On 11 November 2017, a record number of shoppers spent a record amount during Alibaba’s juggernaut Singles Day shopping event. The 168.2 billion yuan ($25.3 billion) shelled out over the 24-hour period involved millions of successful customer journeys. However, arguably the most significant thing about Singles Day wasn’t the amount that shoppers spent – it was the efforts Alibaba went to in order to control these customer journeys.
This year, Alibaba enlisted some 600,000 traditional mom-and-pop neighborhood stores across China, an estimated one-tenth of all the neighborhood stores in the country, to act as delivery centers. It used an app to prompt them to stock goods in advance and have them on hand ready for delivery. This was the case of a customer-centric organization going to new levels to entirely remove friction from customer journeys – and a recognition of what it now takes to deliver consistent customer experiences.
Integrating the online and offline experience
Alibaba’s concerns are familiar ones to Asian brands trying to integrate online and offline touchpoints. Will a delivery arrive on time? Will it be in good condition? Will help be on hand if a problem arises? Increased touchpoints don’t make it easier to deliver a controlled and consistent customer experience – they make it more difficult.
From last year’s Connected Life study* we know that for nearly a third of consumers globally, brands don’t deliver an equal quality of service online and offline and that the more digital touchpoints customers experience a brand through, the more frustrated those customers become. Their sense of a consistent brand experience starts to disappear. Given the powerful influence that negative memories have on future affinity with brands, this is a real concern for marketers. So what can they do about it?
When everyone is in the customer experience business
Firstly, brands need to identify the moments outside of their immediate control that still matter to their customers’ experience of their brand. They then need to form partnerships that enable them to influence those moments. In India, for example, e-commerce brands like Big Basket now require delivery partners to drop off packages on customers’ doorsteps and then move away. This ensures the recipient feels safe to open the door and retrieve the package, and overcomes a significant barrier to e-commerce.
It's not just suppliers that need to be enlisted in the delivery of customer experiences. New internal departments often must be as well.
In one recent case, an energy company had launched an app enabling customers to control their home devices remotely, switching on their lights or washing machine from their phones. Despite strong initial interest, very few customers actually used the app. Closer analysis quickly revealed why: in order to sign-in and activate the service, they had to undergo a laborious 10-step authentication process. Engineers had applied the same stringent security protocols as they would when developing internal data-sharing software; they hadn’t considered the user journey at all.
Scripting customer interactions isn’t enough
Brands need to be more proactive in embedding a customer-centric mindset throughout all departments. This process requires a mix of data-driven insight and human initiative and empathy. Systems can alert employees when something is important to a particular customer, and then empower them to act autonomously and create positive memories of those moments. Ritz-Carlton, for example, encourages employees to make decisions that enhance a guest’s experience, up to the value of $2,000 - without seeking approval from a supervisor.
Balancing people and bots
Striking the right balance between AI systems and human frontline delivery is vital. This year’s Connected Life study* suggests that simply substituting bots for human interaction is undermining brands in Asia. The more experiences that consumers have with chatbots, the less willing they are to embrace them as the primary customer service channel. Although 44% of consumers in Asia’s emerging markets were willing to use chatbots for customer service, only 29% of those in developed Asian markets were. It’s a warning that chatbots and AI must be used carefully, in moments when customers require no more than a basic information exchange. Deploying technology at these points allows brands to focus their employees’ attention on the moments with greater need for human intuition.
Stimulating positive emotions and driving loyalty requires designing customer journeys that leverage both technology and humans. These journeys require closer relationships between functions within a business and the partners that fulfil the delivery or experience, and they require these relationships to be focused on a clearly defined goal: not just a satisfied customer, but a delighted one.
* Connected Life is Kantar TNS’s annual study of digital behaviour, conducting quantitative interviews with 70,000 consumers across 56 countries and over 100 qualitative interviews across 12 countries. In Asia Pacific, 23,895 quantitative interviews were conducted. Fieldwork was conducted from May – August 2017.
* This article first appeared in Forbes.