empty store  shelves
PHOTO: Mick Haupt

With social distancing measures in place and businesses across diverse industries temporarily closing their store fronts, the digital experience has never been more critical for businesses and the customers who depend on them. Consumers develop brand loyalty and trust in accordance to the degree a company can best meet their needs — both in everyday circumstances and especially during a crisis. That makes it even more important for businesses to leverage mobile capabilities and optimize the digital experience across customer-facing operations now to serve consumer expectations. Companies that pivot the customer experience accordingly will be poised to emerge ahead of the curve in the post COVID-19 world.   

The Digital-First Consumer Is Here to Stay

With 85% of people in the US and over 1.5 billion people globally under some form of stay-at-home order, unprecedented numbers of people have now become digital-first customers. This has led many companies to reengineer the customer experience as they adapt their operations and service delivery models into new channels to meet consumers where they are. Coronavirus has changed the customer journey and, as a result has also shifted customer expectations across virtually every industry. Digital offerings are quickly becoming the norm. The US has already seen a 20% increase in contactless operations. The pandemic has ushered in a spike in telemedicine appointments, expanded grocery and food delivery options, flexible remote education systems, new pharmacy delivery offerings, remote health and fitness services, and countless innovative digital offerings that serve customers in their own homes. 

For many companies, digital is becoming indispensable for the continuity of services and products that customers’ livelihoods depend on. Banks are a prime example. Several financial institutions have closed or limited their physical operations during the pandemic, with some banks restricting store capacity, reducing operational hours or closing their physical locations altogether. Yet despite reductions, people still rely on these services. With global economies disrupted and unemployment levels at record highs, it's critical for financial services to remain accessible and convenient.

While some banks have begun to introduce mobile offerings, overall banks can only manage 7% of their product offerings digitally end-to-end. This can be especially problematic during times of turmoil. Being required to submit forms in person — application documentation, pay stubs or ID verifications, for example — can be particularly burdensome for customers who are sheltering in place. Even simply being required to print and mail documents can be a challenge for some consumers and presents an unnecessary barrier in the customer journey. Mobile offerings can help organizations across diverse sectors weather the crisis while maintaining customer satisfaction.

The mobile device should be viewed as a financial institution’s most important branch. Leveraging mobile technologies allows companies to offer convenient, accessible services to customers. Demand for convenience is evidenced in the rise of digital-only banks. FinTech now accounts for 13% of all new account openings. Established brick-and-mortar banks, from large global financial institutions to small regional banks, are more readily embracing digital transformation to stay relevant, retain customers and be competitive. They need to, otherwise they risk making Gartner’s prediction come true: that by 2030 as many as 80% of banks will go out of business or will be made irrelevant due to a combination of new competition, changing customer behavior, and new advancements in technology. Mobile capabilities may have previously been a nice-to-have for many organizations, or an offering primarily geared towards millennial and Gen Z consumers, but they've now become indispensable. 

Related Article: How Financial Services Compete on Customer Experience

Optimizing the Digital Experience   

All generations are making wide use of digital services, even people who aren't considered digital natives. Right now, consumers need fast, reliable and simple digital offerings that are available 24/7 and accessible on any device.

One critical strategy for meeting customer demands and retaining loyalty is to meet customers where they are. In a recent piece on adapting and pivoting the customer experience during coronavirus, McKinsey recommended innovating digital models to help customers navigate the crisis safely from home. It holds that organizations should consider offering contactless customer options and making physical operations touch-free. Expanding digital offerings is the first step, albeit an important one.

Optimizing the digital experience is the second step and most vital one. When developing or reshaping the digital customer journey, making the experience as low-touch and seamless as possible is critical. Be strategic when requiring customers to download a native app, particularly in the application or onboarding phases of the journey, as this can be an unnecessary barrier and, in some cases, a source of drop out. Also, be sure to eliminate repetitive information requests and minimize manual effort. There’s a significant difference between a customer having to enter identification information and being able to scan a card directly from their phone and utilize data that is already populated.

Content intelligence technologies, such as OCR, streamline the processing of important customer data and facilitate effortless digital document submission, which can transform otherwise cumbersome submission processes involving health insurance cards, identification forms or application documents.

Timely, real-time customer responses are also critical. The pandemic has led to a sharp increase in inquiries and wait times in customer service operations across all industries. Natural language processing (NLP) and artificial intelligence (AI) technologies can help reduce bottlenecks and improve customer response times. These solutions are especially critical now, as many customer service and call centers have drastically reduced staff due to social distancing measures. Customer service operations can be one of the more challenging business-critical functions to transition to a work-from-home environment, particularly when dealing with confidential data and sensitive customer information. AI and NLP can play a role in fulfilling this critical need and supporting customer service operations through unexpected changes in processes and structure.

AI solutions are capable of sifting through digital customer service inquiries (emails and chat messages), analyzing the text to classify the inquiry properly (i.e. identifying if the message is a complaint or a request), and then routing the communication to the appropriate team member. They can also respond directly to customer communications and, in some cases, resolve the initial inquiry without requiring any human intervention. While one-on-one customer interaction is still important, especially for complex inquiries or for grievances that require much more personalized and dedicated support, AI and NLP can help provide quick responses and timely resolutions for simple requests, which is especially needed right now.

Related Article: What Happens When Customer Support Works From Home?

Looking Ahead to the Post COVID-19 Customer Experience

The coronavirus pandemic has accelerated more businesses into the digital-first era — for some, much sooner than they had anticipated. Long before the crisis, mobile and digital offerings have been a fundamental strategy for organizations looking to stay ahead of the curve and best meet the needs of the tech-savvy customers. Now, however, digital has become the standard. In some cases, digital is the only way to maintain continuity and deliver essential goods and services that people’s lives and livelihoods depend on.

Digital experiences will continue to play a vital role in the customer experience long after the pandemic has subsided. Companies that help customers navigate this crisis by meeting them where they are and delivering simple, efficient and seamless digital experiences — even if it means adapting or creating brand new service and operational models — will be well-positioned to retain customer loyalty long after the pandemic is over. Businesses that deliver accessible and exceptional experiences now will thrive in the post COVID-19 world.