Customer is king, and the COVID-19 pandemic has forced brands to reevaluate their customer experience initiatives with the goal of creating an exceptional journey for each customer. This article will explore the ways brands are crafting exceptional customer experiences and improving the customer journey through all of their channels.

It’s All About the Omnichannel Experience

Customers expect a consistent, personalized experience across all of a brand’s channels, including web, social, mobile, kiosk, in-store, text, and email — on any device and platform, according to Holly O’Neill, chief client care executive at Bank of America. Brands must approach each customer via the channel of their preference. “Organizations that rise to the challenge to provide a seamless experience across all company channels are better positioned to deliver superior customer care,” she emphasized.

O’Neill suggested that brands deliver the same exceptional, personalized experience via their digital channels as customers expect from in-person interactions. “Our high-tech and high-touch approach enables clients to manage their finances whenever, wherever and however they choose.”

Many brands are starting to use headless commerce to accomplish this feat. The term “headless commerce” refers to the separation of the frontend and backend of an e-commerce application. By using headless technology, each application is able to function independently, and changes to the frontend design do not require similar changes to the back-end infrastructure. This means that the IT department does not need to be involved when the design team makes changes to a mobile app, website, etc., and the user is presented with a consistent experience across each of those channels.

“Consistent, exceptional experiences across channels are critical,” he said. “By providing a consistent experience across channels, businesses are able to create a model–not a map–to achieve best-in-class CX through operational excellence,” said Dr. Gero Decker, CEO and co-founder of Signavio.

Transparency About Data Privacy

Customers today demand to know what personal data a brand collects from them, how they will be using it, if they will be sharing it, and how long they will keep it. They don’t mind sharing their data if a brand is transparent about their data collection practices and the brand is providing the customer with something of value in exchange for their data, such as personalization and ease of use.

In fact, a report from entitled Brand Loyalty 2020: The Need for Hyper-Individualization revealed that 81% of the 2000 consumers polled said they are willing to provide basic personal information in exchange for a more personalized experience. More importantly, the report also found that 83% of those polled are more willing to share their data if the brand they are sharing it with is transparent about their data practices.

While transparency is vital, brands must also protect customer data from unauthorized access, as data breaches greatly impact customer loyalty. Identity management is crucial when it comes to protecting consumer data. “We’ve witnessed hackers and cyber-breaches on personally identifiable information (PII), credit card information and beyond — which not only impacts customer loyalty but also brand reputation and stock and sale price. In this sense, businesses want to offer an effortless and seamless experience to customers yet ensure privacy and protect data,” said Asanka Abeysinghe, chief technology evangelist at WSO2, a customer IAM provider.

Related Article: 5 Ways COVID-19 Is Changing Customer Loyalty

Convenience and Simplicity Drive Sales and Loyalty

Convenience and simplicity are more important than ever to consumers today. McKinsey recently released a report on consumer sentiment which revealed that customer shopping behaviors have changed due to the pandemic. David Riley, global advisory lead for Digital Marketing and Customer Experience at Avanade, the Microsoft solutions arm of Accenture, told CMSWire that although the changes that came with the pandemic were rapid, where there is disruption, there is opportunity. “The pandemic has rapidly changed consumer behaviors and expectations with a dramatic shift to online retail and ecommerce,” said Riley. Brands should be working to simplify the e-commerce experience and provide convenience through all of their channels.

Overly complex sign-up and login procedures drive away customers, as they are frustrating and time-consuming, so it’s vital to simplify the process as much as possible. Many brands are using authentication services such as Google Identity Platform, a customer identity and access management (CIAM) platform, to simplify the login process by creating a persistent customer identity through all of the brand’s channels. Using Identity Platform, a Google user account may be linked to a user account on a brand’s platform. This is commonly seen as the “Sign in with Google” login that appears on so many apps and websites.

Dr. Decker believes that by enabling persistent customer identity across channels, brands are able to simplify and streamline the customer journey, eliminating the pain points that make the customer experience unpleasant.

“No one wants to repeat their contact information and issue to a customer service agent when they’ve already emailed or filled out a contact form online. With a consistent identity management framework in place, businesses are able to engage customers with far greater accuracy thus increasing the value of their customer experience.”

Similar to Identity Platform, Abeysinghe’s company, WSO2, is a customer identity and access management provider that enables single sign on (SSO) capabilities, account management, reporting and more. Along with simplifying the user experience, identity management allows a brand to strengthen its relationship with customers.

