Most people probably want to sit in a new car before buying it, but they might prefer to complete the rest of the car buying process online – especially during a COVID lockdown. So, more car companies started accepting online orders last year.
For instance, if you were lucky enough to afford it, it became possible to order a new Volkswagen online by paying a holding fee and then have a dealer take you through the rest of the purchase process, without leaving home.
Since last year, you can also use an augmented reality tool to see what a new Volkswagen might look like in your driveway or on the street, without the car being there. You can also use it to look around inside a Volkswagen, virtually.
Audi, Kia and others also started accepting online orders from Australians last year (though on a limited basis in some cases, and buyers had to contend with supply chain disruptions). They joined the likes of Tesla, Subaru and Toyota, which had previously accepted online orders to varying extents.
Unsurprisingly, entirely online car sales are reportedly a fraction of overall Australian car sales. Seeing a car online isn’t the same as sitting in it.
But that doesn’t mean digital channels aren’t important to car buyers. Volkswagen Australia had record web site traffic last year. In the UK, Audi reportedly recorded a 59 per cent increase in online inquiries.
These were among many online firsts for organisations in the last 12 months. The pandemic triggered a wave of projects to improve digital customer experiences: for example, universities extended digital support for remote students; Services Australia streamlined myGov services to help Australians apply for welfare; Bunnings launched apps, introduced a ‘click and deliver’ service and fast-tracked a New Zealand ecommerce store; Coles revealed it was unifying customer IDs across its digital stores; and the Department of Education, Skills and Employment contracted a company to provide initial planning and design services for a new digital platform for job seekers.
Today, organisations continue to streamline online services, launch apps, hire digital teams and build customer platforms.
But do they need to update their approach?
“It’s no longer enough to have a digital presence and automate digital interactions,” argues Danny Housseas, Partner at Digital Delta, KPMG Australia’s digital transformation practice. “It’s now about the best possible digital experiences and the speed and scale required in a digital-first world.”
So what does that mean in practise?
A cohesive approach
If you call your insurance company’s call centre, the person you speak to may encourage you to download the insurer’s app. But you might find that the app requires you to set up an additional password. It might be missing some of the essential functions available on your insurer’s web site too.
Or, you might be buying groceries online and click a link to the supermarket’s online liquor store, only to discover it requires a separate ID.
Perhaps, while completing an application on a government web site, you find that the questions don’t align with advice the agency has provided elsewhere.
In each case, you might get the sense that there are multiple departments behind the scenes which are not working hand-in-glove.
This is a common problem, according to Housseas. “Many organisations keep their customer experience research and development in organisational silos by artificially limiting the responsibility for the online customer to ‘digital’ teams,” he says.
“You might have customer experience people delivering the theory, but it doesn’t really match up with the delivery of those digital channels. That’s because customer experience people typically provide customer journeys and empathy maps, but hand them over to an IT development team, which is tasked with rigidly applying the design to products and platforms,” Housseas says.
Digital strategy should be aligned with or co-developed with corporate strategy, Housseas says.
“CX is the competitive advantage that the whole organisation needs to rally around. It should no longer be just a buzzword-activity outsourced to a ‘digital’ or ‘customer’ team.
Companies also often take a “one-and-done” approach to digital projects, Housseas says. “There’s no ongoing testing to check it works,” he says, and digital experiences quickly become out of date.
He also thinks organisations have struggled to understand customers and build loyalty online. “In 2020, the loyalty and effectiveness garnered from person-to-person communication and service models simply vanished,” he comments. “That required a change in mindset throughout entire organisations, in the way they serviced customers and built empathy and loyalty. That’s a very difficult chasm to cross,” he says. He cites Forrester analysis backing up some of these views.
Housseas and others encourage clients to focus on understanding customers and providing a better service, rather than just using digital channels to push products.
This requires a more personalised approach to digital interactions, and fast speed to market to meet customers’ changing needs, as well as ongoing innovation and refinement, in his view.
Personalisation should provide customers with a real value exchange, and not just be a way to push more marketing. It also goes hand-in-hand with privacy considerations. Housseas sees companies needing to balance personalisation with the need to meet regulations and ensure customers are comfortable with data usage.
To meet customer’s changing needs, Housseas encourages quick deployment of digital experiences and ongoing review and improvement.
Ideally, customer experience designers continue looking at and testing products even as other teams help build them. “The way we structure IT teams is to make sure that customer experience and strategy design are all part of a project team. And we move the team around like Lego blocks,” Housseas says. After a company deploys a product, designers then examine data about its use and continue refining it.
Housseas also looks to decouple IT systems, to make it easier to assemble digital solutions quickly. Middleware might be needed to extract data from legacy systems.
“It’s usually an API of some sort. It’ll query the backend system, take the data and re-organise it in a way that makes sense for a modern user interface, then cache it to ensure it’s delivered in a timely manner.. We’ve been able to get a lot of success in terms of the speed of our products using that mechanism. We do it across government, finance – we’re talking about some really old legacy systems that we’ve been able to get good throughput from,” he comments.
By focussing on understanding customers, being faster to market and continual refinement of digital experiences, Housseas says companies in the superannuation industry, for instance, have improved customer loyalty.
Changing customer journeys
Imagine you’ve lost your debit card and want to deactivate it. So, you pick up your phone and say “please lock my debit card.”
This is one of the ways Bank of America customers can use the bank’s Erica app. They can also ask it to find transactions, check the status of purchases, view account balances and perform other tasks. Apps from CBA, ANZ and other Australian banks also offer voice interaction. Some banks also use customers’ voices to speed up security verification when customers call them.
Amazon customers can order products by talking to its voice-activated speakers (though that can create problems). And other companies continue to deploy machine learning to automate customer interactions (though anyone who has dealt with a tone deaf, AI-driven chat-bot may find this concerning).
These technologies do not always provide a good customer experience, but the point is that customer experiences are evolving.
“The amount of investment that Amazon has put into Alexa, or that Apple is putting into Siri, for example, shows you their thinking and what their research is telling them,” Housseas comments.
Wearables and virtual assistant for cars also provide new customer experience possibilities. “I still think we're very much in the early days of figuring out what the customer journey is,” he says.
These issues should no longer be just the domain of CX developers and marketers, Housseas argues. They may seem like CX issues now, but in years to come they may change the way some businesses operate. Just look at Tesla, which has shaken up the car sales model by only selling cars online.
“This needs to start with the leadership at the top – in the boardroom – and then cascade through the organisation so that it is observed in how digital experiences are delivered and optimised,” Housseas says. “Be lean, agile and ready to move and adapt.”