Recapturing the magic of customer experiences post Covid-19

Recapturing the magic of customer experiences post Covid-19

With businesses needing to stay open and provide a safe environment for customers concerned about coronavirus, Rob Hinchcliffe, content director for EPAM Continuum, considers how the entertainment and food businesses could change.

In just a few months the whole world of business and commerce has undergone tremendous change as a result of Covid-19. This pandemic has been referred to as the “black swan of the decade,” as it’s taken companies of all sizes and structure by surprise and effectively slowed or halted entire industries. And, of course, some of those most effected are those that invite people into shared spaces, such as gyms, clubs, hotels, restaurants, theatres and retail.

While this new era we are entering is uncharted, it is important to recognise that, throughout history, crises have often been a catalytic force heralding creative disruption by sparking new ideas, skills, technologies and processes. Indeed, times of unbridled chaos have the potential to significantly change entire industries and give birth to new ones.

Of course, the big focus for businesses is creating trust and safety and we have been working with our clients to develop robust health and safety systems, such as Screen Doors (temperature scanners), contact tracing apps and queuing systems with spatial management control dashboards.

But as well as building the operational, rational infrastructure that will underpin our lives for the immediate future, we are also busy redesigning and rebuilding the emotional heart of our social interactions. Essentially we‘re trying to answer the question of how we bring the joy back into the shared social experiences we love and depend on.

As we work with our global clients — that include airports, cinemas, and retailers —this question of building trust and delight has become a huge focus for us as we help them not just reopen, but to recover, regrow and prepare for future disruption.

Connecting physical with digital to reconnect with customers

Fear, worry, and stress have changed all our behaviors to some extent in recent months. All are completely natural responses in these unpredictable times. As a consequence, we should be asking ourselves the question: how can we reconnect with customers in a way that’s mindful of these new needs?

Social distancing and physical isolation have transformed the meaning of presence and created unconventional models of participation. Events that could only be enjoyed by a few hundred or thousand people are now accessible to connected audiences in the millions. Live Instagram gigs, late-night virtual raves, drive-in movies, and live gym training sessions have all brought much needed joy through lockdown. While these experiences have been makeshift, and in many ways transient, we believe the genesis of these digital systems point the way — in terms of flexibility, convenience, power to connect and scale—as we look towards designing the new world.

Not only that, but when integrated with reimagined shared physical spaces, the partnership between digital and physical can create a powerful, connected experience for customers like never before.

Concerts, theatres, cinemas, conferences and festivals could be the biggest beneficiaries in the post-crisis environment – becoming leaner in organisation and operations and expanding their reach through new participatory experience models. Every space can become part of the event experience: from the physical venue, to live streaming, to broadcast television, and smaller satellite venues in different locations. Guests can choose when and how to take part in a way that feels comfortable for them; to book the free seats, to check-in in advance, or opt-in for a mixed model of participation. This allows the management of capacity in advance and increases the number of tickets sold by offering more than one way to enjoy the experience.

A new normal demands new conversations and ways of working

One of the businesses who has stepped up during the pandemic to create moments of joy and a genuine point of difference in their sector is Vue Entertainment. With all cinemas closed across the UK many of their competitors chose to dial down their social comms, but we worked with Vue to ramp up content across their owned channels as a way to maintain brand momentum and engage audiences who were missing the big screen experience.

Over the past five years we’ve helped Vue carve out a distinctive brand presence across multiple channels, differentiating them from competitors in a crowded and fast-moving space. During Covid-19, with theatrical releases on hold, we not only had to create a whole new set of messages but also entirely new ways of working in order to deliver them.

Our challenge was to concept, produce and publish clear, thoughtful and inventive content on a daily basis; working in 24-hour cycles to deliver content that built on the themes and topics we felt confident owning, and matching them with the emerging behaviours, worries, and feelings of lockdown.

By concepting, creating, publishing and optimising content in rapid cycles we were able to produce topical film memes that resonated with the Vue audience, playing back relatable lockdown behaviours (home-schooling, bodged haircuts and home baking to mention just a few) and softening the blow of cancelled cultural events and blockbuster releases. By establishing a tone and cadence relatively quickly, Vue was able to lead a broader conversation, one that was obviously appreciated by an audience who were seeing a brand continue to engage and entertain outside of a purely commercial environment.

As a result, reach and engagement metrics increased during lockdown as Vue developed permission to speak to audiences and themes outside of its usual parameters and was to fill the relative vacuum left by competitor brands. More recently this approach has paid off in other ways, as cinemas plan to reopen their doors. A tonal and thematic shift has been gradually introduced to Vue’s content mix, with content designed to remind people of the joys of cinema running alongside messaging that creates trust and reassurance around new safety measures. As trust is much easier to instil in an audience as part of an ongoing conversation, the positive sentiment around the brand has continued to rise even through this tricky and knotty ‘end of lockdown’ period.

Vue’s decision to continue the conversation, to maintain their key customer touchpoints even when there were no tickets to sell, is one example of the shifting approach to brand value and what it means to elevate the customer journey. It’s never been more important to connect emotionally to people through online and in-person communications, through the design of our physical spaces or new industrial products, to ensure we’re creating moments of delight in even the smallest details. Thoughtful and personally tailored services make customers feel more engaged and connected even when not physically present.

Creating new business models that have human-centered, integrated experiences at their heart

This is an opportunity for entire industries to reinvent themselves across supply chains, production lines, outputs, and business models — redefining new ways of reaching clients and consumers with products and service models that are sustainable and relevant in a crisis and beyond.

Food retailers and F&B have been the most active sectors in this regard. We have seen the introduction of ghost kitchens, networked food systems, exclusive delivery meals and services, bespoke packaging, and personalised communications that are here to stay. Not to mention the active support for care workers through free coffee, meals and delivery services — from national chains right through to local, independent outfits.

We have also seen the limits of existing models during this period, including retail, one of the most impacted sectors. Shoppers‘ priorities have shifted and so too must the models that served them. Now is the time to integrate technology in more meaningful ways, adapting to new shopping behaviours while keeping the exploration and joy associated with browsing and purchase experiences. Imagine an assistant who knows exactly what you like and can send you the latest trends that will fit your taste and body type and arrange for it to be returned if you dislike it. High-end fashion businesses such as Marella are already experimenting with this via WhatsApp. There is a need to expand into mixed offerings, and new in-home services, as well as touchless physical experiences or secondary points of sales or self-checkout.

Responding to the emergency with a near-term response, solely focused on reopening and getting customers back, while adhering to new standards, is a good start, but it won’t be enough. Businesses need a mid-term plan focused on new models and enhanced offerings and services based on gradual revenue growth and changing behaviours – as well as a long-term response for eventual new disruptions, which are born out of any great periods of change. And they must do this at a time of great financial stress for their organisations.

We believe businesses should adopt a modular approach to recovery – putting in place a number of small, flexible solutions that work together and can be flexed or reconfigured dependent on changing operating environments. This could be modular commerce and fulfilment models such as instore/pavement pick up, flexible cloud-architectures that can shift as demand fluctuates, flexible stock models, agility in the way that customer loyalty is rewarded, automation across front and back office systems, or flexibility in apps to provide timely and valued functionality. If this new environment teaches us anything it may be that digital transformation can be nimble and iterative (and not all-at-once and only for the cash rich!); and that these technologies can become the enablers of smart creative and human thinking, that will quickly come to define next-generation social experiences.

Those who embrace such momentous change and dare to define new integrated, hybrid business models — incorporating both digital and physical — will usher in the next generation of customer experience, one that not only returns trust and joy to our shared spaces but also helps businesses relaunch, regrow and recover.

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