Now that there is light at the end of the COVID tunnel, vaccinations are increasing, and consumers are beginning to change their social and shopping habits once again, is it time for brands to rebuild their CX roadmap? How have things changed permanently, what will go back to the way it was before the pandemic, and how will brands rethink the omnichannel experience?

How to Improve the Omnichannel Experience

A recent report on customer service by Khoros revealed that although brands recognize the importance of the omnichannel experience, 77% of brands polled said they struggled to create a cohesive journey across channels and devices. According to Justin Cook, general manager of Khoros Marketing, this is a problem, because “62% of customers want to engage with brands across multiple channels, so brands must prioritize streamlining their customer experiences online and continue creating human connection across all digital touchpoints, even post-pandemic.”

According to Cook, brands need to rethink their CX roadmap to ensure that it meets the needs of their customers. “If you can break down walls between sales, marketing, and customer service departments, you can more easily share customer data, feedback, and workflow processes to achieve a seamless end-user experience.”

A brand’s CX initiative will be the key to regaining shopping confidence and increasing sales among post-pandemic consumers said Carlos Castelán, managing director of The Navio Group, a Fortune 500 retail consulting firm. He thinks many businesses have a head start on their CX initiatives, because many of them have strategies that worked well during the pandemic and those should continue to be popular with customers in 2021 and beyond. about how .  

Castelán gave the example of the many retailers that offered no-touch curbside pickup. These shopping alternatives will continue to be used by customers long after the pandemic has passed, “so retailers will continue to build out and expand these fulfillment methods. Since many customers have become accustomed now to shopping in this fashion we anticipate that it will remain popular post-pandemic,” he said. Khoros’ survey results echo the same sentiment, and Cook reiterated that “Even with nationwide vaccinations rolling out, online shopping isn’t going away anytime soon. The pandemic introduced a new level of convenience that consumers will still expect moving forward.”

For brands with brick-and-mortar storefronts, there is no reason to expect such trends to end as consumers begin the move to normalcy. “We expect to see continued investments from retailers to improve the curbside pickup through their app or website via features that perhaps allow someone to track their order as it’s being fulfilled or investing in technology that improves the accuracy and speed of fulfilling orders,” Castelán said. “Retailers will need to figure out the long-term model of optimizing their stores for hybrid in-store shopping as well as fulfillment of online orders as ecommerce continues to grow."

Chris McNally, practice lead of the North America Digital Advisory at Infosys Consulting, thinks the hybrid in-store shopping experience that Castelán spoke of is a great example of how customers are demanding an omnichannel experience. “The implication for brands is to think holistically about the customer experience from the digital to the physical — and deliver a consistent experience across channels. Brands should make it easy for customers to do things like order online and pick up in-store and access detailed information in-store that they are used to getting online such as details on product information, ingredients, reviews, competitor pricing, product availability and more.”

Related Article: Foundational Steps for Customer Journey Mapping Initiatives

The Winners and Losers of the Year of COVID

It’s somewhat exhausting and often depressing to consider how things changed over the past year during the pandemic, but there are lessons to be learned from that period of adjustment. Many businesses closed their doors for good, while others were able to adapt and thrive. Others, by the simple nature of the services they provided, were vital to humanity, and remained unaffected. Among the winners in the last year were:

  • Food and grocery delivery services
  • Online restaurant ordering and takeout dining
  • Online shopping in general
  • Streaming entertainment services
  • Social networks
  • Livestreamed concerts and events
  • Webinars
  • The gaming industry, both online and physical
  • Collaboration and communication tools and services
  • Hobby retailers
  • The bicycle industry
  • The camping industry
  • Outdoor parks and recreation
  • Package delivery services
  • Drive in concerts
  • Our heroes in the medical industry
  • Diversity and inclusivity

The losers of the last year include:

  • The travel and tourism industry
  • In-restaurant dining
  • Nightclubs and bars
  • Movie theaters
  • Music festivals and concerts
  • Brick-and-mortar storefronts
  • Coffee shops

From a customer experience perspective, a quick look at the winners reveals that the only ones that directly owe the pandemic for their success are hobby retailers, the physical games (board games) industry, the bicycle industry, the camping industry, outdoor parks and recreation, and drive in concerts. All of the others were poised to take advantage of the acceleration of technology, increased bandwidth, the prevalence of mobile devices. Those businesses that were strictly brick-and-mortar had to incorporate a digital channel into their offerings though, because without it, customers had no way of finding out what they offered, where they were located, hours of operation, COVID-19 restrictions, etc..

“Following the start of the pandemic, 60% of commerce moved online according to McKinsey & Company’s COVID-19 2020 Consumer Pulse surveys, and this isn’t decreasing. Even beyond the acceleration of e-commerce, the digitalization of the customer experience is here to stay,” Veis said. “What might have started as one-off behavioral changes to match specific events in response to global shutdowns, has now had a permanent impact on how customers want to engage with brands moving forward,” said Jeff Veis, chief marketing officer at Actian, a hybrid cloud data analytics company.

