How Will Customer Experience Evolve in 2021?
The overnight shift to full digital in 2020 meant pain points as omni-channel sales and service delivery reached their tipping points.
Investments around self-service and digital channel consistency will certainly continue into 2021; beyond these reactionary measures, though, we expect to see an acceptance of the new way of operating. This means brands will rethink their audience strategies and messaging; invest heavily in martech and content; and finally address challenges in customer-identity management. Voice-of-consumer (VOC) insights will become central to decision-making, and brands will face heightened accountability for socially responsible behaviors.
Further fragmentation of product options and availability will make brand image a key differentiator — which means purpose and promise will be revisited to bolster customer affinity and loyalty. We expect brands to acknowledge limitations in their ability to change rapidly on their own, so we predict more utilization of strategic partnerships and collaborations as means of evolving in this market.
We Anticipate 3 Types of Investment Missions in Customer Experience in 2021
- Stabilize: Continue the 2020 reactionary investment to stabilize customer relationships.
- Advance: Reinvigorate paused initiatives through a new lens of COVID-19 priorities.
- Evolve: Leverage the disruption as a catalyst for brand evolution.
For many brands, much of 2020 was spent reacting and proceeding with caution. As they enter 2021, we expect a confidence behind core initiatives aimed at stabilizing the business and delivering against the customer’s new expectations.
Investing in consistent delivery will be ubiquitous across brands and industries in 2021, and safety will remain a key variable in the equation of excellent customer experience. From e-commerce and curbside pick-up to omni-channel returns, consumer brands will continue to strive for effectiveness and efficiency in the buy-anywhere, buy-anyway model. B2B product brands will also continue investments in contactless and digital storefronts. We see this especially with our manufacturing and home construction clients who are pivoting from B2B and B2B2C to straight B2C — and then applying those B2C capabilities to their legacy B2B customers.
Both product- and service-based brands will also continue to expand self-service capabilities, including enabling comparable service functionality across channels. In a Forbes survey last year, nearly three-quarters of consumers said they expect their problem to be solved immediately upon contacting customer service, which means that whether a customer is seeking service over the phone, online or on the mobile app, the brand must make the same options available to them. Having seen the impacts of demand surges and channel transfers, brands will look to future-proof their scalability through digital solutions that are both customer-facing and aimed at better equipping sales and service teams — including remote ones. Brands will need traffic-management strategies to drive adoption of self-service capabilities so that only the more advanced and complex customer problems are allotted to customer service representatives.
Brands that successfully stabilize in 2021 will embrace the remote model, which is emerging as the employee preference: According to PWC, 82 percent of office workers would prefer to continue working remotely at least part of the time, even after COVID-19 has subsided. Employee acquisition and retention may become dependent on this flexibility, making it even more important to educate employees on how to communicate virtually, leverage AI to streamline operations and create a mechanism to motivate employees to keep on top of their responsibilities.
To coincide with investments in omni-channel and self-service features, brands that advance will go beyond point solutions to rethink their entire customer management ecosystem. With more digital interactions and resulting data, brands will formalize new or additional investments in customer data strategies and address challenges in identity resolution and customer data management. They will also evaluate their martech ecosystem and integrations to determine readiness to deliver against new use cases emerging from heightened digital demand.
Prior to the COVID-19 disruptions, most brands were already investing in customer data, tighter segmentation and personalized messaging, but softness in 2020 led to cuts in marketing budgets, including digital marketing. We expect to see a resurgence in 2021 as brands leverage the influx in volume on digital channels as ammunition for their business cases.
Investments in personalization and other advanced digital marketing capabilities will return, though we expect more rigor around defined measurement strategies to report on the ROI of prioritized initiatives. In the second half of 2020, understanding our approach to measurement became a core-decision criterion for many clients, and we expect this to remain a critical consideration for executives facing more scrutiny in their spending decisions.
COVID-19 has shifted not just behaviors; it has shifted values and beliefs. Social responsibility is more top-of-mind than ever for consumers, which compounds the heightened expectations for access and immediacy across touchpoints. Brands will need to demonstrate that they are meeting demand in responsible and equitable ways — which means they’ll have to evolve messaging strategies. Brands that “advance” in 2021 will rethink their audience and segmentation strategies and associated content and messaging with insight into microsegment behaviors, sentiment and expectations. Owning the customer relationship directly will grow in importance as brands realize that their ability to predict and influence the future of their business is dependent on how much they know about their customer today and how quickly they can identify and react to changes.
Brands that have already been on the omni-channel, self-service journey — and who have invested in the data and technology to enhance their direct-to-customer relationships — will be best positioned for growth in 2021. These companies will leverage advanced analytical insights and better predictive analytics to make smarter decisions about their customers’ interests and preferences. McKinsey found that predictive analytics have already helped retailers increase their margins by as much as 60 percent, and this rate is set to grow as AI capabilities expand.
Executives will expect VOC programs to become central insights factories that serve as critical inputs to C-suite decisions. Once a passive monitoring tool, VOC will emerge as a powerful, versatile mechanism to connect directly with consumers in the moment, providing authentic visibility into whether the company is meeting customers’ expectations or missing them entirely.
Not only will VOC shift from passive listening to active discussion in board rooms, it will emerge as an activation trigger. Where a customer shares positive insights, brands will demonstrate gratitude in the form of rewards or requests for ratings, reviews and referrals. Where the insight is negative, brands will activate service remediation and retention strategies to make it right. VOC will become one of the primary levers for hyper-personalization and direct one-to-one connection in 2021.
While brands that “advance” will revisit messaging strategies, we expect brands that “evolve” to also revisit their brand purpose and promise to ensure it resonates with audiences going forward. According to Deloitte, purpose-driven companies witness higher market-share gains and grow three times faster on average than their competitors — all while achieving higher workforce and customer satisfaction.
For many brands, this can mean major shifts in their brand story and even their business model. The past year has demonstrated the impact of disruption and the realities of how future-proofing can’t account for the unpredictable; but it has also shown that purpose-driven brands that put the customer first can innovate in ways that put them ahead. For example, Rightpoint produced a case study about one national retailer that understood its customers’ shopping sentiment during the holiday season and how their stores played a role in bringing joy to the holiday shopping occasion. So to protect the health of their employees and customers while delivering seasonal cheer, we helped them launch a virtual store that fully emulated the holiday sentiment their customers especially craved in 2020.
Lastly, brands that will come out ahead at the end of 2021 will recognize quickly when their core competencies are not best suited to achieve their ambitions. We expect to see increased reliance on strategic partnerships and collaborations as accelerators which, of course, means leveraging new and emerging technologies. This also means partnering with companies that have already established strengths in an area where (absent of COVID-19) the brand may have made a decision to compete head-to-head. From this, we can expect to see brand collaborations flourish in 2021, and with them, access to broader customer bases with a faster go-to-market and the ability to respond more effectively to future disruptions.
At Rightpoint, we’re supporting our clients at all stages of the COVID-19 reaction from rapid, omni-channel delivery enablement to elevating VOC with C-suite decision-makers and evaluating the future of the brand’s position. While 2021 will continue to be a year of disruption, we expect our clients to embrace the opportunities it presents — and sometimes forces — to turn 2021 into a year of rapid digital maturation and customer experience transformation.