Customizing the Customer Experience in the Recovery Era

Even as we continue to endure the tragic effects of the global pandemic, businesses are looking forward to a future recovery and how to address changing customer needs. Certainly, more customers are moving online as demonstrated by the 2020 Black Friday through Cyber Monday retail period during which independent businesses racked up $4.8 billion in sales through Amazon, a 60 percent increase over last year. Yet, no one can predict what exactly a post-pandemic recovery period will look like. As a result, retail and ecommerce companies face a new set of challenges: how to continue customizing the consumer experience based on rapidly evolving behaviors and economic volatility, and how to reach customers in a way that demonstrates the brand’s overall purpose.

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More than Digital

COVID-19 drastically changed how enterprises approach digital transformation. In the first phase of transformation, retailers were forced to assess their resiliency and agility. Brands have also had to consider how to deploy a recovery strategy that aligns with what they stand for. It has proven to be a delicate balance of meeting consumers’ needs, while doing so empathetically. Consumers hold brands accountable for delivering on the promises they put forward, so staying true to a brand’s purpose will prove far more valuable than inauthenticity.

A radical change going forward will be creating the right mix of digital and physical retail. This means that what were formerly in-store business silos have turned into revamped business models, including unified experiences stretching across the entire value chain in digital channels. For CMOs this means leaping from customer personalization to hyper-personalization. To meet individualized customization and deliver it as rapidly as possible, brands must be agile across an entire range of touchpoints, from online browsing to final delivery.

In 2021, CMOs will be expected to make the ‘digital first’ business model work even harder. This is an enormous multi-stakeholder change, in which CMOs will have to step into the CEO’s shoes in order to plan, coordinate, and execute such transformations. To support this, CMOs need to look for technology partners to deliver more for less, requiring extreme agility while maintaining the brand’s innovation edge. CMOs will also have to prove themselves as CGOs (Chief Growth Officers), displaying a new integrated mantra of marketing-led sales and service, as opposed to the traditional approach of marketing as the enabler and sales functioning as the driver.

CDP to Meet the Challenge

In order to rise to the occasion and create hyper-personalized customer experiences, retailers and brands will need an even tighter hold on data that’s within their control. It is already forcing brands to invest in their own customer data platforms (CDPs), for example, so that they can react more quickly to changing customer requirements. It means more agile operations and the improved integration of the source and supply chain so that digital shelves don’t appear empty.

Studying customer behavior from CDPs is going to become even more critical in order to figure out which behaviors represent a permanent change, like curbside pickup, and which do not. And then based on the data, businesses will have to recreate some experiences online. Given certain online behavior modification, for example, how can a retailer encourage the kind of impulse purchases that used to occur in brick-and-mortar checkout lines?

Moreover, the more seamless a retailer can make the experience, the better the chance that customers will return. It also means stronger odds of attracting customers to come into the store, physical or digital, once the recovery is fully underway. Essential to this is the recognition that right now all of us are going through an unbelievable amount of stress. As such, companies need to make the customer experience as pleasant as possible – a key tenet of effectively displaying brand purpose.

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More than Empathy

However, just expressing empathy for customers isn’t as straightforward as it may seem on the surface. CMOs don’t want a brand to appear as if it’s simply playing on shoppers’ emotions to sell a product. And not all customers will have the same experience or reaction to the pandemic. Some have endured economic hardship; others have lost loved ones to COVID-19. As such, contextual design and customization of the CX is even more important to companies walking the tightrope of empathy.

Improving Brand Expression

While it may seem more difficult to make a truly empathetic connection with customers who are sitting at a screen or looking at a smartphone miles away, the digital domain offers brands key opportunities to reach consumers. Brand identity and purpose, as well as articulating clear business goals and services, are often easier to relay via digital channels. For instance, they can use their website or social media channels to capitalize on authentic storytelling opportunities of how the brand is helping the community, such as pledging to donate money after every purchase.

Marketing for more ROI

A recent study shows that just 25 percent of companies were able to deliver an end-to-end digital customer experience in response to the pandemic, demonstrating the importance of always being prepared for the next wave of unpredictable changes that can arise at any point. Yet, despite unfortunate financial loss across all sectors – an impressive 90 percent of companies report largely maintaining or increasing their digital transformation investments during the pandemic. This shows progress and an openness to learn and evolve.

Competing in the post pandemic recovery era isn’t just about going digital-first and expecting technology to solve problems. It’s about understanding brand purpose, as well as responding to changing customer sentiments and behaviors, and then delivering new experiences. As Steve Jobs once said, “You’ve got to start with the customer experience and work backwards to the technology.”

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