New research shows that brands that embrace innovation and agility with an aim on humanizing the customer’s experience, outperform their peers, especially in a global pandemic.
COVID-19 has disrupted markets and lives at levels not seen by many. As cases around the world soared, executives were stunned, unprepared for the rapid shifts that would test even the most experienced of experts. The disruption wreaked by this pandemic was swift, unprecedented, and underestimated. While it largely reset the world we once knew, the term “new normal” became a staple in how we defined these novel times. But the impact on, and shifts in, markets and human behaviors were far from normal and definitely elusive of offering insights necessary to recognize any sense of normalcy or clear path forward.
Businesses that don’t take the time to understand what’s changing and why, as times and trends continue to evolve, will miss their opportunity to earn relevance and thrive in this new world. The most meaningful way forward is to place the customer at the center of your vision and decision-making in two distinct strategic phases: one with-COVID and the other, post-COVID.
Like the Novel Coronavirus, businesses are operating in uncharted territory. I refer to these times as the Novel Economy, a socioeconomic period that is, just like its namesake, new and unusual. Brands don’t have access to a disruption vaccine nor do executives possess a playbook for responding to and thriving in a global pandemic. At the same time, decision-makers are without best practices and case studies to skillfully guide their actions. The most direct source of insights resides in the signals and inputs customers willfully share with those who are willing to pay attention. What executives don’t want to do right now is make assumptions about customer needs and predilections. This was clear in the unanimous customer response to seemingly timed marketing campaigns in the early days of COVID-19.
For example, an initial wave of emails from brands to customers, in a time of great sensitivity, appeared to reference the same generic template.
This poem is called “First lines of emails I’ve received while quarantining.” pic.twitter.com/4keCqPaO63
— Jessica Salfia (@jessica_salfia) April 11, 2020
This led to consumers wondering why brands felt compelled to reach out without understanding what they were and weren’t looking for from brands in these times of great uncertainty, anxiety, and fear.
one lesson I'm learning from this pandemic is that way too many brands have my email
— maura quint (@behindyourback) March 13, 2020
These types of emails represented just one form of “out of touchness” at a time when it was more important to listen than speak. But this out of touchness wasn’t limited to email. In digital and television advertising campaigns, brands also seemed to source the same pandemic style guide. Customers were quick to respond in uniform. The last thing they needed to hear from brands is how “we are all in this together.”
In a video titled “Every Covid-19 Commercial is Exactly the Same,” Youtube user Microsoft Sam compiled footage from advertising spots published by numerous leading brands.
The video features clever editing that spliced together key themes from each video into an all-too-familiar arc and template. According to AdAge, this pandemic inspired montage featured “somber music, a reminder of how the brand has been with the consumer throughout its entire history and that in these ‘challenging,’ ‘trying,’ ’uncertain’ or ‘unprecedented’ times, while ‘doors are closed’ or ‘distance between us’ has grown, we can still ‘stay connected’ in the ‘safety of our home’.”
It’s hard to believe that executives would intentionally aim for anything other than sympathy. Executives are human too. They’re worried about financial devastation and the impact that has on the brand and their teams. Yet, executives cannot lose sight that customers are human beings who are worried about the health and well-being of their lives and the lives of their loved ones.
The intention of brands reaching out is understandable, and from a business perspective, necessary. They’re simply trying to remain relevant and in-demand. Customers on the other hand, were less than inspired.
This isn’t a time to upset anyone. It is a time to be a light in the lives of consumers, to find ways to add value or remove friction, especially when customers feel overwhelmed and anxious by the impact of the pandemic in their lives. I call this #IgniteMoments. It’s an opportunity to humanize and enliven touchpoints, to touch the customer in a novel and refreshing way that creates memorable experiences.
If you’re taking pause and listening, consumers are expressing that, rather than market to them in the same ways as before or by using the pandemic guide to generic engagement, they’d rather engage with companies that represent values associated with kindness and caring.
The digital transformation of legacy marketing to modern, personal customer experiences
In its sixth edition “State of Marketing” report, Salesforce learned that brands need to rethink engagement from a much more innovative and human-centered frame of reference. According to its research, leading marketing executives are prioritizing the following five strategic initiatives:
2. Real-time engagement
3. Regulatory compliance
4. Improved use of tools and technology
5. Modernization of tools and technology
With a global pandemic still raging, marketers must operate with compassion and attentiveness led by a “with COVID” mindset. The existing brand style guide and marketing playbooks do not account for these times nor the speed and breadth at which they’re operating. Traditional marketing will no longer have the same effect moving forward. If anything, it will negatively affect customer relationships rather than enhance them.
In its research, Salesforce learned that 69% of marketers say that today’s traditional marketing roles limit customer engagement — up from 37% in 2018. This sets the stage for more meaningful, personalized engagement now and also in a “post COVID” world aka the next normal.
As such, customer-centricity, whether you call it CX or marketing or digital transformation, will be rooted in empathy, purpose, and compassion. This means that the next generation of style guides and playbooks need development in real-time.
