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Humanizing customer experience for a complex, tension-filled world

With great power comes great responsibility. Brands must understand that their global playbook has changed.

With great power comes great responsibility' - Brands have to understand that their global playbook has changed

We have entered what the “new normal” as lockdowns around the world for the COVID-19 pandemic ease. Two months ago, Brian Halligan, the CEO of Hubspot, shared an informative deck detailing what this entails.

What does this mean for customer experience (CX), especially when CX is the key to acquiring customers and the world has undergone irrevocable change?

What effective CX is and how it builds loyalty

The first key is to think about CX as a whole: what makes it effective in peacetime, how strong brands build loyalty, and what changes the game now.

Customer loyalty starts with effective personal relationships between customers and companies. We know that an effective CX strategy puts itself in the shoes of the customer and considers the customer at all touchpoints. The main challenge in the new normal is that digital touchpoints and interfaces are by nature impersonal, so the key question is this: how do companies show customer-centricity and build personal relationships despite this?

In-person experience

We can first analyze different touchpoints, especially with the rise of physical-digital fusions. Brick-and-mortar platforms could think about how customers physically interact with their business has changed. Are there more barriers to entry, which discourage customers from patronizing stores?

Before the pandemic, some e-commerce companies had already started curating physical-digital experiences. Love, Bonito in Singapore had their latest store at Funan providing an eclectic space with digital catalogs updated in real-time. The space had an AR feature allowing shoppers to view their surroundings using decorative filters. There was an artful curation of visually stimulating displays and neon lights. Of course, there are other considerations for a post-pandemic shopping experience—surfaces should be touch-free, rather than be touchscreens. Perhaps panels and screens showing animations and immersive art might be a new tactic. Current times might accelerate re-imagination of the superstore or the experience hub.

There are other broader concerns to monitor in a well-rounded CX strategy that are beyond this article. Privacy might be an issue if customers become wary of being tracked. Resistance and misplaced anger might also be more common, as customers become annoyed with being told what to do and how to behave in these prescriptive environments. Businesses will have to manage these considerations with empathetic communication strategies.

Digital experiences

Given the weight of digital engagement now, refining touchpoints on digital platforms is an important key.

One interesting way to create better digital experiences that has fared well is using AR in apps. This is another take on the digital-physical fusion, with an emphasis on assimilating the physical into the digital. This Straits Times article gives an example of Singapore physical-first furniture retailer Castlery adapting well by re-creating their physical showrooms in AR, enabling customers to enjoy virtual tours of living spaces. It’s impressive that they have tagged all the items and enabled true-to-scale capability for its furniture pieces, so that users can visualize how the furniture would look against the real-life dimensions and appearance of their rooms.

Another factor to consider is the use of personalization to tailor recommendations, advice, and products to specific customer needs. Data analytics and machine learning are commonly discussed as tools to extract deep insights from user data to build products and strategies. One issue here is privacy, data protection, and consent, but that is a broader topic.

How the brand shapes CX and builds a connection with customers

The last piece that is especially important in today’s times is the brand. Other than marketing strategies to reduce friction throughout their touchpoints with the business, how else can companies differentiate themselves through CX? I suggest that we have to start from first principles and understand why some salespeople and advisors retain clients more than others. Companies must build “personal” relationships and the brand is an important medium to achieve that.

A brand goes beyond aesthetics and comprises all messaging communicated through tangible and intangible means, such as visual design, content, and actions. The brand is a fabric of what the company stands for, from their mission to their values and impact. Customers feel engaged with a brand when the brand is empathetic, the company values resonate with them and are values they care about. They may even learn new insights about the world that they wouldn’t have known.

The deeper question to ask that is rarely explored in-depth within all UX/CX, marketing, and brand strategies is: what kind of brand is inspiring loyalty in a world like ours today? That will inform what customers need from a brand today.

What kind of brand inspires loyalty in our world

We must first understand how today’s world has evolved. We live in polarized times, driven by multi-directional tensions, with COVID-19 exacerbating existing problems. There are geopolitical, economic, sociopolitical tensions between society, government, business, and financial markets. Customers now have baseline expectations for how companies respond, whether they add value to the public good, and whether they walk their talk. Any good brand strategy in these times incorporates considerations of stakeholder capitalism. Empathy has also become a key criterion: does the company genuinely care about their customers and their stakeholders?

Recent protests in the United States against police brutality and racism. Photo by Clay Banks on Unsplash.

A recent example includes the widespread sociopolitical discussion on systemic racism sparked by the unjustified death of African-American George Floyd by a police officer and all other subsequent violence against Blacks by the US police that have been recorded. This has rocked the world and everyone, from the average person to big business, is weighing in. During these sensitive times, people observe how brands react. Big tech firms such as Netflix, Amazon, and Microsoft have issued public statements expressing regret and solidarity. VC firms and networks such as a16z and SoGal have prepared funds, grants, and programs for Black, Latinx, and other minority entrepreneurs. CEOs of global brands have also personally spoken out through public or company-circulated statements.

There have also been other actions (or inaction) through which tech brands in Asia illustrate their values. Jack Ma and Alibaba donated masks and COVID-19 test kits around the world, regardless of region. Razer set up face mask production to produce five million free face masks for Singapore. These are steps that show a strong social awareness of a public duty to step up in a global crisis—that they care enough about public solidarity to leverage their resources to help the community. These can bolster consumer confidence and trust in these brands, especially amid trying times.

There is always the question whether these actions are sincere or mere PR exercises, but eventual consistency in efforts that create value speaks for itself. While we are in the middle of a great reset, seizing this opportunity to re-imagine and execute a strong CX strategy can build long-term loyalty. A holistic CX strategy is customer-centric when it walks in the customer’s shoes, integrating strong UX strategy and a brand strategy that is fit for current times. In a trying period when people must swap in-person engagement for digital experiences and fault lines are rupturing, being able to be personal, human, and authentic is a strong differentiating factor. Right now, more than ever, society expects brands not to turn away but to speak up on things that matter to everyone. When customers find your brand sincere and empathetic, they will remember you and help you on your path.


Disclaimer: This article was written by contributor Huiling Xie. Read the whole article here. All content is written by and reflects the personal perspective of the writer and interviewee. If you’d like to contribute, you can apply here

With wide-ranging interests across business, current affairs, tech, and policy, Huiling Xie writes to explore issues at the intersection of these fields. She is interested in exploring opportunities and pursuing growth. As a co-founder of tech solutions agency CevaLabs, she advises early-stage startups looking to launch and businesses looking to digitize.