Rethinking the customer experience in a world of social distancing

By Girish Dhaneshwar, Associate Vice President and Consulting Lead for Retail, Consumer Goods, Travel & Hospitality Practice at Cognizant 

Social distancing was a virtually unknown expression until recently. Today it is a critical prevention strategy for people around the globe. As it becomes a cultural norm – and as consumers seek ensured hygiene, health, security, and trust – how retailers and brands amend their customer experiences today will have implications on future loyalty-building and growth efforts.

Retailers and brands now must shift their experiences to what consumers will value most in a post COVID-19 world. In retail and in other consumer-facing businesses, customer experience is often measured as the sum of the collective experiences it delivers to customers. Responses to new pandemic-ingrained behaviours add important new elements to this collection.

Traditional customer engagement strategies are based on the premise that consumers seek more than just products — they desire immersive experiences, personalised services, and rich interactions. While meeting these needs can be achieved effectively with technology in the online world, merging digital and physical worlds into a “phygital” construct requires increased human intervention in one form or another.

However, in the new world of social distancing, these types of experiences are no longer possible or of value to shoppers. But will these practices return in a post COVID-19 world? At some time, things may seem to go back to normal, but some COVID-19 behaviours may stick permanently or linger well beyond the pandemic.

It is uncertain what lasting changes to consumer behaviours COVID-19 will leave in its wake. Whatever the impact, retailers and brands should rethink their customer experience in the age of social distancing. Here are a few experience-orientated value propositions on which they should focus strategies for the new reality and beyond:

  • Convenience: Services such as “buy online, pick up in store” exemplify convenience. Today, many retailers and restaurants have extended these services to include contactless, kerbside pickup, and home delivery. These services are likely to gain more widespread adoption post COVID-19. However, successful deployment will hinge not only on last-mile delivery services but on capable ecommerce, order management, and fulfilment systems.
  • Consultative engagement: Shop assistants and the advice they offer customers play a vital role in brand experiences. In a new reality that encourages physical distance, shopping consultations will be conducted by virtual assistants, made possible by chatbots and artificial intelligence (AI) driven automation technology. This will require rethinking the customer journey map to identify the appropriate stages at which to introduce the right form and level of digital engagement.
  • Community: Many retailers have leveraged community strategies to bring like-minded customers together and drive store traffic. Collaboration technologies, including video conferencing, combined with virtual experience tools, such as augmented reality and virtual reality, can be used to closely replicate community-centric experiences in a virtual world.
  • Trust: In these uncertain times, there is a heightened sense of fear and scepticism when it comes to product safety. There will be higher scrutiny placed on packaging and delivery to help rebuild customers’ confidence that the products they buy, and the physical locations they visit, are safe. Traceability solutions, packaging innovations, and clear communication, along with redefining manufacturing and supply chain processes with an emphasis on safe handling, will be key to regaining consumer trust.
  • Social media: Social media is a valuable marketing tool, but it has also been a forum for fearmongering and misinformation during the COVID-19 crisis. To ensure brand integrity, marketers must pay close attention to their social media feeds, develop proactive strategies, and deliver unified messages across all digital touchpoints.

While upheaval causes disruption, it also creates opportunity. Now is the time to rethink the customer experience and revamp strategies for customer acquisition, customer engagement, and fulfilment. It is critical to understand changing human preferences, rethink customer journey maps, redefine “good and bad friction” in the buying experience, and redesign products, services, and solutions to meet new expectations.

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