COVID-19 accelerates digital customer behaviors and amplifies importance of empathetic experiences
A significant majority of customers are more than ready for brand humanization. According to Salesforce research, 84% of customers say the experience a company provides is as important as its products and services — up from 80% in 2018. This means that marketing is evolving from a classical, one-to-many approach, toward delivering customer experiences that connect, build trust, and guide mutually beneficial outcomes.
What’s needed to break through today?
Total CX, i.e. marketing becomes bigger than a series of departments or functions. Marketing becomes the stewards of customer experience across the journey. This is the future of brand.
Eighty-eight percent of high performer marketers report leading CX initiatives across their organizations, compared to 68% of underperformers.
Of the 7,000 marketers surveyed around the world, only 15% were high performers, those completely satisfied with their overall marketing performance and the outcomes of their marketing investments. On the other side of the spectrum, 14% were underperformers. The vast majority of marketers (71%) were described as moderate performers.
In time of a global pandemic, when emotions are running high, experience is personal. That’s what an experience is after all, an emotional, mental and physical reaction to a moment. This is why CX leaders define the customer’s experience as the sum of all experiences a customer has with their business. Each touchpoint counts in their own right, but also are keystones to the bridges that connect entire experiences together.
Marketing transformation takes on a new sense of urgency, requiring true 360 customer understanding and engagement
It’s critical for marketers to have a real-time 360 view and understanding of a customer’s full journey, at every stage, from discovery to engagement to retention and loyalty to advocacy. Sixty-nine percent of customers are reporting that they expect connected experiences.
Legacy roles that only focus on stages of the customer journey, in isolation, without coordinating with those who manage other connected touchpoints, will lose favor with customers. By design, the brand message and the experiences they deliver will be disconnected and likely confusing. Said another way, if it’s not complementary, intuitive, and additive, individual experiences are likely taking away from its total potential.
Cross-functional collaboration is a mandate. As such, integration will become the new standard and will quickly become table stakes as every company rushes in this direction.
So how can brands deliver value?
Value lies in the eye of the beholder. Gaining unbiased outside perspective on how customers define value is where we begin.
Customers seek information their way in the channels that they trust and are native and intuitive to them. They don’t care what challenges you face internally. They don’t care about siloes, politics, egos, or resource constraints. They want what they want.
The journey, defined by each touchpoint and how they connect with each other, defines the customer’s experience. That experience is theirs. You’re creating and architecting experiences open to interpretation. You have to design moving forward, accordingly. Processes, means of communication and engagement, systems of record, need to be interconnected, frictionless, fast, productive and experiential in every touchpoint.
The vast majority (81%) of marketing teams are learning how to share goals and metrics with sales. But, that’s not all. Eighty percent of marketers are doing so with service and e-commerce. Sixty four percent suppress marketing when there’s an open service case. To do so effectively, takes a common, agile platform that can keep up with customer evolution while bringing cross-functional teams together around the customer’s truth.
The foundation is already being set for success by marketing’s high performers. It’s reported that 63% of these elite marketers, for example, use the same CRM system as sales and service departments.
Executives are in a prime position to lead a marketing revolution that better connects brands with customers to deliver a total experience one engagement at a time. It’s about understanding what they need, when they need it, and how to create new value they didn’t expect, but now can’t live without once they’ve experienced it.
Data-driven empathy helps marketers deliver personalized and meaningful customer experiences as customer expectations and preferences evolve
The average enterprise has 900 different applications, an average of only 28% of which are integrated according to a recent Mulesoft report. This explains why marketers cite data unification and activation among their top five challenges. Therein lies opportunity for differentiation and innovation.
Data is the answer, yet marketers have to update the questions that they ask. I call this data-driven empathy and helps marketers get to the heart of the matter in real-time.
Customers are changing as a result of COVID-19 and the emotions and health advisories guiding their well-being. Shelter-in-place, physical distancing, concern for their own health and well-being, as well as for their loved ones, is accelerating digital-first behaviors in every touchpoint across their journey.
During these times of disruption, data-driven empathy enables empathetic marketing, customer engagement, and genuine experiences. As customers’ circumstances, needs, and sentiments evolve rapidly, accumulating a clear understanding becomes mission critical for AI-powered platforms and CX and marketing strategies. Marketers are turning to an ever-increasing number of digital signals and data sources to assess transactional data, declared interests and preferences, known digital IDs, offline IDs, second-party data, inferred interests and preferences, and more. In fact, progressive marketers plan to use 60% more data this year than the overall industry average. Combined with AI, marketers can achieve personalization across the journey at scale by distilling insights from data and guiding teams on how best to take action.
The experiences that customers have in each touchpoint must also not only meet their needs, but also strive to surpass their expectations. High performance marketers report that they are increasingly turning to a sophisticated array of modern digital tools and intelligent, connected platforms. Artificial intelligence (AI), for example is helping marketers learn from real-time customer activity and corresponding data signals to personalize engagement with the right context at the right time in the right channel on the right device. Eighty-four percent of marketers report using AI, which is up from 29% in 2018 (an increase of 186% in two years).
