A global pandemic, companies with little or no online experience, anxious customers, many with limited experience of online, it really has been the perfect storm for lots of Irish businesses, especially those most affected by ongoing lockdowns.
With the new year bringing further disruption and lockdowns, Irish companies need to ensure their online offering puts the customer experience front and centre.
Some Irish businesses, including retail and other customer-facing companies, have traditionally been slow to move online. When Covid-19 struck, those firms that were forced to close and which had no or limited online offerings were left very exposed.
There was a stampede to get online. Recently .IE, the Irish company which manages the Irish .ie domain registry, confirmed that registrations of the Irish web address jumped almost 40pc between April and October.
Many of these companies may have thought the heavy lifting would be largely done once the website and sales systems were up and running. In fact, their steep learning curve was only just beginning.
Putting these systems in place for existing or new businesses is a challenge at the best of times. Doing so while dealing with fearful, technically inexperienced staff and customers at the same time as juggling health and safety issues, supply chain and cash flow problems is a nightmare.
In such situations it is easy to lose sight of the most important person - the customer - and their experience of your business. While your customers may be well disposed to supporting your business, they will not settle for inferior service; nor should they have to.
Where to begin? First of all, let's not confuse customer service with customer experience.
Customer service relates to the assistance and advice provided to the customer as required. By its nature its quite a functional and focused interaction, just one part of a larger customer experience (CX) journey. Customer Experience is how the customer feels as a result of every interaction they have with a company.
To deliver a great experience you need to look at every interaction your customers have with your business, be it with a staff member or online which should differentiate your business from competitors. What does successful CX look like? It's when your customers are recommending your business to their friends on a regular basis, effectively becoming advocates and selling on your behalf. Companies need to understand the power of customer advocacy and build emotional connections with customers.
In our recent annual CX report, the businesses that did really well were those that exceeded customer expectations. The Irish Credit Union, An Post, supermarkets and pharmacy chains, these were the businesses which went the extra mile for their customers, in a dramatically transformed trading environment.
These organisations were able to continue doing business and delivering a great experience via their established channels. However, if you had to close, the question is how can you continue to deliver CX via online?
It's a tough question. Part of the answer will be by designing systems which allow or include human interaction when required by customers. This is because online itself is seen by and large as an expected service.
Customers want to feel that your business genuinely cares about them. So, your company must put that approach at the centre of all its interactions.
It is critical that businesses look at their overall customer journeys and seek to maximise the emotional connections they make with customers through different channels whether that's through web chat, phone or email.
Research from Harvard University has demonstrated that customers feel more comfortable using online channels when they know that there's an option of human support. In the era of Covid, that's more important than ever.
The other key factors are visibility and connectivity. Customers need to know that whoever they speak to knows and understands their needs and circumstances.
There is no point in telling customers that you genuinely care about them if every time they contact you, they have to recount their story from scratch.
Customers need to be able to switch between channels seamlessly and they expect everyone in your business to know everything about them, their order or purchase, its status etc. A single view of the customer for all staff is essential to provide a cohesive, smooth and seamless customer experience.
It's a massive challenge for a lot of organisations particularly large companies with legacy systems and issues. In Ireland we see plenty of examples of this, particularly in the telco and banking sectors.
Fixing this should be a priority for any CX-focused organisation. If you're relatively new to online, getting this right will prove a massive advantage.
Companies that have been forced to close and that don't have an online presence or only a limited one, face huge challenges. But if they can deliver CX excellence and bring their customers with them, they will not just survive, they'll thrive.
Siobhan Mallen is a CX expert and senior partner with The CX Company.