How the dash to digital has harmed customer experiences
Digital transformation of business has leapt forward dramatically over the past year as a result of the pandemic. But while jerry-rigged solutions and patchwork platforms were adequate for a time, that is no longer the case.
The past 12 months has driven rapid digital development at many organisations, well beyond the wildest of expectations. Granted, this digital transformation was borne out of necessity in most cases, rather than pure innovative initiative, but the scale of development has nonetheless been impressive.
In a study of 900 C-suite executives and senior managers at businesses around the world, conducted by McKinsey & Company, it was revealed that businesses spent more on digital investments than on any other business continuity measures during the pandemic. As a result, McKinsey estimated that growth in digital product/service offerings jumped ahead by an average of seven years in 2020.
Driving this acceleration of digital offerings was of course the pandemic. With a large proportion of the global population forced indoors due to the coronavirus pandemic, adults’ internet use surged to a record average of 4 hours a day. Twice as many video calls were being made and one in three people were watching online video more than traditional TV. While our purchasing habits also shifted exponentially online.
A NICE survey of 200 CX leaders at leading contact centres demonstrated the soaring popularity of digital channels among consumers, with 51% of leaders indicating that half or more of their interactions were now being handled through digital channels such as chat, email and social networks.
“In 2020, we saw digital transformation happen at breakneck speed,” says Amy Scott, founder of Sedulous Consulting. “COVID-19 has forced businesses to undertake huge changes just to carry on operating, and those organisations who had strong digital solutions in place were better prepared.”
And the expectation is that there will be no snap-back to old habits when the pandemic ends. Research from Sinch, for instance, indicates that even when the pandemic is over, 58% of people will continue to avoid crowds, 52% will avoid unnecessary travel, and 46% will spend less time inside stores. Reflecting this, McKinsey’s research found that more than 60% of respondents believe that the shifts in consumer behaviour and demands are here for good.
Unsurprisingly, then, digital investment is expected to remain robust in 2021. But Peter Dorrington, founder of XMplify Consulting, believes that while some of this investment will inevitably be focused on further innovation, there also needs to be an emphasis on improvements to existing digital operations.
“Many businesses and sectors are still offering an inadequate customer experience through these new channels (and customers are beginning to voice their frustration with the laggards). History shows us that when there is a significant gap between the experience customers expect and what they actually receive, new competitors (and especially ‘disruptors’) quickly move in to fill the gap and take market share from existing suppliers.”
Indeed, a recent study by CMO Council stated that 65% of consumers felt digital experiences were not exceeding expectations, while Contact Babel’s The 2020-21 Customer Experience Decision-Makers’ Guide indicates that 65% of UK businesses have had operational issues which have impacted on customers during COVID-19.
And while there was some tolerance for this at the beginning of the pandemic, by the end of 2020, customers felt that organisations had had time to get their digital ducks in row.
“Customers at the beginning of the pandemic were forgiving of companies’ shortfalls with regard to the service they received, as we were all swimming together in uncharted waters,” notes Amy Scott. “However, as time has gone by many customers are beginning to feel a bit fed up with organisations using COVID as an excuse for poor service.”
Among the issues that have vexed customers are siloed channels - with many of the new digital services having been added in such a rush that they were not fully integrated. For customers, these silos have created numerous problems, including the inability to transition their interaction to another channel, particularly when a chatbot or other digital self-service tool fails to answer a question so a human agent is required.
“When consumers couldn’t get their needs met, there wasn’t seamless transition to traditional channels,” noted Tom Kaneshige, chief content officer at the CMO Council. “When digital fails to answer a consumer’s question or perform a service, it’s paramount that a real person can step in and bridge the digital divide without the consumer having to repeat themselves.”
“Vulnerabilities have been exposed,” says Natalie Cramp, CEO of Profusion. “Attempting to have the entire customer conversation online with chatbots, forms and online messaging can alienate a huge number of customers. Businesses still need a real world, human presence to handle more complex and urgent enquiries.
“Being fully digitally transformed means that all communication channels and systems work in harmony.”
Twilio research from late 2020 revealed that only 11% of consumers feel they can pick up a query at any time, through any method of communication (whether by email, SMS or phone), and even fewer, (10%) feel able to do so without having to re-explain their query each time they make contact with a business.
David Parry-Jones, vice president, EMEA, at Twilio, adds: “The next big opportunity for businesses wanting to create engaging experiences will come from breaking down communication silos. Consumers want to be able to pick up a prior query on the channel they prefer, without the friction of having to re-explain themselves each time. Eliminating these silos of customer data in each channel enables businesses to deliver personalised and effective interactions and provide a better experience to their customers.”