To lead through this incredible change, real-time, 360 customer data becomes eminent. Before COVID-19 (BC) customer behavior was already becoming more and more digital. This only accelerated after COVID disruption (AD). But the data that organizations need to hyper focus on right now is happening in real-time. The time for placing data at the center of CX is now.
It’s essential to have a clear understanding of customer needs as they evolve. In these times of disruption, data-driven empathy enables empathetic marketing, customer engagement, and experiences. Data-driven empathy is both an art and a science. In addition to creativity, communication, emotional intelligence, marketers are now reporting the need for digital-first expertise including digital proficiency, data analysis, and data science.
Customer-centric metrics matter, count what counts to the brand and to the customer’s experience
What gets measured gets done. At the same time, it’s been said that not everything that counts can be counted, and not everything that can be counted counts.
CX is dependent on the “customer’s experience and as such, their experience, hence the apostrophe, becomes a key CPI (customer performance indicator). New and upgraded metrics, beyond those of vanity and general engagement, need to demonstrate performance and also customer-centered benefits.
High performance marketers (72%), for example, are already analyzing performance in real time, versus 49% of underperformers. And, fewer than half (48%) of marketing organizations today track important experience metrics such as customer lifetime value (CLV/LTV). There’s plenty of room for growth here.
Customer-centric metrics correlate to business performance. Experienced marketers are being more strategic about ways to invest in customer experiences to showcase customer satisfaction and retention in addition to complementing customer acquisition strategies. By measuring the customer’s real-time and aggregated experience, marketers can learn exactly how and where to improve them, in times with-COVID and post-COVID markets.
Innovaiton is the ability to see change as an opportunity
Innovation is defined as many things. But at its core, innovation is about creating new value that didn’t exist before. This is different than iteration, which incrementally improves existing value. Both are important.
During this pandemic, and even after there’s universal treatment, a vaccine, we establish herd immunity, or all of the above, the customer’s experience is not only an ongoing priority, but also a primary driver of innovation.
Following the series of disruptive events, shutdowns, impacts on public health and global economies, and waves of setbacks, customer preferences and behaviors evolved rapidly and will continue to evolve as the Novel Economy unfolds. Even as the world starts to open up as it learns to co-exist with a novel coronavirus and even after its eradication, CX must always be human-centered to genuinely and effectively engage customers. The same is true for CX innovation. Research found that 76% of high performers say they do a great job at innovating marketing technology, tactics, and strategies, versus 47% of underperformers.
In the next 10 years, digital will not only be further accelerated, it will also be dramatically expanded. Sixty percent of marketing leaders see opportunities with millions of consumers who were slow to adopt digital but are now expected to get online over the next decade.
At the same time, customer-facing and back office technology is only going to continue to advance. Emergent technologies such as 5G, virtual and augmented reality, smart homes, voice, wearables, smart cars, blockchain, will further influence markets and customer behaviors and standards for sought after experiences.
Innovation, personalization, and humanization is now a constant.
Stay alive in an era of disruption, aim to survive in this interim normal, and learn to thrive in the Novel Economy
To thrive in the Novel Economy, during and following COVID-19 disruption, it’s imperative to unlearn BC (legacy) mindsets, learn from the high performers, and most importantly, learn from your customers. Furthermore, embrace a growth mindset and an empathetic heartset to effectively…
- Shift from classical marketing to a relentless focus on the customer experience.
- Embrace an ethos and commitment to helpfulness, relevancy, and trustworthiness.
- Create a culture of innovation in parallel with the continual practice of iteration.
- Also create a culture of data-driven empathy.
- Empower and incentivize employees to do the right thing while also learning the next thing.
- Personalize all forms of engagement and use modern technology to humanize experiences.
- Make the offline and online customer journey integrated, intuitive, productive, true, and even joyful.
- Transform touchpoints into #IgniteMoments to articulate and project what your brand stands for and empower mutually beneficial, memorable experiences; values beget value.
During a global pandemic, as digital-first customer behaviors are accelerating, delivering the basics combined with empathetic, connected, and innovative, cross- and omni-channel experiences are now matters of necessity.
The maturity from classical marketing to CX is indeed the right path. Marketers are increasing adoption of and enhancing important digital and also physical touchpoints, while ensuring that they complement each other collectively.
To thrive in an era of pandemic disruption, one where customers are seeking brands to be relevant, genuine, and empathetic, start from the start. This is a time when the world is vulnerable, where every person and organization is adapting to life with a live virus in their midst, where no one is operating from a best-in-class pandemic playbook. Brands, and marketers must become the very people they’re trying to reach. This means that among innovation, compliance, time and technology, humanity must become a killer app.
Above all else, be human.
This article first appeared in www.forbes.com
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