Brands already faced global market changes before the pandemic rolled around. With disruption to business now the norm, brands are reconsidering how they respond, particularly in the design and delivery of customer experiences (CX). Businesses typically respond in one of three ways: innovate to lead disruption, pivot to leverage new opportunities, and stay the course, streamlining and making modifications where needed.

How Brands Respond to Disruption in the Customer Experience Realm


Innovation in the CX context means redefining the product, service, delivery or relationship in a way that entirely shifts the goalposts for consumer expectations. Aside from Uber and Amazon, Nina Brakel-Schutt, head of customer experience at brand management platform Frontify shared examples of CX-led disruptors such as iTunes, which gave consumers the gift of legal music on demand; Warby Parker, which revolutionized the way we buy glasses by replacing visits to the optometrist with an interactive and friction-free online buying experience; and Netflix, which created the subscription-based OTT industry by disrupting video rental.


Crises and disruptions bring challenges, but also raise new opportunities. Some brands respond by pivoting to leverage these new opportunities. For example, some travel companies pivoted to offer paid virtual travel experiences in response to the pandemic lockdowns. Kelly Holmstrom, vice president of customer experience optimization at CXM agency Merkle shared the two qualities brands need to successfully pivot: 1. a deep pulse on what customers need and want at a particular point in time and 2. the agility to make changes with minimal friction. 

"I’ve been impressed by the response to the pandemic by some very scrappy and creative independent restaurants. Despite the ever-evolving regulations, staff shortages and low footfall, I saw some create online ordering systems in a matter of days. When home bakers created flour, sugar and yeast shortages during lockdowns, a few of my local restaurants added a 'grocery' section to their menu where you could order a 2lb bag of flour with your pizza-to-go. It was ingenious, timely and helped solve a problem for their customers — all keys to a standout customer experience,” said Holmstrom.

Stay the Course

The third option is deciding to ride out the disruption by staying the course. Continuing on the defined strategic path doesn't mean the brand is failing to respond to disruption. Instead, it implies a renewed focus on specific strategic areas that impact CX leadership. This could translate into strengthening areas such as service delivery in terms of convenience or speed, deepening customer engagement and retention, or driving operational and cost efficiencies.

McDonald's responded to the pandemic with a synergy of operations and an expansion of their order-input system, according to Holmstrom. "The self-serve kiosk is the most impressive innovation in my opinion, and was right for CX in the quick-serve restaurant category. It allows them to take current staffing and kitchen space and make assembling orders, pouring drinks and cooking duties the primary responsibilities for all but one employee working the register."

Jayesh Easwaramony, founder of Spectra Global, a firm that helps marketers build data clouds and deploy customer data platforms, shared the experience of a client, a large Indonesian OTT provider. The firm responded to the pandemic by doubling down on its strategic goal of increasing retention rates. "The first technique that worked well was increasing the data captured from users to deliver more personalized experiences. This needed some tough product calls and fast pivots. We also quickly added newer platforms such as live events and gamification-based loyalty management in order to enhance CX.”

Frontify focused on operationalizing CX as a formal team, said Brakel-Schutt. “We realized it was time to use the voice of our customer as a lens for insights-driven decision making across all teams. We needed to approach customer experience more intentionally, so we operationalized CX in 2021 by investing in a dedicated internal team.”

Related Article: What Is Voice of the Customer and What Does It Mean for Customer Experience?

Learning Opportunities

Data Is the Foundation of a Strong CX Response

The challenges and disruptions are not going away, and neither is the need to compete with differentiated customer experiences. How can brands reassess their strategy, technology and people-related initiatives to ensure disruptions don’t turn into a crisis?

The pandemic proved the importance of being able to respond to and serve customers across diverse channels. In-store became redundant overnight, as social media, mobile apps and ecommerce dominated. Easwaramonysaid designing consistent customer experiences across channels is foundational to CX-leadership, but only good data can get you there. Inconsistent channel experiences lead to frustrated users, but also makes it more difficult and inefficient to respond quickly to new channel-specific opportunities. “From the technology enablement point of view, it’s time to think about deploying a strong customer data platform (CDP) powered by the brand’s own first party data and augmented data streams. The data needs to be structured enough to act in close-to-real-time and orchestrate the buying journey. This technology investment, coupled with an integrated team that has a clear playbook to manage various channels, is crucial for the next level of customer experience,” continued Easwaramony.

Holmstrom seconded the importance of data in building a strong CX-led response to disruption and crisis. “We already know what one of the next big disruptions will be — deprecation of the third-party cookie.” Despite Google pushing the end date out by a year, martech and adtech teams cannot afford to relax. “I cannot stress enough that companies need a plan for how they will get, store and use first party data, or create a relationship where customers give permission for companies to use their data. No one should be waiting on the death of the cookie to get ready for this,” she said.

A People-Centric CX Response

Brakel-Schutt and her team at Frontify are focusing on three critical elements to create a stable and sustainable CX response in any situation. All three involve people — employees and customers — as key stakeholders.

First, they're creating predictive programs to help proactively meet customer expectations. "Customer advisory boards, and co-steering committees are amazing ways to keep customer expectations top of mind, while solidifying loyalty at the same time." Second, forming unbreakable mindshare. “We do this by training the top champions at customer organizations to recognize and share the unique value our brand offers, and giving them the toolkits they need to help influence others within the company.” And finally, using agile principles to act faster on low-hanging CX priorities. “We are focused on putting customer intel and insights into action faster.”

In the end, brands that successfully lead or respond to industry disruptions are the ones that "strive to put control in the hands of the consumer in a frictionless way," said Brakel-Schutt. This is the very essence of customer experiences. People, processes and technology will remain key enablers, no matter what response the brand ultimately chooses.