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What the pandemic could mean for the future of CX

by Morag Cuddefordjones

April 30, 2021

Back in November 2018, Forrester held its CX Europe Forum. More than 500 global leaders joined together to share their insights into how to manage the contradictions that face marketers in delivering best-in-class customer experience (CX).

But this was pre-pandemic. How do their assertions stand up in a world that has undergone possibly one of the most transformative 12-month periods it has experienced since at least the Second World War. As some have put it, “The asteroid has hit, now what?

Is anything private anymore?

One of the first issues the forum tackled was that of privacy and consent. Personalization is certainly convenient on many levels – holiday packages tailored to customer preference to avoid lengthy trawling through websites; timely reminders to buy insurance or look for a better deal from your utility provider.

COVID-19 threw the idea of privacy and consent into sharp relief. Nations’ various track and trace systems relied on individuals being unsparing with their own data – and even that of others. Location, health status, friendship groups – these were all being shared with entities that hadn’t even existed mere months previously.

There is no suggestion that, despite their relative youth, these new organizations hadn’t done their data due diligence but time was of the essence. ‘Customers’ had to put their trust in them, knowing it was for the greater good. Could the accelerated need to share health data have affected customers’ views on privacy overall?

It’s hard to say. However, research from Deloitte does reveal that consumers are significantly less worried about data sharing than they used to be. In 2018, 47% of survey respondents were ‘very concerned’ about the use of their data. By 2020, that had halved to 24%.

The customer’s hierarchy of needs

The start of the pandemic was characterised by a message of ‘all in it together’. Consumers, congnizant of their own privations – stay at home, don’t see friends and family – were a bit more forgiving of companies and the people who worked for them.

Companies focused on bootstrapping their operations to meet the work from home requirements. The refrain ‘please bear with us as we adapt’ was a familiar refrain. Whereas before customers might have expected their suppliers to be up to date on their history, or willing to go the extra mile to ensure their continued loyalty, early 2020 saw customers just happy in getting a slot for their groceries or discovering that a potter round the garden centre could also qualify as essential retail.

This magnanimity is unlikely to last. Consumers have seen companies survive and even thrive as they adapted to lockdown. They have developed an understanding of what organizations can achieve through virtual technologies. Expectations are once more starting to rise, and brands are having to revert to a position of doing the basics well, and then adding the cherry on top for good measure.

One customer at a time

Hyper-personalization has been difficult during lockdown. The one-to-one, usually in-person experience so central to industries such as hospitality, travel, and luxury have been put on hold as their sectors were shuttered.

How much virtual experience has been able to replicate high level personalization is debatable. Vogue Business imagined the store of the future with hyper-personalization enabled by 5G, facial recognition and virtual or augmented reality experiences. However, the article was also looking forward to how COVID would change consumer shopping patterns once they opened up again.

However, hyper-personalization does definitely have a home in the online world.

According to The Digital Banking Report, in 2018 only 6% of financial institutions used advanced personalization technology. But organizations new and old are gradually getting to grips with the concept. Financial startup, Trim, believes it has saved its customers $40m by taking care of day-to-day finances like cancelling subscriptions they don’t need. While HSBC is using AI to discover what customers value as loyalty rewards with 70% going on to redeem points following its suggestions.

The Forrester Forum suggested that the ‘one customer at a time’ approach would remain a very manual, time-consuming and therefore costly process, made worthwhile only by the relatively high net worth (and therefore high customer value) of this niche customer group. However, it is easy to see that the lines between a high class digital and in-person experience are blurring, and that hyper-personalization at scale isn’t just the preserve of the rich.

Pulling the right levers for lifetime value

Marketers still struggle to strike the right balance between building long term relationships with customers and pestering them half to death digitally, as noted by one member of the Forrester forum, sick of being pursued round the net by strawberries he’d already bought. Pre-pandemic, there were plenty of signs to suggest that customers had had quite enough of retargeting or ill-thought out nurture campaigns.

During the pandemic, when there was a dramatic and almost wholesale shift to ecommerce, the annoyance felt by customers clumsily being retargeted was only amplified. Retargeting ad fraud through bot activity means that many of these campaigns aren’t even reaching their intended audience.

However, marketers did notice that pulling other levers did deliver exponential loyalty and other important metrics like net promoter score. Offering a variety of flexible payment types has, for example, increased basket sizes and encouraged more purchasing. Providing exceptional delivery experiences has created additional brand value. And something as simple as a clear, accurate web presence that works both on desktop, laptop, tablet and mobile has been instrumental in delivering ecommerce success during lockdown.

In the intervening 30+ months since the Forrester Forum took place, there have certainly been some changes. For the most part, these have been an acceleration of strategies already in train or at least anticipated. And the underlying philosophy remains the same. Technology is able to deliver remarkable solutions to even the most unexpected problems, but there is no replacement for deep human understanding of the customer and intelligent application of strategy.

To see how much your experience of customer experience today chimes with the findings of 2018’s Forrester Forum and what learnings might still need to be taken on board by today’s post-pandemic marketer, download Global Leaders Debate Personalization here.

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