Companies can’t begin to build CX programs, without understanding that their consumers are all riding out the same storm in different boats.

The COVID-19 pandemic has fundamentally changed how we view customer experience, teaching lessons that businesses can take into the post-lockdown world.

Each time we as consumers interact with a brand, it leaves an impression. The sum of all these impressions is what we today call customer experience or CX. The rise of technology has led to a new-age consumer – one who is informed, picky and imbued with the power of social media at their fingertips. As a result of this pandemic, there has been an explosion in the number of consumers that are interacting with businesses online and many businesses are having to think really hard about how they now shape these consumers’ CX, considering the harsh reality of the present day.

“One of the biggest CX challenges posed by the lockdowns across the globe, is how brands now need to reinvent their customer engagement models, in the age of Covid-19,” explains Rudeon Snell, the Senior Director of Customer Advisory and Industries for SAP. “A key aspect of this ‘redefinition’ is the rapid acceleration towards digital experiences. Essentially, businesses are having to reimagine CX, to serve customers while they shelter.”

Snell has real insight on the importance of CX in a post-COVID world. His company, SAP, is known as a global leader in enterprise software, as well as a market leader in digital technologies. As the world’s largest enterprise cloud company, SAP has over 200 million cloud users, with over 437,000 customers in more than 180 countries ranging from small companies to global organizations. 78% of the world’s food and 82% of the world’s medical devices are distributed through SAP customers, while over 78% of all business transactions around the globe come into contact with SAP software. It’s impossible to manage that level of transactional volume, without a real appreciation for the importance of the customer experience, as a strategic enabler to business success.

Customer service has always been a vital cog in the Experience Management wheel. Now more than ever, the importance of customer service has been highlighted. As Snell points out, the COVID-19 pandemic has thrust customer service directly into the spotlight. The lockdown has created a situation where the most important business stakeholders are human beings, who are now craving comfort, security and a sense of connection, on top of suddenly needing an entirely new customer experience. Industries such as airlines, hospitality, sports, entertainment and events are dealing with waves of cancellations, refunds and credit requests, in addition to a lack of physical customer presence. At the same time, delivery services are dealing with a surge in demand, as people adapt to a new normal. Call centres around the world are flooded with an overflow of customer service requests. Agents are working overtime, often in new remote environments, leading to immense challenges for customer service teams, arguably, at a time when it has never mattered more.

Interpersonal Solutions for a Digital Age

This isn’t a problem that can be solved, by just introducing a swishy new website design or new call centre scripts. If there’s one thing the lockdown has taught us, it’s that CX, like so much else, is ultimately about human connections, even in the digital world.

“When we take a step back, we have to first acknowledge that all relationships have an emotional component to them — that holds true for the relationship between people and brands,” Snell says. “A brand’s relationship with its customers is built over time, nourished by experiences along many touchpoints, both digital and physical. As SAP, the burning questions we are asking during this time are not grounded in ‘How can we expand market share?’ or even, ‘How do we boost top-line revenue to counteract the economic devastation?’ We are laser-focused on answering the most pressing question, which is ‘How do we support our customers right now in a meaningful, empathetic, human-centric and relevant manner?’”

It is not only customers that require support from businesses, but also their employees. Theodore Roosevelt once remarked that “Nobody cares how much you know until they know how much you care.” By the same token, Snell argues that it’s only after you’ve shown your employees how much you care that you earn the right to ask them what they need in order to be as productive as possible.

“Consistently checking on the well-being of your employees during this time, is simply the right thing to do. With Qualtrics’s Remote Pulse, any business is able to keep daily tabs on how their employees are doing. And during these unprecedented times, we have made it free to use for a period of time, so that all organizations can leverage this benefit,” Snell says. “In addition to this, supply chains across the globe are being disrupted at scale. As SAP, we have also taken the decision to open access to Ariba Discovery for a certain time. By connecting buyers and suppliers amidst global supply chain disruption, any buyer will be able to post immediate sourcing needs and any of the four million suppliers on Ariba Network will be able to respond.”

A Roadmap to CX

In times as uncertain as the ones we are currently living through, what customers crave more than anything else is clarity, authenticity and informed advice. SAP Customer Experience offers a comprehensive selection of solutions, that can provide customers with just that.

This includes a suite of industry-leading cloud solutions under the SAP Intelligent Enterprise umbrella to help businesses innovate, integrate silos and attain the agility they need to respond to rapidly changing times. As Snell points out, the global economy is becoming much more of an “Experience Economy” and as a result of this shift, it is more important now than ever, that customers receive the experience they expect.

“Experience gaps” occur when a brand fails to meet customer expectations at any point along the customer journey. It’s where relationships between a provider and a customer so frequently break down. Companies believe they are delivering what is promised, but if you ask the customer, they will tell a different story altogether. Failure to close experience gaps have a direct effect on a company’s stock performance, with market leaders nearly tripling the market performance of those who fall behind in this arena.

Of course, one essential differentiator in the Experience Economy is time to market. Personalised experiences need to be delivered consistently, yet innovatively, to ever tighter deadlines. Enter SAP Customer Experience solutions. Their CX solution portfolio allows users to implement solutions quickly and conveniently, bringing together customer data, experiential data and operational data. This data convolution is then augmented by the power of intelligent technologies such as artificial intelligence, advanced analytics and machine learning, all with the express purpose of delivering engaging and trusted experiences in, the moments that matter most to customers.

