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A Decade of Dramatic Change in Digital Customer Experience

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The greatest changes in customer experience over the past decade have been in the ways customers interact with brands.

The digital customer experience has exponentially evolved over the past decade, hurried along by the COVID-19 pandemic. Due to the huge increase in the number of digital interactions the typical customer has had over the past few years, customer expectations have grown while customer patience has decreased. The always-on customer expects brands to be ready to do business at all hours of the day, and they expect exceptional customer service to go with it.

Let’s take a look at the changes in the digital customer experience over the past few years, the trends that will continue to change it in the future and how these changes have affected the way that brands interact with their customers today.

Digital Customer Experiences of the Past and Present

The greatest changes in customer experience over the past decade have been the ways customers interact with brands. Personalization is not new; Amazon was already offering personalized recommendations way back in 1998, however, both its website and personalization efforts were minimalist.

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Fast forward another decade. By 2010, many people had progressed from flip phones to smartphones, social media was huge and streaming media services were very popular. Online commerce was limited to traditional websites and mobile apps, and it was still rare to interact with a brand in a hyper-personalized manner. This is what Amazon looked like in 2010:

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This brings us to today, when the level of hyper-personalization that brands can provide is second to none. Amazon, for instance, knows if its customers are Prime members, as well as the movies they are likely to want to watch, the products they have been researching, and the items that they have purchased in the past and are likely to purchase again.

It also knows the food items the customer has previously ordered from Amazon Fresh, so it is able to present the customer with a list of items they are likely to need again in their next food order.

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When an Amazon customer receives an email from Amazon regarding items they may be interested in, the customer is very likely to both read the email as well as click through to the Amazon website. If Amazon requests that customers rate their interactions or review products they have purchased, customers are typically more inclined to do so, as they recognize that many other customers use those reviews to decide whether or not to purchase a product. Additionally, if the customer is a Prime member, most items are shipped for free with one or two-day delivery.

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Amazon’s customer service efforts are also extremely personalized. If a customer has a problem with anything they have ordered on Amazon, the customer can open a chat with a live agent, or receive a phone call to discuss their problem — and the call comes in immediately. The majority of the time, the customer leaves the call feeling emotionally satisfied that the retail giant actually cares about them and has taken steps to ensure that their problem is solved. Amazon is an example of a brand that provides an exceptional digital customer experience. 

Jeff Piazza, senior vice president (SVP) of experience design at Orion Innovation, a digital transformation and product development services firm, told CMSWire consumers expect products and services they use to be personalized for them, and that it's table stakes in today’s digital economy. “Systems that understand what customers like, and more importantly, what they don’t like, build the relationship between that user and brand,” Piazza explained.

Related Article: Is Your Organization’s Digital Customer Experience Proactive or Reactive?

The ‘Always On’ Customer Experience

Personalization is not the only way that the digital customer experience has changed. Today, customers can interact with a brand through their brick-and-mortar storefront, mobile app, website, chatbot, customer service agents and more. These “always on” consumers interact with personal digital assistants in their homes and cars, they use smart TVs that enable them to use voice-to-stream digital content and they livestream music events in their homes. 

Artificial intelligence (AI) and machine learning (ML) are now used for gathering and analyzing social, historical and behavioral data, which enables brands to gain a much more complete understanding of their customers. As such, customers are now using AI-driven chatbots for customer service, which create personalized experiences that satisfy, rather than frustrate customers like the chatbots and interactive voice response (IVR) systems of decades ago did. 

The digital experience has also changed the way that customers do their shopping. Because of the pandemic, people did not want to go inside grocery stores or be in contact with other people, so they began doing more shopping online. Not only could they purchase products and groceries via a website or app (such as Amazon Fresh), they could either have their order delivered to their doorstep, or have it ready to be picked up curbside at the grocery store (such as Walmart). Once consumers realized how convenient it was, they continued to do so even after the pandemic wasn’t as much of a concern. This also occurred when consumers began to use meal delivery apps such as UberEats and DoorDash.

Michelle Berryman, SVP of user experience at Hero Digital, a digital customer experience company, told CMSWire that in recent years, the digital customer experience has become a lot more fluid than ever before. “When brands engage, they must be quick and right on target to cultivate meaningful digital experiences, which must be seamlessly augmented into any physical experience,” Berryman said. In the past, customers often felt that the digital customer experience was independent of other brand experiences, “but this is no longer the case, and it can’t be.” 

