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How COVID-19 has put the customer into disruption

20th Oct 2020
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Companies have been talking about disruption for years. The word appears in every other top-level business meeting… yet the revolution hasn’t happened. Many businesses have little to show for it.

In truth, disruption needs more than enthusiasm. Without a strategy, organisations have simply transformed long, complicated paper processes into long, complicated online processes. We see this in online loan application forms, for example, which can prompt just as much time and effort as paper processes. In fact, poorly executed disruption creates an even bigger problem: the impressive front end makes a promise of speed and agility to the customer that the rest of the system can’t keep!

When I spoke to our SAS Collaborators Peter Lavers and Sally Eaves, – key influencers at the heart of technology thought leadership – in our recent thought-sharing event, we agreed there was an inherent problem at the heart of these failed ‘disruption’ strategies. It’s a problem that’s become ever clearer in 2020: businesses have lost sight of customers. In fact, as Peter Lavers put it, businesses are close to “disrupting themselves into oblivion”. Below, I delve into key points arising from our discussion: the state of disruption, and what can be done to bring the focus back to customers.

COVID-19 has called time on half-hearted disruption

COVID-19 has shed light on how industries require agile, flexible, scalable systems to meet their customers’ needs. Consumers want fast access to simple, transparent information and expect immediacy when it comes to responding to personal requirements and customer service in every aspect of their lives. This holds true, whether a customer is applying for a mortgage holiday, an online home delivery or a smart meter appointment. During lockdown, consumers were forced into digital channels and rightly expected to receive the same level of personalised service they might expect from speaking to a human. Unfortunately such expectations have tested online systems and digital transformation programmes to their limits.

However, that is not even the main challenge – scale and availability of online platforms is one thing but getting access to the same level of personalised service online as you get through traditional process is the bigger challenge. Today, digital options tend to offer a one-size-fits-all customer solution which is at odds with a seamless personalised service that suits each customer.

What we saw were companies that put the customer at the heart of their decisions and were customer experience obsessed, quickly found themselves with the upper hand. Their customer-centricity enabled them to access the right insights, deliver automated, hyper-personalised experiences at scale and double-down on their resilience to deliver on their brand promise, regardless of the customer interaction channel. On the other hand, as Sally Eaves mentioned, those where talk of disruption has failed to translate into deep customer engagement have struggled to adapt. It’s not difficult to guess which approach gains long-lasting customer loyalty.

Customer-centric disruption is now the only way

Perhaps 2020’s greatest gift to businesses has been a forced reassessment of business priorities. Where once organisations relied on multi-million pound advertising campaigns, now the ability to actually deliver on the brand promise has become the cornerstone of survival. The growing power of the connected consumer has enabled customers to influence a global audience with their ‘comments’ or ‘likes’, Customers are quick to share their thoughts and experiences about the brands they do business with. A resilient and future-proof business puts the customer at the heart of its decision making. But what does a fully customer-centric business look like? These organisations deeply understand their customers through continuous and dynamic analysis of behaviours, needs, context and sentiment, and proactively engage with customers with relevant, personalised interactions regardless of the channel in which the customer chooses to interact. 

Take customer service, for instance. In the name of disruption, organisations are seeking significant operational cost savings by proactively moving customers to digital channels and automating service enquiries with faceless chatbots. Whilst many customers prefer to interact with digital channels, most of us are still forced to abandon our digital journey and pick up the phone if we want anything more than a ‘one-size-fits-all’ customer service. And many interactions still require the empathy that a human touch brings. During the pandemic, meeting these customer requests has been more important than ever for businesses trying to keep up with the pace of change. As Sally Eaves stated, without technologies which give customers a human experience, organisations are damaging customer experiences. In turn, the customer could use review sites and social media to damage the company’s reputation irreparably. Ultimately, the customer is in control.

Our Collaborators all agreed that there is huge power in developing a much deeper understanding of customers. Today’s machine learning algorithms can mine vast amounts of data to discover new customer segments and determine next best actions. But these algorithms must not only be kept up to date and be re-calibrated with new behaviours and trends, they must also be able to respond and react in real-time to new insights and behaviours - in the moment, whilst a customer is engaging with the brand.  

Disruption doesn’t come from the top

With the case for customer-centric disruption made, how can businesses kickstart their new approach? The truth is that some of the best ideas for disruption come from the frontline and those engaging directly with customers, rather than at the boardroom level, where executives are often multiple levels removed from the customer. 

Businesses looking to disrupt in the right way following the pandemic should be asking questions that reach across departments:

  • Do we truly understand our customers and their changing needs?
  • Can we meet our customers in their channel of choice?
  • To what extent can we deliver frictionless, omnichannel experiences?
  • How can we identify and eliminate bottlenecks in the customer-journey?
  • How can we optimise the customer experience to meet our corporate and our customer goals?

From here, businesses can look at their existing process and approaches and identify and prioritise opportunities to optimise and improve.

Good disruption isn’t about ticking a box

In business, it’s difficult to avoid the pressure to disrupt for the sake of disruption. However, the path to making valuable changes starts with acknowledging that every disruptive action must happen where the customer needs it. Peter Lavers hit the nail on the head: ‘there needs to be an informed consensus that the customer wants change’.



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