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PHOTO: Mihály Köles | unsplash

COVID-19 accelerated digital transformation unlike any other event this century. Companies that were laggards had to adapt on the fly or risk irrelevance or worse, obsolescence.

That acceleration had a significant and sudden impact on customer experience (CX). Typically, consumers have an opportunity to gradually change their behaviors as companies slowly bring them along. However, there was no moderation with the pandemic. Consumers had to change immediately.

Some of the changes were good. COVID-19 made curbside pickup table stakes for retailers. Click-and-collect sales more than doubled in 2020 to $72.5 billion — and show no signs of slowing down, according to eMarketer. Delivery apps, popular before the pandemic, skyrocketed in importance, delivering everything from household essentials like toilet paper and water to meals from favorite restaurants.

Other changes damaged CX for brands. Potentially the biggest one was the increase in call center volumes. These increased as much as 600% from before the pandemic. That increase — combined with the necessity for call center operations to adapt to new work arrangements — left customers on hold for longer and made call duration longer. The latter is still the case. Neither contributes to a great customer experience.

So any lessons learned from over a year of COVID-19 really aren't so different from overall CX lessons, and they revolve around friction.

Limitation of Online Customization

Online ordering apps are a bit limited when it comes to customization. For example, your experience ordering from your favorite burger joint is still far more dependable in person than it is when ordering through an online app. This is especially true if the ordering app does not provide a text box to add special requests for the order.

If a customer is ordering from her favorite restaurant, she wants to be able to add and subtract ingredients from her salad at her convenience, much like she would in a store. When that engagement breaks — when the salad has onions she requested to leave out, or when chicken is added instead of shrimp — it’s a negative experience that reflects poorly on the brand.

Retailers can continue to evolve online customization so it feels more like ordering in person (even though that process can break too).

Related Article: TRUE: Marketers Should Have Seen This Coming

Customer Journey Inconsistencies

According to a recent survey conducted by my company, Applause, consumers plan to take more advantage of in-store and curbside pickup options. Nearly 60% of respondents said they are using services like curbside pickup, BOPIS (buy online, pick up in-store) and BORIS (buy online, return in-store) more because of COVID-19, and two-thirds reported they are more likely to shop with brands that offer omnichannel options.

But this presents greater challenges for retailers. The transitions between the digital and physical world are often inconsistent. For instance, the message in the app for curbside pickup may provide different instructions compared to the guidance provided at the location.

Complexity is inevitable here, but if you don't get this part of the journey right, customers will abandon the journey on the first step. For example, if someone orders something, then drives to the store and curbside is not clearly marked, they are more inclined to look at other solutions.

Reconciling the digital and the physical is still a challenge businesses need to work out.

Related Article: When Online and In Person Meet: The Challenges of Takeout and Curbside Pickup

Payments Still Pose a Problem

The in-store shopping payment experience is seamless. If anything, it's improving as retailers accept new forms of digital payments. Consumers no longer need cash or credit because a transaction can be as simple as using a cell phone.

No matter how much businesses try simplifying the online payment process, there’s still uncertainty. Is the exchange secure? Consumers have accepted — even if they don’t like it — the risks associated with online transactions. Certainly, security is a pressing concern. And what about functionality? Every consumer has watched the spinning wheel, fearing their transaction wasn’t going through.

Improvements to the online payment experience, coincidentally much like the in-store experience, happened by adding more options. Consumers can use various payment platforms or mobile payments when shopping on their device, but there’s still more unease than the conventional options they are accustomed to in store.

The genie is out of the bottle and digital technologies are only going to become more imbedded in consumers’ lives. With 2022 around the corner, businesses need to figure out how to resolve the friction in some of these processes that still differentiate the physical and digital worlds.