Today, customer expectations are higher than ever and even during the global lockdowns, businesses that can offer continuous, real-time, engagement across multiple digital channels, are the ones able to best weather the storm. The scale and magnitude of the challenge are enormous, but with the capabilities offered by SAP Customer Experience solutions, businesses are well-positioned to overcome the challenges posed. As Snell points out, “It’s not just about selling a single product or service, it’s about instigating the rapid pace of innovation needed to differentiate your brand and drive value in the Experience Economy, in a holistic manner.”

That’s the ambition behind SAP’s Customer Experience solution portfolio. It blends market-leading, cloud-native solutions for sentiment, sales, service, marketing, e-commerce, and customer data management to empower businesses to take their customers on unique, personalised journeys that build trust and brand loyalty long term. It amounts to a more loyal and engaged customer base enjoying increased efficiencies, lower costs and less risk.

Empathy, Built-in

By analysing the behaviour of customers and their transactions SAP can draw insight about what, where, or when a customer does or is likely to do something, but SAP readily acknowledges this is not the whole picture. Data alone cannot answer the ‘Why?’ questions.

Understanding the Experience Economy is something that can feel counter-intuitive to a lot of businesses. If you run a business, you are likely the sort of person who naturally thinks in terms of the economic value of a product, the quality of the product, what distinguishes your product from its competitors.

But the conversation about the Experience Economy was naturally tailored to meet the demand of the digitally native millennial generation, who have become the largest purchasing group. A far smaller proportion of this generation own homes than previous generations, and while older generations might have poured their disposable income into building up a large record collection, millennials are more likely to simply subscribe to an on-demand service like Spotify. They are more likely to interact with, and express themselves, online, and have birthed phenomena like “FOMO” (fear of missing out) as the status symbol becomes not what you have, but what you’ve been up to. In short, what they value and pay for most, is experiences.

The reality is that over the last three months, this description has grown to include customers even outside the millennial demographic. Under lockdown conditions, most people are interacting with brands digitally. No matter how much you own, the things you are probably missing the most are experiences, sitting in a restaurant, ordering a drink at a bar, seeing a film in the cinema, taking a flight or a cruise overseas.

And embedded in all of those experiences, is the feeling of wanting to be around people who can share in those experiences with you or sharing those experiences with your family and friends in a digital world. This means businesses that can recognise and interact with customers on a personal experiential level, have a much stronger value proposition, than those who do not.

SAP’s recent acquisition of Qualtrics, which we have written about before, now allows for businesses to embed the opinion and voice of the customer throughout their business processes, infusing the customer’s journey with empathy and engaging with them on a much deeper level. With Qualtrics, businesses are able to tap into the experience ocean of their consumers and shape individually crafted, sentiment infused journeys, for those consumers.

 Learning the Lessons of Lockdown

The lockdown will not last forever, but Snell emphasises that the lessons businesses have learned from the lockdown must be taken to heart, long after this pandemic has ended.

“The criticality of Experience Management (EX) cannot be emphasised more. Experience Management is the only sustainable competitive advantage,” he insists. “If you look at the experience portion of the Consumer Price Index (CPI) over the long term, you can see how experience offerings break away from the pack, with consumers paying more for experiences and experience spending making up a bigger portion of spending, now than before. It is clear that if you aren’t competing on experience, you are missing boat!”

Snell highlights a recent study by Bain that showed how most companies are disconnected from the experiences they provide, with 80% of CEOs believing they are providing a great customer experience, but only 8% of their customers agreeing with that assessment. Snell believes the Covid-19 pandemic has only amplified this experience gap exponentially.

“As SAP, one of our core beliefs is that we owe it to our customers to help them serve their customers in unique and differentiated ways. Ensuring that we empower our customers to cohesively optimize their customer, employee, product and brand experiences, helps them drive sustainable competitive advantage,” he tells us. “That’s how SAP helps its customers compete and win in the Experience Economy!”

When businesses finally start to rebuild once the pandemic is over, CX will still be an essential competitive capability. Companies will need to relearn the shifting needs of their customers as they emerge from their shelters and tentatively engage in the economy.

“The COVID-19 pandemic has caused virtually everyone to reconsider their needs and wants, in addition to how they interact with brands. Companies will need to respond by focusing on listening to their consumers from a place of empathy and with a bias toward how they can be most helpful to their customers during this time,” Snell says. “Listening and building with empathy, will let organizations provide products, services and most importantly, experiences, that genuinely serve customers’ needs and generate goodwill, without coming across as tone-deaf or uncaring. Tying their efforts to relevance is also a crucial element when wanting to drive successful CX programs.”

In a crisis like this, companies are faced with shifting priorities and evolving needs, both from customers and employees. Timing is a crucial element to success under these circumstances. Digitally savvy consumers will not take kindly to outdated, tone-deaf and irrelevant CX efforts and employees who feel their employers don’t care about their well-being, will simply not be as productive as they can be.

“A focus on getting your timing right in landing your experience management programs shows customers you respect their reality, which is more relevant than ever during this emotionally charged time,” Snell points out. “Companies can’t begin to build CX programs, without understanding that their consumers are all riding out the same storm in different boats. That shows a level of empathy that consumers gravitate towards. Finding ways to cope during this crisis is a task that looks different for everyone, so connecting on a hyper-personal level is more important than ever.”

The COVID-19 pandemic has shattered many of the long-held assumptions about what customers need and how they need it, but Snell reminds us that this is a time when CX can thrive because, at the core, it’s about connecting with individuals.