Keys to Keeping the Consumer Connection in a Digital World
Long gone are the days when customer relationships were built via face-to-face meetings. While that still happens in some B2B and personal finance settings, it is the exception rather than the rule.
These trends were already under way but quickly accelerated once the COVID-19 pandemic hit two years ago, presenting serious challenges as well as opportunities for companies to keep and strengthen the customer connection in the digital environment.
That connection is more important than ever as customers’ preferences for how they want to connect with companies quickly change, and if their expectations aren’t met, they will not hesitate to quickly change brands.
According to a McKinsey & Company report, the pandemic prompted a surge of new activities, with 75 percent of U.S. consumers trying a new shopping behavior in response to economic pressures, store closings, and changing priorities. This general change in behavior has also been reflected in a shattering of brand loyalties, with 36 percent of consumers trying a new product and 25 percent incorporating a new private-label brand. Of consumers who have tried different brands, 73 percent intend to continue to incorporate the new brands into their routines. Gen Z and high earners are most prone to switching brands.
The beneficiaries of this shift, McKinsey reports, “include big, trusted brands, which are seeing 50 percent growth during the crisis, and private labels, which have outpaced the retail market. Some 80 percent of customers who started using a private brand during the pandemic indicate they intend to continue using it once the COVID-19 crisis subsides.”
“In studying 200 merchants, we found that cart abandonment reached an all-time high in 2021, lingering at 77 percent for their sample,” said Mehwish Aslam, chief business officer of bSecure. “If users of the e-commerce site or app are experiencing difficulties or distractions during the checkout journey, they may never return. This only drives up the cost of customer acquisition.”
Though keeping the customer connection is certainly a challenge in today’s digital world, there are several best practices to not only maintain the customer connection but strengthen it as well.
PROVIDE ROBUST SELF-SERVICE
One of the best ways to drive customer loyalty and retention is to offer comprehensive ways for customers to service their own needs with the organization, says Eric Head, Verint’s vice president of go-to-market for experience management solutions. “If you can keep them in that environment, you’re going to be rewarded with more satisfaction, loyalty, and the opportunity for cost savings and efficiency.”
Eighty percent of customer journeys start outside of companies’ properties, according to Laura Bassett, vice president of NICE CXone. When customers need something, they typically don’t seek resolution by contacting the business directly. To serve customers best, businesses must meet them proactively on digital channels and then guide them through to resolution, no matter which journey that takes.
“To enable the best service, companies must invest in self-service across channels—voice, chat, digital—to deliver an intelligent, personalized, seamless experience,” Bassett says. “This provides consistency with quick access via conversational interactions that solve customer needs without an agent. Personalization—what they see on the website or are offered in the mobile app—can help identify opportunities to preempt situations and reach out proactively, not just to notify but to also service.”
“Customers have a lot of different options today, especially in the digital world,” says Rahul Garg, Genesys’s vice president of product management for digital. “You could be sitting at home and easily compare everything—like sweaters from different retailers—that you’re trying to purchase. It’s very easy to switch.”
To help ensure that the customer makes a purchase from you rather than a competitor, the website should be integrated with the company’s CRM and other systems so it can push offers of items previously purchased and related items, Garg says, pointing to Amazon’s website as a good example.
Garg expects digital interactions to continue to replace other interactions, even as some aspects of the COVID-19 pandemic begin to wane. A particularly sharp increase is expected in telemedicine, which is still in its early stages compared to the digital retail environment.
THE ART OF LISTENING
Organizations need to listen to what customer need and where their pain and friction is, Head says. Though surveys can be used, they’re not always filled out. More effective is speech analytics, which can recognize points of friction (e.g., “can’t complete online order”), reporting that information to the right people in the organization for a quick resolution. Surveys, even when completed, typically take more time to be reported, meaning more time before there is a resolution.
“Listening to the voice of the customer is as critical as ever,” says Nina Brakel, head of CX at Frontify, a brand management platform provider. “You need to have a 360-degree perspective of your business; you can’t just use what is your internal vision for the future of the customer relationship, you have to clarify what your customers’ needs and wants are. You can’t just assume that you know what they are. That means putting in place feedback and listening mechanisms across the entire customer journey to be able to gather insights that are meaningful and then going back to them to let them know that you heard them.”
Listening to customer preferences also becomes important in communicating with them in their preferred channels, particularly as those preferences change. In just a few years, many consumers have changed their preferences from Facebook to Instagram and TikTok. Other social media platforms will no doubt emerge in the future, resulting in future preference changes, Head predicts. Organizations need to stay abreast of these changes.
