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The importance of contactless, real-time customer feedback during the pandemic

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(Image credit: Image source: Shutterstock/Carlos Amarillo)

Covid-19 has been one unknown after another; a cycle of new information announced every day, with some areas opening back up as infection rates seem to get under control and other areas locking down as new surges appear. All the while, businesses are trying to get a handle on what the “new normal” needs to be for their customers’ experience today as well as tomorrow.   Add to this challenge the responsibility businesses now have to keep their customers and employees safe and healthy, and it’s not hard to see how providing the right customer experience during Covid-19 feels like trying to rebuild an airplane while you’re flying it.

This struggle is changing and evolving so quickly, it makes the typical customer experience approaches of the past – long surveys, deep analytics, complex journey mapping – too slow to fit the job at hand.  The pre-pandemic tools, tactics, and simple tweaks no longer cut it.

What’s needed is a wholesale re-engineering of your ‘factory floor’ to operate in entirely new ways.  Just like Ford re-engineered car manufacturing with the introduction of the assembly line, businesses in the post-pandemic world must revolutionize their industry by:

  • Providing their customers with new, highly visible levels of comfort
  • Giving their customers new, unprecedented control over their own experiences, and
  • Installing new tools and new operations to be able to monitor, analyze, and improve customer experiences as they happen – in real-time
  • Doing all this in a fast, innovative, always-learning, always-changing way

Comfort

Covid-19 has changed customers’ expectations and their behaviors.  Instead of just showing up and experiencing what businesses offer, they’re investigating all the alternatives before they decide and they’re making decisions that go beyond price and convenience.  Between health concerns and the economy, the alternatives being considered carefully include not just your competition, but the decision not to purchase more so than ever.

Going above and beyond your competition is crucial now.  It may not be enough to post a sign that says ‘Please socially distance from other customers” or to have employees meter the queue into the store.  Deploying systems that monitor and display the traffic in a store provides an extra level of comfort to the customer and demonstrates a higher level of commitment by the store. 

Similarly, just posting signage that says “We clean our facilities regularly” is nice, but businesses have the opportunity and arguably, the necessity, to differentiate themselves with a substantive re-engineering of their operations.  Instead of just a sign, deploying a highly visible digital system that tracks how much a facility has been used and then dispatches employees to clean it after every X uses – that's an entirely differentiated level of comfort and a very visible commitment to safety.

Control

Giving customers new levels of control is a hard thing to do – but very necessary. Covid-19 introduces new anxieties, and lack of control exacerbates those anxieties.  Years ago, airlines started giving customers the ability to choose their own seats via seat maps, and that quickly gave passengers a new sense of control over their experience. 

Control can certainly be given in direct ways, like a button that allows the customer to call for a table to be cleaned, or the check to be delivered.  Control can be provided indirectly as well – anxiety from lack of control comes from a need for certainty in an uncertain situation.  Therefore, control can also be provided by communicating more, like Seamless does when they give notifications about where your food delivery is in the process.  The example of displaying how busy a store is outside of it or even in an app is another way to provide control – it gives the customer the power to apply their own personal comfort levels before they decide to enter the store, or possibly even before they leave their house to go to that store.

Perhaps retailers can give shoppers the ability to directly call for more registers to be open?  Maybe airlines can send notifications when the flight they’re on reaches 75 percent capacity or when the seat next to them gets booked?  Ask yourself what power, information, new choice – what control can you hand over to your customers. 

Real-time

Businesses need to embrace the concept – now more than ever – that the time to improve a customer’s experience is while they are experiencing it!  Surveys are helpful of course, but they merely seek answers to questions businesses ask, not the feedback customers want to give - and they do them far after the opportunity has passed to help those customers. 

I spoke to a major bank executive who said, “We do real-time customer experience – we look at data every day”.   Sorry - it’s not real-time customer experience if it doesn’t help the customer in real time.

Collecting real-time feedback in a low friction manner during the experience is key – it captures the sentiment as it’s happening, and in a quick enough way that customers are willing to provide it.  But collecting real-time feedback isn’t enough.

The next evolution in customer experience is to act on real-time feedback and improve the experience of that customer and others in real time by addressing the individual issue as well as making immediate improvements to the overall operation.  That’s a tough challenge but within our grasp.  It does, however, require new operations, new procedures, and new systems and new tools. 

Who will be the first e-tailer to ship their product with a QR code which immediately connects the customer with a live chat agent who knows everything about that order?  Who will be the first computer company to provide the Apple Genius Bar service right from the computer exactly when it’s needed?  What are the real-time customer experiences you can imagine for your business, as well as the brands you use?

Agility

As you look to re-engineer your own factory floors for this revolution, make sure you’re building a new factory that can be changed every day.   Design in flexibility ahead of features since we don’t know what tomorrow will bring.  This means having the tools to collect data every minute of every day, analyzing and interpreting that data and predicting new trends, and being able to quickly implement the resulting changes and innovations.

Just as software embraced agile development – a never ending cycle of design, test, learn, adjust, and iterate – businesses in the new normal have to embrace agile customer experience.  It’s been said that Amazon handles a new software deployment every second; The customer obsessed companies that will survive and thrive in the pandemic and post-pandemic world will similarly be improving customers’ experiences individually and globally at blazing speeds every minute of every day. 

That kind of transformation isn’t a tweak or a new survey – it's a wholesale re-engineering of your operations, and the businesses that avoid it will end up being about as common as the automobile manufacturers that didn’t adopt Ford’s assembly line approach.  The time to begin this fundamental shift is now.

Steven Peltzman, head, FeedbackNow

Steven Peltzman, Forrester’s chief business technology officer & head of FeedbackNow, is responsible for guiding the transformation of Forrester’s own internal technology efforts.