Brands that strived to provide unforgettable experiences for their customers and place them at the core of their business strategy are more likely to withstand the test of time, as compared to those that are still struggling with digital transformation.
According to a 2017 Creative Pulse survey conducted by Adobe with 5,000 creative and marketing professionals around Asia Pacific, the merging of online and offline experiences, adoption of data and analytics and learning new skills were the most important driver of change for these professionals.
Experts that The Drum spoke to highlighted the transformation of customer experiences, as well as investments in that area, which the survey said was the top investment by brands and organisations, as the keys for brand survival.
Kadir Dindar, senior director, global practice customer intelligence at analytics company SAS, believed that businesses were merging online and offline experiences because of digital transformation, which has also forced them to encourage their teams to work with each other.
“The biggest driver of digital transformation has been the Internet and the spread of smartphones. With the smartphone today and for me personally, I use it for Facebook, email, SMS, telephone, website,” explained Dindar.
“I don't see them as a channel, which is the most important thing. For me, when I am in Singapore, I think of Watson or StarHub as companies and not channels. I don't think about contacting StarHub through their call centres.
“Previously, the organisation was traditionally built up as silo channels, so the call centre works independently from the email team, from the website team and from the shops. Everybody is treating the customer differently from the channels.
“Now, the customers go seamlessly around the channels and the number of channels are going down. Today, the possibilities are endless for the customer, who can search different channels to make their purchase.
“This becomes a dilemma for the organisation as they have to cope with the changing dynamics and have to be flexible to meet the customers' requirements.
“So customer experience should be the only topic every organisation should be worried about because that drives the investments in technology, people and channels.”
Concurring with Dindar was Keith Timimi, chairman, Southeast Asia and India at digital marketing and advertising agency VML, who added that the creative part of the house has to work together with the rest of the organisation to provide a connected consumer experience, which is an extremely difficult task to pull off.
“Increasingly, what you see are cross functional teams, whereas in the past, you have a creative team work in isolation from a user experience team on the design of something,” explained Timimi.
“Then it is almost like thrown over a wall to a technical team to build a mobile application and months after the launch, there will be some kind of analytics report that shows people not using the stuff and everybody is wondering what's happening.
“The modern organisation has to bring these people together and work in cross functional teams and mechanisms to take consumer, customer input into that process upfront and throughout those iterations and they have to work in an agile manner.
That's why you will see design thinking coming up as another strong theme.”
For brands like dm Drogerie Markt, Germany’s largest retail chain by revenue, it restructured itself to provide better customer experience by releasing its employees from being confined by the company’s systems, functionality and processes.
So instead of having a team for the online store and a separate team involved in the physical store, both teams work together to provide a seamless experience for their customers.
“We have over 1800 stores and have an online shop as well, the idea is to provide additional services where customers and combine both channels,” said Jochen Kieninger, head of customer relationship management at dm Drogerie Markt.
“Organisations used to think that for a local store, if the manager does not have the product and tells the customer to look for it online, he is giving the store's income to the online store. We cannot think like that way in the future.”
When it came to the adoption of data and analytics, all three professionals encouraged brands to think long and hard about the impact of artificial intelligence on customer experience and to remember their objectives of using AI.
SAS’ Dindar opined that even though AI is now the buzzword, nobody really knows how it can help marketing and CRM. However, he admitted that while most of the hype about AI is its potential, emerging technologies can change the way people are living on this planet
“For organisations, banks and retailers at the moment, they have to think more practically how can AI support processes they have in place. Very often, companies start AI-related projects without really knowing what they want to do and they struggle,” said Dindar.
“They need to think about what can help them, like predictive analysis and simple decisions. If there is more data and the environment is more complex, then AI methodology can help to find the right answers.
“They need to bring the possibilities of AI and link it to the business processes.”
For Timimi of VML, he explained that businesses have to really think about the human dynamics and how the technology is being leverage to serve the human beings, as AI is tremendously exciting and has quite a lot of areas to be concerned about because of its complex environment.
“We have to genuinely work on making this a better experience for all concern, rather than just looking at the bottomline,” argued Timimi.
“Generally, what you often see is the big buzz around transformation is driven by the technology-led consultants. Technology is the clearly an enabler for all of these things to happen.
“But if you start from a technology point of view, then you lose the whole reason that you are doing this. The reason that we are doing these things, is ultimately to better serve our customers.”
As technology becomes the weapon of choice for business when providing a better experience to their customers, how crucial is it for them to remember to keep their personal touch when dealing with customers? According to the experts, human interaction is still very much the rule of the day.
“Our data shows 75% percent of people still prefer personal interaction when they buy something. Of course, they will not deny machines help them because its convenient, but they still need human interaction. At the end of the day, it will be the right combination and balance that is important,” said Dindar.
“To find the right balance, it depends on who companies are selling to. If they sell to only young people basic products, they no need to open shops. They can let machines to do it and the component will be higher.
“If they are selling complex financial products or insurances which covers families and children, people are not going to trust the machine and need someone to look into their eyes to assure them.
“We will see more combinations and for more simpler stuff, machines will help, but human touch will definitely not disappear.
“For example, if I go to the Philippines, in every shop there is more service staff than customers. That is not the problem, because I have a lot of people to help me. If I go to Germany, because salaries are high there is a big shop and maybe only two service people with a lot of customers. This is where we can use AI to be more cost efficient in providing a better experience for the customer.”
Added Kieninger of dm Drogerie Markt: “To me, chatbots are not the next generation of personal interaction, but more for static information. For example, if I go to a supermarket and I am finding a product, one possibility is to ask someone.
“However, not many people are doing that and they looking for signs. Now, if I have an app to find the product, that is not replacement to ask someone for help, but a better alternative to the signs.
Many businesses have responded to emerging technology and the need for digital transformation by setting up innovation labs and centre of excellences, thinking that it will help them to find the magic pill for ways to provide their customers with immersive experiences.
However, Timimi warned that such moves could backfire if businesses fail to adopt a cross-functional working environment first.
“Setting up a centre of excellence, innovation lab and design thinking team does not necessarily mean anything. The integration between these teams and the wider organisation is pretty challenging,” he explained.
“You can set up beautiful design oriented teams that are off changing the world and working in an agile way, but if the rest of the organisation is working exactly how it always has and if there is no clear mechanism, there will be a failure in culture.”
Timimi concluded by sending a sobering message to brands and organisations who are still resistant to change and unwilling to encourage employees to work in cross-functional teams.
“The (Adobe) study highlighted effectively that becoming a customer experience-led organisation, for a vast majority of people, is basically critical to their long-term survival. If you do not very quickly start to bring together the customer and the experiences they are having when they interact with you, then you are living on borrowed time.
“Technologies are definitely needed to affect that change across channels, so it is not surprising to see that connecting offline and online experience has also come up as one of the main, if not the main driver of change.”
“It is very gratifying to me that, that trend is there pretty much across Asia Pacific. It varies across intensity and activations, but that is very critical,” he added.
A survey by CMO and SAP Hybrid titled 'The Customer in Context' earlier this year, found that more than half of North American and European consumers surveyed would rather spend their money elsewhere if they encountered unpleasant customer experience across channels of engagement.