Consumers and businesses alike receive countless communications daily via email, chat, phone, social media, etc., so companies need to ensure that the messaging cuts through all of the other noise, adds Chris Pennington, chief customer officer of SugarCRM.
“We often look for points of interest that drive a human level of interest. The communication strategy needs to be based on building a relationship with the customer, not on completing a single transaction,” he states.
In building that relationship, a company needs to learn each customer’s preferred communication channel, be it SMS messaging, email, Facebook Messenger, or something else, Pennington adds. “Having a centralized CRM system really does help. The amount of data that we are producing is growing exponentially. It’s important that when you do communicate with customers that you are able to address them in a format that suits them. Having a back-end CRM system can track preferences for communication styles. It’s important to be able to track that because customer behavior is constantly changing.”
“Brands must understand their consumers to maintain a strong consumer connection, which will involve being able to listen to consumers (via all channels), collect and analyze conversational information, and then create a dialogue,” adds Jonathan Moran, product marketing manager at SAS Customer Intelligence. “Being able to listen and then combine that listening with existing consumer knowledge paves the way for the third component of creating consumer context. Consumers today expect this concept of ‘relevance as a service’—providing them the right offer, message, or support at the right point in time, usually immediately, on their preferred devices. Context can be tricky to get correct, but keeping a consumer connection that builds trust and creates lasting loyalty must have the three components of trust, understanding, and context.”
As a subset of those components, companies must listen when customers seek products or reminders (such as an incomplete purchase), but also when they are no longer interested, Garg cautions. While a reminder or two and a subsequent product offer at the point of sale might be acceptable, too many emails, texts, or other messages can often be seen as intrusive and annoying, prompting customers to disassociate themselves from the brand.
Smaller companies, relatively new to e-commerce, are often guilty of such over-messaging, Garg says. “Give the user the ability to decide where, how, and how often to engage with them. Then try to use that not to spam them.”
Companies also need to understand when to use chatbots and when a human agent needs to be involved in the interaction, Pennington says.
RECOGNIZE THE CHALLENGES
Online consumers have higher expectations that companies don’t always meet, Head cautions. “We call that the engagement capacity gap.”
But companies can answer that engagement capacity gap with real-time analytics to help them understand when a customer is struggling—not only obvious signals such as messages in a chat box saying they can’t find something on the website, but also other indications, such as “mouse rage,” with the customer attempting the same action multiple times without success.
Digital behavior analytics can enable companies to quickly understand mouse rage and other indicators of an engagement capacity gap that must be addressed, Head says. “You can bring up an intelligent virtual assistant during the session that provides a real-time interaction with customers and helps them solve their needs in real time.”
Similarly, if the digital behavior analytics indicate that customers aren’t finding what they want, the company can offer a connection to a live agent or a callback from one, rather than placing the customer on hold, Head adds.
THE NEED FOR TRUST
Customers will quickly pull their business if companies violate their trust, Moran says. “Gone are the days of slapping a chatbot on a web channel and hoping for the best. Maintaining a strong connection between a consumer and your brand in an almost fully digital environment requires several key components. First and foremost is the concept of consumer trust. If you don’t have trust, you have nothing. Brands in the next several years will be working on strategies for creating a trusted value exchange as consumer privacy increases and things like third-party cookies go away. To have consumers relinquish valuable personal data, brands must be trusted.”
Research from bSecure found that adding signals around trust, such as positive product reviews, independent ratings, regulatory badges, and clearly stated return or exchange policies can provide digital consumers with the last nudge of confidence they need at the doorstep.
INCREASING CONCENTRATION ON MOBILE
“We will continue to see further uptake of self-service via mobile, both via apps but also app-less engagement via personal assistants,” Bassett predicts. “There will be an expectation of proactive service via these interfaces, especially among a younger demographic. Younger customers tend to be more passive. They expect things to come to them, so, the apps/personal assistants that remind them that things need to be done and then handholding them through the process will be lapped up.
“An example: My car has a connected app today that allows me to do various things, like lock/unlock the doors, find the location, cool/heat the car before I get in, etc,” Bassett continues. “When the car requires service, it would be great if it would notify me and then tell me about the next available dates for a service at my nearest dealership and arrange a pickup or drop-off.
“Then the app [could handle] all of the communication with the dealership while the car is being serviced—for example, approval of work, costs, payment, documentation, and notification of when the car is ready,” Bassett says. “It’s the human personalized engagement without ever engaging with a human. This is the ultimate change that businesses need to start to get right.”
Finally, companies need to recognize that they should look at digital customer interactions holistically, not as single transactions. “You need to understand at the company strategy level that you are trying to build a relationship with your customers and what you need to do to achieve that,” Pennington concludes.
Phillip Britt is a freelance writer based in the Chicago area. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.