Veis said that pre-pandemic thinking doesn’t work anymore for brands, and if those brands try to operate off pre-COVID roadmaps, or even roadmaps put together in the earlier months of the spread and subsequent quarantines and digitizing of their customer interactions, they should absolutely re-build these if they aren’t doing so already. “This includes everyone from Main Street to Wall Street,” he explained.

To take advantage of what we have learned over the last year, it all comes back to the omnichannel experience, and how to integrate what brands have learned into both online and brick-and-mortar experiences. “The winners coming out of COVID will be those retailers that can create seamless shopping experiences between online and in-store (start a cart online, finish in store, loyalty info that transcends channels, product info and reviews across both, etc.) as well as provide in-store experiences that aren’t just about transacting for a product but also build excitement around the brand, make the experience social and build a relationship,” suggested McNally.

Learning Opportunities

For Customers, 2021 Brings More Options

Through the last year, customers have had less options and choices than at any other period of their lives. That is changing now as more consumers have been vaccinated or have recovered from COVID-19. Stores are reopening, shelter in place rules and curfews are ending, restaurants and bars are able to have patrons inside with less restrictions, and small crowds are now being allowed to gather once again. The world is beginning to be open for business, and consumers once again have many choices available to them. Brands must keep this in mind when it comes to customer experience, as the customer journey is changing yet again.

Jennifer Conklin, VP of unified commerce at Capgemini North America, reminded CMSWire readers about what many have come to recently realize — that the pandemic continues to have a huge impact on customer experience roadmaps across many industries. Although not all geographic areas are dealing with the same consumer behavior shifts or shopping patterns, Conklin said that there are general trends and best practices that brands can explore to stay relevant and on customers’ minds. “Consumers have gotten used to buying from brands directly over the past year — and roadmaps should reflect that shift. Brands can explore this new channel by incorporating personalization strategies to better understand buying patterns and consumer preferences. Tailored products, relevant promotions, and loyalty programs will help increase conversion, average order value (AOV), and lifetime customer value,” Conklin said.

McNally told CMSWire that going forward, personal experiences are going to be paramount for consumers as they begin to explore the outside world once again. “A return to more in-store experiences will lead to opportunities for more dynamic brand/customer interaction. Brands should look for creative ways to insert themselves into how consumers are interacting with a post-COVID world.”

Along with a focus on personal interactions — something most people have been lacking for the past year — customers are also highly focused on areas such as health, safety, with a growing concern about social issues and sustainability. “Brands need to think beyond profits and understand that they have a much larger role to play, as consumers expect transparency from brands. They also want to feel that they are purchasing from responsible companies,” McNally reiterated.

Learn From the Takeaways of the Past Year

Customer data from the last few months can be used to help brands understand consumer trends and shopping habits. By understanding what customers are buying online, brands can be sure to stock relevant products in their storefronts. “Use online data to support your store strategy — and make sure inventory is reflective of the trends you’re seeing online. Take the time to understand drivers behind the data. Your online data can provide great insights into how you stock your regional stores or prioritize inventory for retailers. If you find that high-top sneakers are selling in the western part of the country, make sure your stores in the West have enough product to meet that demand,” Conklin said.

Although consumers temporarily transitioned to strictly shopping online, brands need to be prepared for the long-awaited return to in-person shopping as consumers regain the opportunity to be among other shoppers without extreme social distancing or risking their health. At the same time, they should continue to offer the options that pandemic shoppers have gotten used to. “Stores are never going away. People like to shop, browse, and interact with products in-person. As the weather improves and vaccines are more widely distributed, consumers will want to get out of their house and visit stores,” said Conklin. “Make sure your store locations reflect your brand ethos with the appropriate inventory and experience. If you’ve offered BOPIS or curbside as an option during the pandemic, and your customers responded well, consider keeping those programs in your roadmap.”

What brands and customers have experienced over the last year is actually  just a “stepping on the gas” of trends that were already in place. McNally said that “brands must be focused on the end-to-end needs of the consumer and think systemically about the customer experience. They need to move beyond a transactional interaction focused on price and convenience to one focused on building authentic relationships.”

Khoros’ Cook said that the pandemic has ultimately and decidedly raised customer expectations as brands were forced to digitally transform their businesses practically overnight as the pandemic overtook the world. “Brands must prioritize connectivity within their CX roadmap to ensure they’re providing customers with a holistic and seamless experience from the start. While many will start in-store shopping again, the most valuable customer data comes from digital experiences. We must use those insights to better serve our customers.”

With the pandemic’s rapid push to deliver “digital first” customer experience interactions, consumers are using multiple digital channels, along with an ever-increasing number of online and mobile applications to interact with brands and evaluate products and services before they complete a purchase. Many brands are finding it exponentially more difficult to monitor and predict the “next best action” to take in order to optimize the customer experience, said Veis. “The ability to create this experience depends on the insights you have into those preferences, needs, historical and new touchpoints, which in turn depends on your ability to access and aggregate customer data from an increasingly complex set of data sources to analyze in real-time.”

Final Thoughts

By recognizing the successes of the past year, as well as understanding what didn’t work, brands will be able to continue to improve the omnichannel experience, live up to higher customer expectations, and improve the customer journey as customers begin to explore their many options.