How the Pandemic Forced a Dramatic Shift in Digital Consumer Experience Expectations - Part One

“Everything about the customer experience is changing. When the world is swirling, there’s actually no better time to think about the customer.”

-Michelle Peluso, CMO and SVP of digital sales at IBM

The pandemic has ushered in a new era of customer experience, where expectations about what a brand must offer has once again shifted dramatically compared to what they were just 9 months ago. The short story is that consumers expect brands to put more power in their hands than ever before to solve increasingly complex problems, evolving what had become standard operating practice to new, somewhat undefined levels. This has happened before, but this time around it’s happening much faster, forcing brands and their partners to accelerate the process.

While at AKQA and HUGE, I oversaw one of the hottest periods of digital transformation in history, from 2008 to 2016. The era began simply enough, focused on redesigning websites toward emerging standards for user experience. But as time progressed and we learned more about the organizations we served, after hundreds and hundreds of stakeholder interviews, we realized how digitally underdeveloped some of the biggest companies in the world were.

For example, when working with a major investment bank in 2015, we learned that only half of 1% of their brilliant, insightful, thought leadership pieces had ever been downloaded or read. When we met with the executive committee, we told them their enterprise was still set up for the printer and fax era. We knew we could do more than just design a new website – we began teaching clients how to reach customers where they were, and how the experience would be improved as businesses improved their digital platforms.

This is one example of dozens I can think of from my career, and today challenges like this are popping up within every client’s portfolio. With people still largely at home or living with new barriers, letting digital transformation languish is not an option.

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Consumers have more choices today than ever before, and more channels through which to pursue them. What consumers want are simple, integrated solutions to problems, packaged in intuitive and engaging ways. This is what will win with the extremely time fragmented, pandemic consumer.

And we’ve learned a lot about customer experience in 2020. If your customer or digital experience was terrible – you probably know about it and have fixed it or are currently fixing it. You’ve had to address omnichannel, digital and in-store pickup/experience like never before. There has never been a better time to get a new customer, or lock in a loyal one. When uncertainty is the norm, focusing on customer experience can drive massive results for your business.

According to a recent global survey, Omdia's ICT Enterprise Insights 2020–21, improving the customer experience and digital transformation have become lower and lower on the list of most company’s business priorities. Over the past four years, digital transformation has slowed, particularly in the customer experience arena, as many companies thought they had done enough. But this year changed all that, and now, most companies' number one priority is to transform omnichannel engagement with customers – followed closely by expanding and strengthening digital capabilities.

There are four fundamental capabilities you should focus on to deliver a great customer experience.

  • First, know your customer. Really know your customer. If you don’t know them, you can’t deliver a personalized experience.
  • Second, protect the customer. Their security and privacy are critical to maintain trust.
  • Third, choreograph the experience. We have to create engaging interactions that make contact in more than a superficial way.
  • And fourth, we must adapt and innovate. The world is changing, and we can’t keep responding with more of the same. Those who succeed will embrace innovation and continually imagine how the experience can be better for the customer.

You’ve got to have your digital experience locked in like never before, with face-to-face interaction not possible, or limited in some cases. Your customer experience can’t be based on keeping your doors open.

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When the pandemic hit, Murdock Auto Group, a network of GM, Hyundai and Volkswagen dealerships based in Utah, considered turning their marketing off. We advised against it, and not just because of that old marketing maxim that demands doubling down in recessions. The bigger opportunity we saw was the need to rapidly evolve their customer buying experience, from end to end.

We saw that Murdock’s competitors had already shutting off their marketing, meaning any brand that did advertise would have lower-than-usual costs for doing so. Driving down customer acquisition costs is the holy grail in digital marketing. But that was sort of a freebie. Going deeper, we identified customers who were ready to buy, but not necessarily looking at Hyundai’s. We geofenced Hyundai’s local competitors to conquest customers who were deep in the buying process.

Of the 25 markers on the auto-buying customer journey, we identified customers who were around step 18 - beyond consideration and looking to buy - and then hit them with relevant, engaging ads. We identified potential buyers looking at Hondas, for example, and targeted them with similar Hyundai models AND a better offer. This was incredibly helpful in swaying consideration from Hondas (and other brands) to Hyundai’s.

Secondly, due to Covid concerns, the dealership had to work hard to ensure customer safety, but the key outcome is that the group dramatically advanced their digital selling strategy. Max Connect Marketing worked with the brand to reinvent the customer experience, focusing on stronger online shopping, virtual appointments, and selling with minimal interaction. This gave concerned buyers the peace of mind to finalize sales during the pandemic. As a result, Murdock went from the #33 Hyundai dealer in the country to #2, by reimagining the customer experience for car buyers.

While the pandemic drove the latest evolution in customer experience, it’s important to remember that digital is a constantly changing space. Brands that played catch-up during the pandemic should develop a new way of thinking about their digital properties – you must constantly tweak your experience in order to meet consumer demands. Doing so will best prepare you for whatever the world decides to throw at us. And after the pandemic, it’s clear that being ready pays dividends.

In part two of this series, I’ll look at other factors driving changes in consumer behavior and expectations. The commercial forces that reach consumers every day and show no signs of abating, and will arguably impact how brands must act even after the pandemic.