Introduction: Great expectations
Businesses have always had to manage high customer expectations, but the shift to digital channels has ramped up demands for speed, convenience and responsiveness. Over the last few years, the scope and volume of customer interactions taking place online have surged.
Always an early adopter in the e-commerce space, China is expected this year to become the first country where online sales exceed those from brick-and-mortar retail. But the trend is global, and other markets may soon catch up. According to one recent survey, nearly two-thirds (61%) of Americans have made the bulk of their purchases online during the pandemic, and an overwhelming majority plan to continue shopping (71%) and banking online (92%) when the pandemic is over.
What’s more, this behavior isn’t limited to consumers. Since 2019, research shows the proportion of business-to-business interactions taking place online has jumped from less than half to almost 60%.
Adding to the pressure, when customers engage in digital interactions, they expect those interactions to be seamless. Almost 60% of those polled by Salesforce said the pandemic had raised their standards for customer service, and 80% believe the experience a company provides is every bit as important as the quality of its goods and services. All this has exposed the gulf between businesses who already have effective digital channels in place, and those struggling with what’s essentially a new medium.
Pandemic drives consumer expectations higher
“A customer will have some form of goal in mind when they engage with an organization, and they don’t expect that to require submitting a form and then waiting a few days for a call back or an e-mail,” says Kristan Vingrys, Managing Director, Australia, at Thoughtworks. “They’re looking for the ability to achieve that goal more or less, instantly. That means a lot of the organizations reliant on manual processing have been impacted, especially those depending on distributed or offshore locations affected by COVID-19. Processes slowed down drastically and they weren’t able to meet demands for a timely response, so the customers would shift. It’s easy to go somewhere else, to an organization that’s more automated and better positioned to act quickly on the customer’s behalf.”
Many companies are investing heavily in technology to meet new customer demands. In a recent Forrester Consulting study, commissioned by Thoughtworks, on the secrets of successful digital transformation, improving customer experience was named the number one goal of organizations’ modernization or transformation programs. But expectations will continue to evolve, meaning businesses will be chasing a moving target.
Top enterprise modernization priorities
i. Empathy as the new currency
Fundamentally, building brand equity comes down to answering one key question - what do customers really want?
Research suggests the answer is ‘everything.’ Consumers hope their interactions with companies will blend quality, speed and a high degree of personalization. Consumers notice the efforts that brands make to connect with them online and according to one recent survey in most industries, speed was viewed as the top quality of excellent digital CX. Among customers who suffered negative digital experiences during the pandemic, a quarter were frustrated by the inability to reach a real person, and 14% pointed to the interaction being impersonal.
At the most basic level, what customers are looking for is empathy - the sense that the business is genuinely attuned to their individual needs, and is solving problems or delivering services and solutions, to match. Demonstrating empathy has an immense impact on long-term customer engagement. In Salesforce’s survey, almost three-quarters of consumers said businesses that showed empathy during the pandemic earned their loyalty. Yet customer empathy is a quality that many organizations still struggle to deliver.
Enterprises failing to bridge the empathy gap
ii. Developing a customer experience platform
Beyond a customer-centric mindset, the other critical ingredient of success in the experience economy is a platform that allows the business to develop, redeploy and build on a range of customer-facing capabilities. “A lot of businesses can build a single app very well, or a website,” Wang says. “But if you look at how much of the work or features that go into that are actually reusable, it’s very little.”
That leaves enterprises vulnerable when customer demands shift or accelerate - which Murray notes is all but inevitable. “The importance of quickly executing is more important than ever because the dynamics in the market change so rapidly,” he says. “The shelf life of ideas has never been shorter.”
An effective customer experience platform equips the enterprise with a standard toolkit that can be drawn on regardless of how demands evolve. While technology-based, a platform is built “not so much around the technology as it is around business capabilities, so you can easily add new technologies as they come about,” Vingrys explains.
With a platform, common capabilities such as payment systems or a recommendation engine “can be repurposed so the business can support different ideas and bring them to market very, very quickly, instead of building those basic things over and over again,” Wang says. “The businesses that are moving faster than others have that sort of thinking set up, and are reusing core tech capabilities in different products.”
Because platforms are broadly standardized, they also provide a basis for more consistent customer experience across the various channels used by the business, even when new channels are added. This consistency is a vital part of demonstrating empathy to the customer, and an area where many businesses continue to fall short.
“Separate mobile and web teams will end up creating very different experiences for customers using the mobile versus the web application when there’s no consistent business capability, like a single e-commerce solution, to draw on,” notes Vingrys.
According to Murray, a robust customer experience platform incorporates three basic layers – design experience, product strategy and the application programming interfaces (APIs) -- that come together to deliver key customer touchpoints.
Investing in all of these, he says, creates a “single source of truth that allows you to deliver a consistent brand and experience through your touchpoints - but also gives you a lot of flexibility and resilience to leverage different aspects of the platform as you deliver experiences on top of it.” In other words, an engine of customer engagement, and, by extension, brand equity.
The architecture of a customer engagement platform
Accurately assessing goals requires critical thinking about the role that the product or service plays in the customer’s life. For example, a bank’s customers “might be saving up so that their kids can get an overseas college education. That's much more important to them than the process of inquiring about different loans, which is mapped onto the customer journey but only looks at their needs on the surface,” notes Wang. “When the bank realizes that the underlying reason for inquiring about loans is to help their children study overseas, they can offer more relevant services to support those goals.”
Forming long-lasting product teams oriented around the holistic role of a product or service, rather than functional lines, facilitates this approach. “There’s a need to move away from project-based work to product-based work, adopt product thinking, put in place things like continuous delivery so you deliver quickly into the production environment and get new features out to test and learn,” notes Vingrys.
Unlike project-based teams, typically built around specific tasks or targets and organized by departments, product teams comprise mixed capabilities - product design, analytics, development and operations. These teams are equipped with the breadth and depth of expertise and insight to solve problems and deliver new features that align with customers’ end goals, and sustain that success with constant upgrades to meet new demands.