers to make the right choice, but still 40% of them want to contact us via email, which is not an optimal, quick experience. 

Elliott added: “We want to create a digital-first portal to triage and prioritise customer needs, whether it’s an urgent phone call or a scheduled outbound call at their convenience. What you don’t want is to spend 20 minutes searching through the frequently asked questions and then another 20 minutes finding a customer service telephone number.”

Digital loyalty is effectively achieved through more personalised and omnichannel [experiences], but fundamentally it won’t work just with technology; it has to have an emotional connection with the customer

Educating customers was also high up on the list for Dr Alice Pan, global chief medical officer at Bima,a provider of health and insurance solutions for the emerging middle class in Asia and Africa. Digital technologies, she says, can not only support diagnosis and treatment of health conditions but also enable prevention and wellness promotion.

But there has been a learning curve for Bima as well. Lockdowns and the need for treatments led to Bima offering a telemedicine service in the last year, and the uptake has been incredible. “Our internal research shows that after the first use of telemedicine, the percentage of people selecting it as their preferred channel of accessing healthcare went from 5.8% to 58%,” she said. “It shows that trying something for the first time can shatter preconceptions.”

Be true to your purpose

Conny Kalcher, group chief customer officer at Zurich, identified a “major change” in what customers – especially younger generations – expect from organisations. “They want to buy from brands that do good, not just [those] doing well in business,” she said. When Kalcher took up her new role at the global insurance firm in July 2019, she updated the company’s purpose to be more ambitious and less self-interested. 

“It was ‘we are here to protect you,’ but – guess what – all insurance companies are here to protect you,” she said. “It was not a unique message, so we co-created with customers to develop a new, inclusive purpose, which is ‘create a brighter future together.’ The younger parts of our customer base desire not just a brand purpose, but a sense of community. However, if you define your purpose, it’s not just nice words on a piece of paper; you have to live by that purpose.”

However, Dr Anthoula Madden, managing director of customer experience at Accenture, said the supposed digital divide between generations is narrowing. She pointed out that the pandemic triggered a 160% increase in ecommerce from “new or low-frequency users.” She said: “The generational gap around digital seems to be fading away, and more consumers of all ages are very comfortable with shopping online, especially using their smartphones.”

Research from Oviva supported this. Jones said: “I was surprised that 60% of customers across Europe will either mostly or only use a mobile phone for engaging in shopping and interacting with services such as healthcare; and it’s not just those under the age of 25, it’s across the board.”

Additionally, Madden encouraged businesses to invest in technology solutions, but do so in an agile way, testing and learning what might work best. “You need to be prepared to experiment. Fail fast. Just try it out, and if it doesn’t work, try something else.”

Value exchange: more choice and customer empowerment

For Stephen Gilbert, EMEA loyalty solutions director at Collinson, a company that offers loyalty programme solutions and owns airport lounge and experiences programme, Priority Pass, funding tech projects is not enough. He said: “Digital loyalty is effectively achieved through more personalised and omnichannel [experiences], but fundamentally it won’t work just with technology; it has to have an emotional connection with the customer.”

Gilbert added: “That’s the strategy piece you have to determine. There has to be a perceived value exchange between the customer and the brand. That is one of the keys to a loyalty programme.” But, he warned: “If organisations don’t see this as part of their branding and view it as digital marketing alongside a piece of technology, it will fail.”

What you don’t want is to ask people to remember the first, third and seventh digits of a passcode they have not used in years and leave them in a doom loop of password hell.

That insight resonated with Sue Bradley, director of customer experience delivery at Tui, the world’s largest leisure, travel and tourism company. Tui announced it was investing more in advertising to support the launch of the new ‘Live Happy’ campaign and to drive online sales. Bradley revealed the thoughts behind the recent ‘Live happy’ campaign.

“We wanted ‘Live happy’ to be inspirational,” said Bradley. “Tui offers a wide range of products, as well as the beach package holidays which we’re well known for, we also offer cities, tours cruises and ski. Our customers want to know that they are going to have fun when they go on holiday and at Tui, we help create those moments that make life richer. We also recognise the importance of experience. This week we launched the ‘Makers of happy,’ [referring to] our colleagues who make it memorable and personal for our customers.”