Learning Opportunities

Customers now expect a digital component at every step of their journey, Berryman said. “Currently, brands with the most appetizing digital CX are innovators within their industry and constantly adapting to their customers’ anticipated needs. The biggest shift they are facing is customers coming to expect a lot more, such as having a personal connection or building up their confidence in their purchases.” Because there are always going to be customers who prefer in-store experiences, Berryman said that brands have to ensure that digital is bringing in-store experiences to life in the most meaningful ways.

Related Article: The Most Important Components of the Customer Experience

Rising Expectations and Less Patience

In 2019, SOTI’s Annual Connected Retailer Survey indicated that US consumers prefer speed and convenience when shopping, and 73% of those surveyed favored self-service technologies that improve the shopping experience and reduce interactions with staff. Throughout and since the pandemic, customers have increased their digital interactions with brands exponentially, and customers expect customer service to be available 24 hours a day, seven days a week, across all of a brand’s channels, enabling them to connect with a brand using their preferred choice of medium.

“Every company now needs to be a software company. The pandemic accelerated the need for digital transformation and required organizations to think digitally first. Most have been on the road to evolving into a digital mindset,” said Piazza, who suggested that the circumstances over the last two years have prioritized the need for change to happen more rapidly.

Nourhan Beyrouti, senior director of corporate marketing and brand at Delivery Solutions, an omnichannel delivery solutions provider, told CMSWire that over the past few years, customer expectations of speed and instant gratification, largely due to the increasing use of food delivery services, have transformed the retail experience. “When customers began seeing that they could use an app to order food from their favorite restaurant and have it delivered in an hour by a local delivery driver, they began expecting the same service from their favorite retailers,” said Beyrouti, who believes that this paradigm shift affected both the retail and delivery industries. 

“Expectations from the food industry have transcended into the retail industry, creating a better customer experience and more cost-effective delivery methods for retailers,” he added. As consumer patience continued to shrink as expectations grew, Amazon began to offer same-day delivery. Beyrouti said that same-day delivery is just the beginning of the convenient delivery options that will become available in the future and that delivery speed and convenience will continue to get shorter and more efficient.

Despite rising consumer expectations, for many, the customer service experience has not kept up. Michael Wallace, senior manager of Amazon Connect Scaling Solutions Architecture at Amazon Web Services (AWS), told CMSWire that the 2022 ACA (Achieving Customer Amazement) study revealed that 59% of customers think customer service is worse today than it was before the pandemic. “The Great Resignation and quiet quitting are leading to potentially longer call wait times and slower responses on social media for Gen Z and Millennial consumers, and a still pronounced preference for voice interactions among Gen X and boomer generations,” said Wallace, who reiterated that year-over-year results indicate rising consumer expectations for 24/7 availability, mobile-friendly support interactions and automatic/personalized interactions. 

Subscription Models Have Taken Off

Subscription-based services have grown massively over the past few years. A 2021 Statista Report indicated that in the first quarter of 2021, half of the United States population were Amazon Prime subscribers. Tom Zauli, SVP and general manager of Softrax, a revenue management system provider and compliance consultancy, told CMSWire that the digital customer experience has been evolving for quite a while, with the biggest change being that customers recognize their own empowerment of choice — and that they are often choosing subscription-based services over direct sales. “The pandemic forced more people to turn to online channels than ever and while some things returned to pre-COVID routines, online shopping was not one of them,” said Zauli. “Consumers not only shopped online, they also opted for subscription-based purchases, ranging from monthly vitamins to streaming services.”

Consumer use of subscription payment methods increased significantly during the pandemic, Zauli said — a trend that hasn’t slowed despite signs that the world is shifting toward a “post-pandemic mindset.” “This puts added pressure for brands to continue paying special attention to their billing strategies to avoid customer dissatisfaction or churn,” said Zauli, who added that today’s customer expects a seamless experience with pricing, billing and the technology used to interact with a company.

Final Thoughts: More Digital CX Interactivity to Come

The pandemic has been a catalyst for digital evolution and transformation, but the digital customer experience has been evolving for decades. All businesses are expected to have digital elements for all of their channels, which enable customers to interact with the brand, contact customer service and move from channel to channel seamlessly. Customers are used to hyper-personalized interactions that are emotionally satisfying, and want to be in control of their own narrative, given the vast amount of choices that brands present them with for purchasing, subscribing and contacting customer service.

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