“Where these businesses once mainly maintained transactional relationships with customers, they can now start to use knowledge about customer identities to build customer profiles, new partnerships, and new services that drive longer term and higher value relationships for the business and the customer, alike. This puts "identity" front and center in driving an exceptional customer experience in 2021,“ Abeysinghe said. Simplicity and convenience improve the customer experience, encourage sales, create a sense of satisfaction, and increase customer loyalty.

Exceptional Customer Service Is Vital

Customer service is extremely important to customers today. If a brand is not already making exceptional, personalized customer service a priority, now is the time to do so. A Microsoft report on the global state of customer service showed that 61% of consumers have stopped doing business with a brand because of poor customer service.

Customers expect today’s brands to provide customer service at all hours, 7 days a week, and they expect a response in a timely manner. A report from SuperOffice, a CRM provider, indicated that 31.2% of those polled expect a response in 60 minutes or less, and 11.3% expect a response in less than 15 minutes.

Riley said that quite often customer service is more important than marketing. “A good experience can make up for poor marketing execution and will often lead to repeat business or loyalty. Great customer service can often trump price as part of an overall purchase decision. We tell our friends and family about great and horrible customer service experiences. It can influence their decisions.”

Learning Opportunities

One way that many brands are providing instant, always-on customer service is through the use of AI chatbots. These chatbots use artificial intelligence and machine learning to dig deep into customer data in order to provide personalized customer service. Chatbots are then able to answer routine questions (“when was my order shipped?”) by tapping into a customer’s purchasing history, for example. This also enables the chatbots to put the customer data in the hands of customer service staff when the service request is more detailed or complicated.

Related Article: When's the Last Time You Said 'Thank You' to Your Customers?

Hyper-Personalization Is the New Norm

Customers are no longer willing to be segmented into groups of people like themselves, but rather, they expect their interactions with a brand to be hyper-personalized — that is, they expect relevant content to be delivered to them based on their specific purchase history, service tickets, browsing history, or other interactions with a brand.

Dr. Decker emphasized that customer expectations are high, and are only going to get higher. “Personalization must be baked into the customer journey. The good news is that digital is now the primary (and often only) way that brands connect with customers, and all digital interactions leave behind a data signature that can be collected, analyzed and used to optimize (transform) customer experiences,” he said.

A report from Epsilon indicated that 80% of those polled are more likely to do business with brands that provide a highly personalized experience. “With the digital world at their fingertips, consumers want experiences that are relevant and tailored to their specific needs and have the luxury to shop from the safety of their homes,” explained Riley.

The expectations of customers today extend through all areas of a brand, and customers expect the same level of personalization from one channel to the next. “What businesses are realizing is that crafting the best possible customer experience goes beyond a great website and some finely tuned digital marketing; it stretches across, and through, every aspect of the organization,” Riley said. “Businesses are realizing the need to reconnect with their customers. How can they acquire new or retain existing customers if they don’t understand a customer’s buyer journey and can’t provide the level of personalisation customers expect?”

Empathy Is Imperative

The COVID-19 pandemic has been traumatic for businesses and customers across the world. Employees and customers have had to make adjustments to their lives, and brands have had to change the way they do business as well as the way they interact with customers, suppliers, employees, and other businesses. People have had to deal with stress and emotional issues ranging from isolation to depression and anxiety. As a result, businesses have to build an emotional connection with customers that is based on empathy and understanding.

Dr. Decker told CMSWire that every relationship should be built upon empathy, and that for brands, especially in this age of uncertainty and stress, it’s even more vital. “With COVID-19, challenges related to physical and mental well-being, financial health, and family engagements have all been exasperated–creating more urgency to enable empathetic interactions. When engaging with the customer, it’s important for the brand to understand they don’t know the full picture.”

A report entitled the Edelman Trust Barometer revealed that 71% of customers indicated that if they feel that a brand is putting profit over people, the trust they had in that brand will be gone forever. Conversely,

Iterable’s Holiday Quick Poll showed that 83% of consumers were more likely to purchase from a brand that they have an emotional connection with.

Riley said that the key to empathy is understanding customers, and that is accomplished by learning how to use the vast amount of data that is collected — an amount that has exponentially grown since the beginning of 2020. “Extracting value from all that data is the key to understanding customers, creating the types of experiences that will attract and retain them across all customer touchpoints and channels in a consistent, personalized and empathetic way.”

Final Thoughts

Customer experience has never been as important for brands as it is today. Customers expect an exceptional, consistent, personalized experience across all of a brand’s channels. By creating a culture of transparency and empathy, and providing customer service that leaves customers feeling emotionally satisfied, brands can improve the customer journey and increase customer loyalty, retention and engagement across all of their channels.