When the COVID-19 pandemic resulted in shelter-in-place rules, some businesses closed, while others went to strictly digital or hybrid online/curbside pickup ordering. It also fundamentally changed the customer journey.

“The pandemic has inspired enormous changes in the customer journey — from the products purchased to the very way they are purchased,” said Paula Hansen, SAP Customer Experience chief revenue officer. “A quick trip to the grocery store for a gallon of milk may have morphed into a subscription-based, contactless milk delivery.”

The pandemic may have driven this change, but it’s part of an evolution that’s been underway for some time, in which customers are the sole owners of their experiences, according to Hansen. Customers decide how and when they want to interact, explore, and choose a brand.  Instead of trying to walk customers through a specific journey — search with this filter, select this item, read this starred review and check out — the focus should be on giving customers the freedom to carve their own path: To shop around; read reviews on different sites; consider pricing, add-ons, competitors — even to consider whether they want to purchase at all. 

Prepare for Longer Sales Cycles

“The customer journey has changed dramatically, most notably with longer sales cycles and an increased reliance on digital,” said Clare Dorrian, CMO at SugarCRM. “These changes mark a permanent shift that makes empathy and personalization the hallmarks of the new customer experience."

Dorrian shared three recommendations to align marketing and sales strategies for the post COVID-19 customer journey. First, lead with a service-first approach to best respond to this change in the customer journey, explaining that in a subscription economy, renewal emails reminding customers that their next payment is coming due are often more prevalent than educational content helping customers get value out of their purchase. However, with elongated sales cycles, a shift to service and education is not only practical; it’s the right thing to do. Customers are craving genuine dialogue and peer-based sharing and possibly more so than fancy digital events.

Second, consistent messaging is more important than ever. “Customers expect brands to be consistent in their actions and authentic in their intentions. The current environment increases the expectation for empathy and authenticity, and when brands get it right and stay true to themselves, customers respond with increased loyalty,” she said.

Finally, Dorrian advised marketers tap their creativity to enrich customer connections. Take a cue from Saturday Night Live, she said. “The creative and ambitious experiment of SNL at Home yielded some of its most authentic and compelling content in years, much to the delight of its fans. The takeaway for companies is to find ways to build an emotional connection with your prospective buyers through storytelling and never to forget your brand promise.”

Related Article: Why Most Companies Haven't Cracked the Customer Journey Code – Yet

'How Can We Be More Thoughtful in Our Purchase Journeys?'

“The retail industry’s current challenges are creating a unique opportunity for brands to build a more meaningful, enduring relationship with their customers," said Mike Davidson, executive creative director at Capgemini North America. “The pandemic is giving both brands and customers the permission to ask: how can we be more thoughtful in our purchase journeys? Through this new lens, we’re seeing an accelerated transformation within the customer experience to insert service-driven, guided selling into a broader set of commerce journeys. This has spawned a variety of new techniques including the adoption of digital selling workflows and a heightened focus on personalization capabilities.”

Brands are quickly exploring ways to insert the retail professional within the digital journey to elevate the brand and customer experience, Davidson explained. Examples of these efforts can be found across home furnishing brands that offer video walk throughs of in-store merchandise. The goal is to mimic the in-store browsing and shopping experience.

Learning Opportunities

“Previously, these types of interactions would have seemed gratuitous,” Davidson said. “Suddenly though, this is an opportunity to insert retail professionals in a way that’s clearly helpful but also more approachable for consumers. Similarly, brands are more heavily investing in content to enrich their digital journeys to reinforce expertise and purchase-decision guidance. The goal again is to mimic a physical interaction with a retail professional.”

Davidson recommended that brands identify the questions the customer is asking and pinpoint where they are searching for the answers. Understanding this information will help paint a clearer picture of who the individual shopper is, and what their shopping goals are.

Related Article: Customer Journey Mapping: Navigating a Course to Better Customer Relations

Safety – In Person and Online – a Top Concern

The pandemic has understandably heightened customer safety concerns, according to David Azar, founder and CEO of Outsmart Labs.

“How businesses adapt their customer experience post-COVID-19 will dramatically impact their odds of survival,” Azar said. “It is important not to let panic shake your customer focus. Customers are looking to be reassured about how safety concerns are handled, not only in brick-and-mortar stores but also in the online shopping process. They want to return to their old habits but need reassurance that they'll be safe."

Along the customer journey now, marketers must address the touchpoints consumers worry about and communicate how your business is mitigating these, Azar added. Many companies have shifted much of their marketing messages to focus on the safety procedures they use.