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The Customer and the Company: COVID Changes Almost Everything

Customer experience is a well-established business discipline. But now the era of COVID has upended everything. Trust, digital connection, both physical and digital security and even empathy are newly reinforced elements in what it means to give customers a satisfying and positive experience.

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CX, or customer experience, is a well-established business discipline. But now we are in the era of COVID, with widespread home confinement and fear of contagion. Accordingly, the meaning of CX is evolving rapidly. Trust, digital connection, both physical and digital security, and even empathy are newly-reinforced elements in what it means to give customers a satisfying and positive experience.

To understand better how exactly companies are rethinking relationships with customers, Techonomy brought together three top thinkers for a discussion: Kahly Berg, CEO of full-service marketing agency and consultancy Rational; Eric Chaniot, global chief digital officer for Michelin, and Raj Kohli, president of Wipro Digital, who also oversees Wipro’s consulting for companies around the world. Wipro partnered with Techonomy for the session.

Berg kicked off with some big thoughts: “It’s a very forging time for relationships between brands and between people,” she said. “It’s been great to watch as brands have come to the table and have done the right thing, which is to put their empathy hat on and actually think about how we care for our customers, our employees, and our communities.” She said we’re at an “inflection point”: “We’re coming out of crisis response…as brands think ‘what does this look like long-term?’…How do you emerge from that without breaking that trust?…How do you reset on what the customer needs? How do you revisit and rethink every assumption you have about your customer? The context has changed. Their emotion has changed. Much of who customers are has changed over the last couple of months.”

That is big, meaningful stuff, and the discussion wrestled with it as we continued. Chaniot of Michelin said one key corollary is that we are seeing “digital transformation on steroids…Before this, some people inside Michelin and in some of our customers were wondering if digital was strategic. Guess what? They don’t anymore…[Now] if you do not have an online presence, you are in big trouble. We see a huge acceleration in this area.”

But even as so much interaction goes digital, what customers expect, through whatever channel, is changing fast, said Wipro’s Kohli: “The C in CX now has many different meanings…Number one, it’s now care for physical security. How does the brand convince me that my physical security is not at risk? Second is care for my stability and emotional security or stability, including financial stability. A lot of people are going through really tough times. Many brands have stepped up to give leeway for people…The third–and this was always important–is convenience. But now it has very different meanings—you have to really close the last mile– direct-to-home and inside the home–to make it easy for me to consume services, and not just digital services.”

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Berg said Rational has developed a taxonomy of three personas for how customers of its retail clients are behaving. [For more see the accompanying essay cowritten by Berg, The New Era of Retail Has Arrived.] One is the person who cannot wait to get back into stores and craves a sense of “normalcy.” Then some people will go out, but remain  hesitant to engage physically, like by touching screens in the store. Finally, some have decided to do all their shopping online and stay away from stores entirely.

Figuring out how to accommodate these various types will take a lot of thinking, Berg said: “How do you ensure that the first time they walk in the door, or even before they walk in the door, you learn and engage? There’s nothing worse [for a customer] than deciding you’re going to make the effort to go out and go to a store to get a key staple, and then for it not to be there…How do they get that information before they even walk in the store?”

To address such challenges, Kohli emphasized that businesses are going to have think more about being part of ecosystems inside and outside of their companies. He gave the example of airlines: “By themselves they cannot guarantee safe travel for me. Airports have to be a partner in that. Other players have to be partners in that. How do we create an ecosystem where the airports and the airlines are working together on an end-to-end journey of a passenger to make it safe?”

Michelin faces different challenges because it is mostly a B2B company, with tires sold through retailers it does not own. Chaniot explained it also has three other businesses too–services and solutions (it is one of the world’s top telematics companies, enabling fleet management for trucks and other vehicles),  the Michelin Guide (a B2C business that helps to promote its tire brand), and then materials. There are roughly 220 components in a tire, he explained, and making them all “stick together” is a huge chemistry challenge. Michelin now sells its expertise in things like 3D metallic printing, and specialty polymers and chemicals.

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“We have very strong beliefs that the personal relationship, the human relationship…is more important than anything else,” Chaniot said. So while Michelin doesn’t touch end consumers directly in its tire business, it brings that humane approach to its dealings with its business partners. “We have lots of connected tires,” he explained, but in the past the data they generated were mostly kept inside Michelin and used by its field engineers to deliver services to partners. But “it doesn’t make sense for us to do that anymore,” he said. “We need to be able to partner with companies like Wipro or others to be able to give a fully-integrated digital experience to our customers…We are going to accelerate the partnership around the data to fully digitize the relationship we have with them.” Yet “that doesn’t mean we’re ever going to replace the contacts we have,” he continued. Now, “when we meet with our customers, we will know exactly why…We want our people to be business consultants, to talk about the future of the [partner’s] company.”

This new kind of more integrated digital company is clearly the future, in much brighter relief because of the COVID-19 era. “I was speaking with the chief digital officer for an automaker,” said Kohli, “and he said it was inconceivable for them to think their dealers would sign up for digital channels in two weeks, which happened immediately after everything shut down. That was the only channel possible for any sorts of sales and inquiries.” He also mentioned Chipotle, which prior to the pandemic got roughly 20 percent of its restaurant sales from consumers over its mobile app. But once COVID-19 hit, about 80 percent of the volume moved to mobile, which luckily they had built sufficient infrastructure to handle. “And you could see that their stock price was one of the quickest in their industry to come back,” he added.

During the roundtable, we asked the audience about their predictions of the customer experience transformation. Here are the results:

This story originally appeared on Techonomy.

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