To stay in business, put customers at the center

Improvements to customer experience could help your brand survive COVID-19 – and come out stronger. We look at the six key elements of customer centricity, to help you identify the right place to start.
14 May 2020
customer centric win the race
Dr Susanne O'Gorman
Dr Susanne

Global Head of Customer Experience, Insights Division

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As restricted economic activity due to COVID-19 continues, businesses are coming under ever-increasing strain. I’ve previously discussed what organizations need to do to adapt during these unprecedented times. Speed and agility are critical, as is creating cross-functional CX teams to monitor changing customer needs and quickly redesign customer journeys around them.

Acknowledging the importance of heightened customer emotions is also essential in times of crisis. Behavioral science shows us that elevated emotion triggers greater memory activation – so this is a time when a single customer interaction can create long lasting brand memories. Customers won’t remember businesses that did nothing. They will remember the ones that showed humanity and made an effort to help their customers, employees, or society – and will also clearly remember the businesses that acted out of self-interest or put profits before people.

This is also an opportunity for brands to critically evaluate their performance before the crisis. Now that we have witnessed just how quickly customer experiences can be adapted to in response to changing needs, should we seek to return to the status quo when this is all over? Or has the crisis demonstrated that companies can do better?

There is one thing that brings all of this together to provide a way through the crisis: customer-centricity. It serves as a powerful, systemic stabiliser, ringfencing brands from major economic and societal disruptions. We’ve broken customer centricity during times of crisis down into six key elements:

1. Re-imagine the customer journey

Customer-centricity in a crisis is not about doing the same things in a different way. One of the most immediate outcomes of lockdown has been a switch to online purchasing, but this shouldn’t mean simply replicating an existing journey (offline) in a different channel (online). Instead, brands must start with customer emotions, aspirations and dreams — and then work backwards, reimagining the experience to meet those new needs.

Some brands have been able to quickly adapt, but not all have been prepared for this shift. For example, when Kantar CX+ 2020 asked retail customers globally about their online shopping experiences, only 20% said that their grocery brand is providing an excellent experience.

The same CX+ grocery analysis shows that that customer-centric brands achieve higher preference. However, there is a tipping point — only those brands that are strongly customer-centric are rewarded with strong customer loyalty. Negative customer experiences clearly lead to little preference, but the analysis shows that average scores are also insufficient to earn preference and loyalty. Only the brands that prioritize customer centricity see the pay-off.

2. Don’t stop listening - adapt

Once new customer journeys are implemented, it is critical that brands understand peoples’ emotional reactions to them. Brands must keep listening to their customers, both through direct channels and through adaptation of existing Voice of the Customer (VoC) programs. Communications should be brief and informative, and survey invitations must demonstrate empathy for the current situation. Text analytics should be deployed to understand how to better help customers, both with direct customer data and social media conversation about your brand and category.

3. Pay attention to customers who have not been in touch with you recently

In many categories, such as utilities, insurance and telecoms, we consistently see a ‘silent majority’ of customers who remain with a brand even though they have very low preference for them. They stay simply due to inertia and a lack of time to search for alternatives. But during lockdown, many people have more free time – and many may use it to deal with neglected ‘life admin’ tasks, such as finding better providers.

To best respond to this, businesses need to proactively communicate with all customers, even those who haven’t been in touch recently. Give information on the steps being taken to help them. Provide additional channels for customers to easily pose questions and give feedback, such as chatbots or WhatsApp. Anticipate potential increases in call centre contact and use this opportunity to fast track AI-driven response channels for routine questions.

4. Actions speak louder than words

Kantar’s COVID-19 Barometer findings show that globally, the single biggest thing that people expect from brands is to be practical and help them in their everyday lives (31% globally, Wave 3). In this regard, the ‘little things’ can make a big difference. As one automotive client heard in their VoC program in March, “I was due to pick up [the] car after service but due to imposed guidelines about using taxis and because I am in the ‘vulnerable category’…I did ring and ask if it would be possible for someone to drop the car back to my home address. They agreed to do this and declined my offer to pay for the taxi fare to take [the] driver back.” This was a small, practical action that generated strong positive emotions and loyalty from the customer.

5. Monitor the actions you have put in place

When implementing new, practical actions, understanding what is working for customers is crucial. Again, this is where a VoC program, adapted to address the current situation, is so important for empowering the business to adjust. One of our clients, Globe Telecoms, a major provider of telecommunications services in the Philippines, recently deployed a range of initiatives, including increasing the availability of public Wi-Fi, extending due dates for bill payments, expanding functionality in digital channels and community fundraising. Their VoC program confirmed that these initiatives have been successful, resulting in an increase in ratings for contact center agents and field engineers during the virus outbreak.

6. Celebrate the engagement of your employees

Ultimately, a customer-centric culture can only be achieved if the employees creating that culture feel empowered to do what is best for each individual customer. Strong, empathetic leadership is essential for employee engagement in times of crisis, but it is the individual employee that makes customer centricity happen in each and every interaction. Seeking direct feedback from staff through employee experience programs – and acting on it is crucial now, but also to acknowledge, value and even celebrate the engagement of employees.

A customer-centric future awaits

Companies need to adapt and innovate now to establish a competitive advantage in the future. Agile and responsive capabilities developed today – with customer centricity at their heart – will empower businesses to better adjust and compete when the future arrives.

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