heart-shaped paper  lantern  about to launch into the sky
PHOTO: Erik Witsoe

The human health crisis has brought fundamental change to many aspects of our personal and professional lives, including the customer journey. A spring 2020 Forrester report, Winning the New B2B Buyer, found that the balance of the buying journey already had shifted from equal parts human and digital to primarily digital. Social distancing has accelerated that shift and is now the most immediate and dramatic force changing B2B buyer habits. In a study by Marketing Week and Econsultancy, 62% of B2C marketers and 51% of B2B marketers said COVID-19 has caused radical or significant changes to the customer journey.

As we look beyond the pandemic, managing customer experience will be as important as ever. The tactics on which we’ve relied — a guiding North Star, understanding of customer journey, voice of the customer programs — will continue to be essential elements of the CX toolbox. But the concept of differentiating through customer experience may not be sufficient for winning in the new reality.

Companies first need to prioritize what “customer 2020+” needs and expects right now: a greater sense of human connection.

Social distancing has reduced human connection, and people are craving it. Society was already accustomed to communicating through screens long before COVID-19. So the intense need for in-person communication and collaboration may have come as a surprise to some. But the unprecedented nature of this pandemic has affected people across the spectrum of emotions — from feeling inconvenienced to suffering tragic loss — and we’re discovering that the element of empathy doesn’t always translate in the virtual world.

We’re likely still far from being out of the woods, so it’s important to pivot now to deliver experiences over the months ahead that meet the evolving needs for increased empathy and human connection.

Doing this well requires focus on three areas:

1. Start With the Employee Experience

Just like customers, employees are humans going through a traumatic period. Fears of illness or economic hardship, reduced connections with colleagues or customers, and working day after day with tools and processes not designed for sustained distancing or remote work are all wearing on employees. Customers feel that.

Further, many are hesitant about returning to the workplace, even when distancing mandates are relaxed. In one Gallup poll, three in five people who have been working from home during the pandemic would prefer to continue doing so as much as possible. Sustaining a virtual workplace will require better capabilities for fostering connections and teamwork. Existing connectivity tools have been valuable as a stopgap measure, but as remote working extends for months, existing flaws will become more pronounced. In our report, “Winning in the Marketplace Starts With Winning in the Workplace” — published prior to the pandemic — only 9% of employees surveyed rated the effectiveness of communication and collaboration tools positively.

But this is about more than digital enablement. It is about maintaining culture, values and a sense of community. Companies need to purposefully design the employee experience, just as they do for customers. A 2017 study published in Harvard Business Review found companies that invested in employee experience outperformed those that didn’t: they had four times greater profit per employee and nearly three times greater revenue per employee.

The same tools and principles you use to design customer experiences also work internally:

  • Start with humans, not technology.
  • Develop employee personas.
  • Map and understand the employee journey.
  • Invest in change and transformation.
  • Automate mundane work.
  • Supercharge employees with data.
  • Ease concerns through new health and wellness offerings.

Related Article: Will We Ever Go Back to the Office Again?

2. Get Reacquainted – and Better Acquainted – With Your Customers

A lot of what we knew about customers prior to the pandemic has changed. Things that weren’t concerns before, such as safety and sense of community, are now. This shift worries executives. In our May 2020 survey of 150 C-level executives, unpredictable behavior of customers, partners and employees was one of the top two concerns.

Companies need to refresh their understanding of their customer segments by looking beyond demographics and transactional data to consider the attitudes and needs that motivate customers today. For example, Forrester says today’s B2B customers want to be treated as equal partners to the organization. In the past, customers might have been more open to a classic buyer/seller dynamic.

The shift in expectations requires a very different experience and should be designed through the lens of your customer segments. The need to focus on your most profitable customers hasn't changed, however that segment may look very different compared with last year. This might be based on situational changes, but also on new behaviors and attitudes developed as a response to the pandemic. Going through this exercise can help you identify your most valuable customers and allow you to craft exceptional experiences that meet their needs. It will also help you identify customers who may not be as impactful to your business anymore.

For example, one credit card company measured the economic impact, including market share and spend per month, of maintaining engagement with different attitudinal segments: “good value/meets my needs,” “good choice/like using it (the card),” “personally connected/often advocate for it” and “difficult to imagine my life without it."

Related Article: What Does Great Customer Experience Look Like Today? Giving Customers Peace of Mind

3. Make Sure the Drive for Greater Efficiency and Cost Reductions Doesn’t Damage CX

As we work through the pandemic, many companies will be making changes, for example, eliminating services or automating certain activities, to run more efficiently at reduced revenue levels. These initiatives can affect the degree of human connection in our customer experience, so it is important to approach them with care. The learnings from the customer segmentation exercise will help identify the processes to prioritize that impact the experiences of your top customers.

In fact, we've found that it is possible to reduce costs and improve customer experience at the same time. The way to do so is to look at operational improvements through the customer experience lens. The issues that inhibit a positive experience are often the result of significant inefficiency. For example, a large health plan had declining satisfaction scores among healthcare providers due to inefficient onboarding processes. They redesigned the onboarding process using typical CX tactics such as journey mapping and segmentation, as well as automating certain manual processes to free employees up for more value-added work. From those insights, they were able to reduce the business processes involved in onboarding substantially — improving efficiency. The updated onboarding process is saving the company hundreds of millions of dollars, while its provider satisfaction score has doubled in less than two years.

These three factors are highly interrelated. As marketing and CX professionals, we need to make employee experience, customer segmentation and improving efficiency through the lens of CX our top priorities as we seek to engage and create human connections with our most valuable customers in 2020 and beyond.