Analysis from Forbes and Forrester reveals that 89% of businesses compete on the experiences they provide to their customers, but 30% still fail to meet rising customer expectations.

So, how have big players in the automotive, insurance and communications sectors dealt with the huge uplift in digital demand, rapidly changing consumer behaviour and a greater need for excellent customer experience which have all come about as a result of the coronavirus pandemic? Here’s what the panelists had to say.

Responding to the pandemic

Potential failure from a CX perspective has only intensified due to Covid-19, as customers flock to online channels, and companies that are agile enough to respond quickly in a can mitigate damage to their brand.

How has BMW responded to the pandemic? Group Marketing Director Michelle Roberts says she feels “massively inspired” by the way that her organisation has pulled together throughout the coronavirus outbreak. Specifically, she admires how agile the company has been in adapting its communications and logistics:

“We’ve been pretty resilient and agile over what we’ve faced in the last months. I think for a large organisation we’ve been able to act quickly… around communication, whether that be internally or with our customers.

“…From a logistics perspective, I think the business has been able to move our staff to be able to work remotely very quickly.”

O2 Transformation Director Tete Soto shares this positive outlook on the way big businesses have been able to pull through the crisis.

“We have a very large network of retail stores and a big contact centre. The first concern was… making sure they were safe… we [closed the stores] ahead of needing to do so.”

Soto also explained that the company took the decision not to furlough staff, instead setting them up for remote customer service roles with the appropriate tech required.

O2 observed the change in usage patterns amongst its customer base at the peak of the outbreak. There were different levels of geographic concentration around parts of the country where there hadn’t been before, as well as a huge increase in voice call volume across the network. Aside from the technical challenges this presented, the brand supported its customers by providing general consumers and business customers additional perks like increased call allowance.

For Mark Evans at Direct Line Group, the pandemic seems to have given his organisation more of an opportunity to be a ‘force for good’ – a new purpose which was developed by the group last November. He explains that the company set out four key priorities at the start of the coronavirus outbreak:

“We said number one, we want to look after our people, number two we want to look after our customers, number three we want to keep thinking long term and number four we want to do the right thing for the nation, or act in the nation’s interest.”

To meet these goals, Direct Line Group aimed to help customers by getting them home, giving them financial protection and thereby helping with customer mental health. In turn, this translated into better CX outcomes such as higher NPS scores.

The customer experience challenge

Image via the Festival of Marketing.

Evolving customer expectations

There is no doubt that customer expectations have changed as a result of the coronavirus crisis, with huge numbers turning to online channels to receive goods and services that they would have usually obtained in store and face to face.

Within the automotive industry, which has been particularly impacted by the pandemic due to the forced closure of showrooms earlier this year, BMW’s Michell Roberts believes two clear trends have come to the fore:

“We’ve seen a huge shift in terms of expectation around digitisation and indeed also a shift in terms of expectations of… how [brands] behave.

When it comes to digitisation, the other aspect for us which we’ve seen massively accelerate through this period is the ability to self-serve, which actually isn’t something [that] is business as usual in automotive.”

According to Roberts, replicating the BMW experience online has required greater agility and flexibility. There has been greater demand for services like the Genius tool, which helps customers find out more about BMW products online, as well as the ability for customers to access stock availability, which led to the launch of the brand’s Car Stock Locator. In the short term, decisions have been made to address customer finances, such as implementing more flexible payment options for servicing.

Meanwhile, Soto explains that at O2, similarly, “self-service is by far the preferred route for our customers”. She also agrees that customers are beginning to care more about brands that are ‘doing the right thing’ at this time, and this sentiment will continue to shape marketing communications as the pandemic endures: “For us as a sector… reliance on our services has become a very clear reality for everybody, so I think what we’re seeing as well is a very clear search for confidence that we’re there for them.”

Aside from meeting the practical needs that customers require in the short term, Evans at Direct Line Group believes that those focusing on digitisation have been increasing the sophistication of their online channels in order to deliver a more complex and in-depth customer experience.

He has also seen an uplift in the expectation that brands offer better value during these uncertain times and beyond into the recession and recovery: “For us, that was returning premiums to customers very quickly where it was right to do so because they weren’t using [a] product.”

Looking to the future

So, how are these senior leaders feeling about Q4 and further ahead into 2020, and what plans do they have in place?

There appeared to be a general consensus that the near future across most brands, regardless of their industry, will involve plenty of rapid innovation as they carry on shifting from their pre-Covid business priorities to post-Covid growth plans.

For Roberts, the situation surrounding coronavirus this year has set BMW on a specific path and has accelerated plans to develop better digital tools.

“We want to continue some of that momentum, those expectations around digitisation in automotive aren’t going away.”

However, she also stresses the importance of offline channels and hopes to align both as quickly as possible to new customer expectations both towards the end of this year and into 2021.

“What we’re looking at is how we make sure that what we’re building in terms of that blend of experience, and obviously a significant part of that experience is now digital and online and self-serve… fits with customers’ needs.”

Soto says that the coronavirus has helped her implement a “fundamental reset” of O2’s operating model in order to make the company more agile and responsive to its customers. After noticing that the desire within the brand to address the needs of the customer was accelerating, she explains there has been less of a change of focus and instead a greater need to develop these changes more rapidly:

“It’s a question of pace and how can you deliver this thing faster, rather than [a] change [of] gear.”

Evans describes Direct Line Group as already having had a “cruising altitude” on agile and is hoping to ramp up the speed of major change next year without compromising on marketing investment or long-term plans for brand building.

“The core investment is, fundamentally, in new mindsets and behaviours to support a full agile model.” he continues, something which the brand had originally planned to do throughout 2020 before the crisis hit. “We’ve had to take a bit more time, but… it’s going to be a major transition for us.”

Changes to be proud of

Finally, Capon asks the panelists what they’ve been most proud of in the last six months of change.

Direct Line Group’s Mark Evans: “From a customer experience point of view… [it’s] our bereavement service. We’ve had customers and partners, husbands and wives of people who’ve died. We completely revamped our bereavement service and have had amazing feedback from customers.”

BMW’s Michelle Roberts: “Keeping our strategic focus on customer experience… obviously the business has been massively disrupted and we’ve been doing a lot of mapping across our business, in terms of what is this optimum experience that we need to deliver for the group and we’ve managed to keep that on track.”

O2’s Tete Soto: “The response to our customers, our colleagues and the NHS over Covid.”

Customer Journey Mapping Best Practice Guide