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GUEST COMMENT: How Retail Should Respond When Everyone is a Digital Shopper

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Say hello to the new digital generation. If you’re able to do so, try to remember what life was like before the global pandemic and how we talked about retail. Back then, the conversation was around the need to evolve retail platforms for the sake of millennials and Gen Z. They were the ones who expect nothing less than digital first experiences. 

But the pandemic has created a whole new generation of digital shoppers, which includes everyone – even my elderly mother has become hooked online. We’re now all part of the digital generation and as such, businesses are placing new priority on building the online experiences for customers and equip support agents with tools to become both efficient and proficient. 

Prior to 2020, the wheels were already in motion for the journey to digital-first shopping experiences. The usage from our own customers and feedback from shoppers indicated that people enjoyed the convenience of shopping anywhere – from research to after-sales service – and the flexibility of a fully connected customer journey. But then the Covid-19 outbreak and resulting lockdowns turned cultural norms on their head. All of a sudden, ecommerce was no longer just about convenience. With shops closed in national lockdowns that were instituted in countries around the world, online was a necessity. 

Now, more people than ever are forced to shop digitally, many for the first time, because of the closure of stores. Many of those who were previously hesitant, started to use ecommerce in 2020. 

We carried out our annual survey of customers, agents, customer service leaders, and technology buyers and looked at data from more than 90,000 companies across 175 countries on the Zendesk platform. According to the 2021 Customer Experience Trends Report, nearly a third of customers in the UK (29%) started buying from new companies during the pandemic and 45% reported using new channels. We’re no longer evolving gradually, we’re shifting dramatically. And this shift is here to stay as 61% of UK customers indicate that they plan to keep using these new channels for support. To keep pace, businesses need to be plugged in to their customers and respond to their preferences. 

Reassurance in unpredictable times 

So many things that happened in society last year were out of our control. So many lives were filled with unpredictability and apprehension. For the retail sector, orders took longer than usual and online retailers were put under intense strain because more people than usual were shopping online. 

It’s vital then that customers are still given the opportunity when it is possible to be reassured and informed about their orders. They should be serviced quickly and updated with adequate information. Some 65 percent of customers want to buy from companies that offer quick and easy online transactions. Three quarters of customers (75 percent) are willing to spend more to buy from companies that give them a good customer experience (CX). In the UK, 46% of customers say that customer experience is more important than it was a year ago. This is above average for EMEA, with only Spain reporting a higher number (56%). 

For those making a switch to ecommerce for a larger percentage of their purchases, the experience they have in their first few digital shopping trips will dictate the choices they make when lockdowns are fully reversed, and they have more choice about where they shop in the months and years to come. 

Messaging’s moment 

With speed being such an important aspect of service for customers, it’s no surprise that messaging has taken off in popularity in the last year. In EMEA, the UK and Spain in particular have seen messaging take off as a means of communicating with brands. In these countries since the start of the Covid-19 pandemic, more people used messaging for the first time than any other medium. The stars have aligned here. Appetites for better messaging services have increased. And at the same time, the likes of Apple, Google and Facebook all moved to improve messaging services in 2020, particularly for businesses.

For companies, staying connected to customers means seeking out new ways to engage. Of the 40 percent of companies that added a new channel this year, 53 percent turned to messaging, including apps like WhatsApp, SMS/texting, and messaging embedded in a company’s own website.

Companies that boast the fastest resolution times and highest satisfaction scores are more likely to be using messaging to connect with their customers. Fast messaging services and happy customers increasingly go hand in hand. 

Digitally transforming customer engagement and agents 

Those not already using messaging may feel overwhelmed at the prospect of another channel to manage. Businesses are already squeezed. Agents are still adapting to new ways of working and are having to rethink the ways they interact with customers at the same time. But there’s also an opportunity. Make better use of the people you already have and enable them to be more efficient and you don’t necessarily need to hire additional people to run additional channels. 

Companies can improve their CX by mastering omnichannel. High performing companies are more likely to have adopted omnichannel, with Spain, France and Italy leading the field. In each of these countries, more than half of high performing companies use omnichannel solutions. However,  investment in omnichannel actually fell last year. 

There’s a mismatch here. Without the added care, firms could end up managing separate platforms for each channel, and not assigning the right resources for the channels that need the most attention. As a result, the platforms that businesses invest in could end up with long implementation timescales and meagre ROI. In such instances, there’s way too much fat to trim but not enough insights about what needs cutting. 

One place to start is with empowering customers to help themselves. Businesses must enable their staff to become more efficient through the likes of self-service resources. Self-service frees up agents to work on more complex issues and engage with customers in a more empathetic manner, driving greater customer loyalty – and agent satisfaction. It’s more important than ever to invest in the tools to equip agents. This isn’t about buying more tech, it’s about investing in new approaches that go beyond the tech itself and looks to enable agents to do their best work. 

A new view of customers

We’ve always focused on improving response times and raising CSAT scores. These metrics will still be important. However, the next year will be make or break for businesses and the most successful will be the ones who look at the bigger picture. With physical footfall quickly being replaced by digital, businesses are getting creative in how they capture trade in this new world and keep customers coming back. This includes considering the full lifetime value of a customer and really treasuring it as an outcome of customer experience. As opposed to considering customer experience as a cost centre, it can and should be a driver of profit. 

Reaching that goal means prioritising the tools and practices that will help service teams to work smarter, not harder. That means listening to the customers rather than making assumptions, and then learning and adapting. This isn’t about finding an end destination, but rather moving with customers and being prepared during what will be an unpredictable year.  


Peter Lorant, COO of Zendesk EMEA

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