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The pressures of the pandemic have combined with some exciting new technologies to set the stage for a rapid evolution of the customer experience (CX). The pandemic won’t last forever, but the changes it has wrought aren’t going away. For example, it drove a faster move to digital that will not be reversed. As that happened, some CX improvements were made, but customer demand for better CX, coupled with the availability of new digital solutions, will take us much further. And no one wants to be left behind. Improved CX is required for every brand that wants to be competitive. Marketers and IT teams need to build plans for a CX that is dramatically better than what was common just 24 months ago.
Once the need to improve CX is accepted, the question becomes how to do it.
While every brand faces unique challenges, important overriding trends impact nearly all organizations and will be instrumental in planning the transformation of CX in 2021—and beyond, with continuous improvement year after year in the many components of each of these three major focal points:
Far too many brands still have distinct physical and digital CX. This will change. Supporting an omnichannel approach is the first step in this process, but more must be done. Integration that works across physical and digital domains is essential. For example, at Sephora, a brand where the physical, in-store experience is essential, the pandemic required new thinking about how to align that with the online experience. Chief Technology Officer Sree Sreedhararaj said that this included the development of the Sephora Health & Safety Guidelines, including the temporary pulling of product testers and the halting of application services in all stores because of the pandemic. She noted, though, that the company’s digital outreach eased the transition, saying that “while the experience feels a little different from before, our virtual tools have greatly aided product exploration for clients who are coming in-store to shop and would like additional assistance.”
Like many other brands, Sephora is focusing on how digital can be enabled to do some of what could only be done physically in the past. This may include customers uploading photos that are then enhanced digitally to simulate the in-store experience. Perhaps an even more important example of this combination is the extensive use of “buy online and pick up in store” (BOPIS). Optimizing BOPIS and ensuring that it is an intrinsic part of CX is a common goal for 2021. As Sreedhararaj observed, “Our clients, and consumers overall, now want touchless and quicker options, even for those clients who previously favored a brick-and-mortar experience.” Meeting these customers’ needs in a BOPIS scenario is essential to retaining their business in a combined digital/physical world.
From a customer’s or prospect’s perspective, perhaps the most desirable improvement in 2021 will be effective and timely personalization. Engaging the customer in a manner that feels more personal and emotionally engaging—and causes less frustration or bad information—will result in more loyalty and increased spend. In 2021, personalization will move beyond the basics of using the customer’s name or displaying recent purchases to a comprehensive experience that includes content, emotionality, and more. As Vineet Mehra, CMO of Walgreen Boots Alliance, the largest pharmacy across the U.S. and Europe, said, “It’s not enough to just be personalized. When you have more than 100 million customers that integrate and connect with your business every single year, you need to do personalization at a scale.”
The starting point for several brands will be to consolidate and integrate disparate and siloed datasets into a cohesive whole that provides the data layer that personalization processes can be built upon. A personalized experience cannot be kept on hold until data is extracted, wrapped, and joined. In addition to the underlying data to support personalization, a key part of delivering a personalized CX in 2021 is rethinking content. If content is always generic, personalization is nearly impossible. Most brands in 2021 are moving toward more modular and specific content that can be combined to deliver a personalized interaction.
Although many brands started pilot projects using intelligence (both machine learning and artificial intelligence) in 2020, this year will see the rapid expansion of intelligence into new and compelling use cases. It is important to realize that the focus on these technologies will not only be on creating smarter experiences, but also on analyzing the vast amounts of data in real or near real time to support personalization, enhanced search, and other functionality that depends on rapid analysis of large datasets. Put simply, the speed of modern CX cannot wait for humans to evaluate what actions should be taken; things must happen in “machine time.”
One area where AI will help the people involved in delivering enhanced experiences in 2021 is advanced intelligent analytics, which will provide critical insights to more individuals on the marketing and IT teams. Intelligent analytics is powerful enough to leave no stone unturned in the quest for improving CX. The power of the human network is enhanced when more individuals gain better understanding of key trends and changes and can predict how customers will react.
In addition to these three efforts to improve CX in 2021, numerous other solutions and services can be expected. Based on the individual needs of a brand, they may be as important as the activities described above. In many ways, the commitment to innovation is Job 1. As Francesco Tinto, CIO of Walgreen Boots Alliance, declared, “First you figure out what really matters, and then start building the capability, launch, and iterate as you go.”
It’s a succinct approach to driving the necessary changes to CX that successful brands will commit to in 2021.