The silos also create inconsistent experiences with a company from channel to channel. For example, Eptica’s The State of UK Digital Customer Experience report revealed that when brands were asked the same question on multiple channels, most failed to respond either with consistent answers or consistent speeds.
The study indicates that while brands are now offering a wider range of channels than ever before, this is not translating into better experiences. Overall, not a single company in its research responded on four channels. Just over a third (36%) responded on three, and 20% only answered on one channel. But even those often failed to deliver consistent answers, with many offering conflicting advice. And the research concludes that overall performance is worse than when it conducted similar research in 2017.
“We know consumers are more connected today than ever before (there are now more than four billion internet users globally). This doesn’t create less of a need for humanity in our day-to-day interactions; it does quite the opposite – it creates a hunger for it,” says Noel Lavery, UK sales director, at Infobip.
“Brands can no longer just sell; today’s “digital natives” value personalised experiences more than ‘things’, and they expect brands to deliver.”
And Craig Farley, head of consulting, at IPI, believes that the digital expansion over the past year will have only increased customer expectations for personalisation: “As customers expect more communication channels, they also expect these to be tailored to them and for organisations to offer personalised engagement as standard. Personalisation plays a vital role in enhancing the customer journey ”
Sadly, a large proportion of customers feel that they are not receiving these personalised experiences - with The CMO Council research revealing that nearly half (44%) of consumers desire more personalisation online.
Online behavioural expert Dr. Liraz Margalit believes that a failure to use behavioural data that is at their fingertips is responsible for this dearth of personalised experiences. Writing in Psychology Today, she explains: “In order to gain a fuller understanding of customers’ digital experiences, businesses should ideally be able to analyse customers’ behaviours and decisions as soon as possible after any online activity, especially activities that involve negative experiences.
“If you don’t take action promptly after negative experiences, it may be too late. When a memory of an unhappy experience gets cemented in a customer’s mind, the damage is done. Disgruntled customers leave, and there’s little chance that they will ever return.
“Ideally, businesses should be collecting data and acting on insights in real-time, or as close to real-time as possible.”
Not understanding customer preferences
Digital transformation affects your customers, so organisations have to understand what their changing wants and needs are. However, Sinch research suggests that, despite significant digital transformation over the past year, brands are still not delivering many of the most useful digital and mobile experiences people say they want.
The study concludes that even with soaring investment in digital, rapid consumer adoption of digital communication has created demand for new levels of digital and mobile services that businesses have yet to fulfill. While the pace of change is a contributing factor, with organisations playing catch-up, the lag is also due to the fact that many organisations don’t understand their customer preferences, the research concludes.
Eptica’s The State of UK Digital Customer Experience report echoes this, revealing that just 8% of consumers believe that brands are listening to them properly.
Unfortunately, all of the issues above are also contributing to a significant overarching issue that is harming digital CX - a lack of trust. A lack of consistency across channels, siloed experiences, poor personalisation and the sense that brands are not listening to their requirements, are all conspiring to undermine trust in digital experiences. And trust is absolutely key.
As Amy Scott notes: “The whole area of trust is now becoming more important than ever before. We know trust is a deal breaker or deciding factor in customers' brand buying decision. In a recent PwC survey, over 70% of consumers saw trust as the most important factor when buying from a brand.”
Eptica research highlights: “Building trust starts with the most basic things – making interactions easy and seamless, successfully communicating and responding to customer queries, and listening and acting on what they say. In our research for this study nearly two thirds (63%) of consumers ranked making it simple for them to do what they wanted as one of their top three reasons for trusting a brand.”
Unfortunately, as we have seen, while the dash to digital over the past 12 months has provided greater numbers of digital tools and platforms for customers to use, often this has also come at a cost to the overall service experience. What brands need to weigh up is whether their digital investment over the past year has simplified their customer interactions or complicated them - creating silos, fostering inconsistencies, and ultimately undermining trust.
Fortunately, the digital transformation journey is an ongoing process, and 2021 could (and indeed should) provide adequate time to understand their customer requirements and refine digital customer experiences accordingly, delivering truly omnichannel services that improve CX by supporting customers anytime, anywhere and providing personalised experiences.
Neil Davey is the managing editor of MyCustomer. An experienced business journalist and editor, Neil has worked on a variety of newspapers, magazines and websites over the past 15 years, including Internet Works, CXO magazine and Business Management. He joined Sift Media in 2007.