Tui has also released a new smartphone application to guide the customer journey. As well as being able to chat to the team 24/7, the app shows flight information, plus details about transfers including coach number and location. “It makes it far simpler,” said Bradley. “But what we found is more than ever, in this time of a global pandemic, people want that human touch.”

Reducing friction: beware the password doom loop 

Integrating people into the digital experience was a key focus for most. Kalcher said: “A younger person might not want to talk to an agent, they prefer to find their own way, while other customers might need that personal assurance. So, it’s all about understanding your different customer segments and letting customers choose how to interact with the company.”

Smith concurred that empowering the customer is vital. But some brands miss the mark in this respect. “People often confuse ‘automation’ and ‘digital,’” he said. “They think that digital is a way to remove and automate processes, and it’s not. It can be hugely enabling, but there has to be that human need and human touch. 

He added: “For example, if you have a healthcare app that provides the patient with all their details and data, they are empowered. But it doesn’t mean they want to be left alone.”

On the topic of friction, Lisa Scott, chief marketing officer of Banked, a global payments network “built on modern bank rails,” said the Strong Customer Authentication rules, introduced by the Financial Conduct Authority, has meant another layer of verification has slowed the online purchase process in the financial services industry – and perhaps that is no bad thing. The frustration, though, is that there are so many methods of secondary authentication across various apps. 

“Do you want that additional verification to be an SMS message notification,” she asked. “Could it be something like your fingerprint or facial recognition? If they can make it simple and quick, and thereby reduce friction, then that’s good. What you don’t want is to ask people to remember the first, third and seventh digits of a passcode they have not used in years and leave them in a doom loop of password hell.”

Direction of travel: be cleverer with data use 

Looking at how CX might develop in the coming years, Ashish Bhardwaj, senior solutions architect at Informa, emphasised the importance of data. Make sure you gather customer data and compliment it with secondary data,” he said. “You can personalise experiences and make relevant, proactive suggestions for the customer. The use of data and the tone in which it is communicated should be a careful choice from the marketing and communications teams.”

Madden confessed to being a “big fan” of the John Lewis app. “It’s amazing,” she said. “It shows your loyalty card, all your receipts, and it’s quite personalised. As long as I can see some value in engaging with that brand, then I will do so, but if you are a brand that keeps bombarding me with meaningless emails, I will block you.”

Looking further ahead, Mohammad Al-Ubaydli, CEO of Patients Know Best, predicted that sustainability could – and should – feature more prominently in CX, for the greater good. He said of COP26 that he sensed a groundswell of public demand for greater environmentally friendly processes.

Al-Ubaydli said: “When I consider the next 10 years in healthcare, the big question is: with an ageing population, how can you continue to deliver universal coverage? Everyone’s talking about not having enough money to help, but even if there was enough money, there are not enough professionals to look after everyone. The only solution is digital. If a person obtains their test results and knows what to do, it avoids clogging up an appointment with the doctor.

With the COP26 refrain of “keep 1.5 alive” possibly still ringing in his ears, Al-Ubaydli suggested that the desire to embrace digital solutions would be much greater in 20 years, as patients strive for more sustainable – and less wasteful – healthcare. “If we want to be able to afford universal coverage structurally, then you must allow people to have the medical data to look after themselves.”

He added: “About 5% of the vehicles on the UK’s roads are related to the National Health Service. Indeed, 5% of carbon emissions in the developing world are healthcare-related. So, if you can prevent the need to travel, stop the need for operations and so on, that is a serious contribution to reducing carbon. By protecting the patient, you protect the healthcare system, and ultimately you protect the planet.” 

Clearly, environmental concerns are one more factor to add to the already complicated world of digital CX, which has undergone incredible evolution in the last couple of years, spurred by the coronavirus fallout. Customers are increasingly demanding, but organisations that fail to keep pace will see brand engagement and loyalty melt away.