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It’s a fundamental shift in the way we do business: These days, most customers encounter a brand or business online before they encounter it in real life. The first digital interaction a potential customer has with a company (online or by app) can make or break the company’s potential relationship with the customer, and this trend has been amplified by the COVID-19 pandemic.

Company executives are questioning their digital effectiveness, anxious to launch a “total digital transformation” of their business to achieve differentiation in this competitive digital first environment. Or, worse, they are desperate to know why their digital platform isn’t driving—or is possibly even repelling—new customer relationships.

What many executives and even digital service providers do not understand is that a “digital first” business approach is not about simply digitizing the traditional steps people take to make purchases in a brick-and-mortar environment. Nor is “digital first” commerce about deflecting customers’ attempts to make contact and seek human help by driving them to self-serve in order to reduce the cost to serve.

Understanding the Digital First Approach

Rather, “digital first” business approaches that actually succeed are those that manage to understand customer-company interactions in a completely new way. A winning “digital first” strategy is one that is “customer first”—a strategy grounded in a deep and thorough investigation of how customers are approaching the digital relationship and how they are experiencing the digital capabilities. Does the digital journey feel smooth and connected, or does it feel like a “bolt on” to the core service model?

Today, technology allows us to gather a huge amount of information about how customers interact with businesses digitally, providing insights into the customer journey that were never available before. But having digital data and analytics doesn’t mean that we can scrap foundational customer research completely. It is through the integration of data that we gain meaningful insight and one thing that customer journey mapping requires is actual customer input.

Thinking Like the Customer

In any model, it is critical that we identify the differences between the customer journey-as-architected and the customer journey-as-lived-experience. Plenty of smart people design good processes with customers in mind, but we need to learn to think like the customer in order to create a truly human-centered digital experience. Digital designers who believe they have created customer-friendly experiences, may get a rude awakening when people actually interact with their designs. Take the digital-customer interface that wants to collect information from the customer, such as gender or location, before the customer is ready to provide it. While the digital designer may have guessed that this approach would speed up the interaction and provide more convenience (or collect marketing data), what we actually learn from talking to customers is that this experience feels presumptuous and maybe like a “creepy” invasion of privacy that reduces their interest in buying.

Putting Customers First

A better design would have used customer input to construct a more natural flow of information, in which the interface helps the customer get what they need from the company but doesn’t gather personal information until the customer is ready to move the relationship to the next step. Customers typically want to do their own research and then make a decision—and a good design will create a digital customer experience that allows customers to easily leverage tech and tools to reach their own individual goals.

As another example, take the digital interface that relentlessly pushes the customer to self-serve, even purposefully withholding a customer service contact number, as was historically the case with some famous tech giants. This approach assumes that the customer is a technological novice who is making basic mistakes and self-help content will answer their basic needs.  In fact, many customers these days are much more digitally savvy and have often taken several steps to solve problems themselves before seeking human help.

In such a case, when a customer seeks to contact the company via chat or phone for help, what the company is really dealing with is an escalation, which means the service interaction that happens next is critical and the company risks losing the customer if it is poorly executed.

Currently available technology allows companies to track activity and know when a customer has taken steps to troubleshoot a problem or do some research and is now in need of human help, so companies should design processes that are personalized to the customer within and across channels.

Ultimately, all of the solutions mentioned above focus on understanding the customer’s lived experience in the digital world and then making it easy for customers to access the information and services they want—smoothly serving the customer rather than creating an awkward experience like extracting information, making it hard to interact, or ignoring them.

So, when executives come looking for answers about the rapidly increasing pace of technological change, I remind them that the fundamental rules of business have not changed. Today’s business leaders can easily harness technology to master the principle they already know by heart: CUSTOMERS FIRST.

Does your digital strategy put your customers first? The Northridge Group specializes in helping companies navigate their digital transformations and can help you create a truly human-centered digital experience for your customers. To learn more, contact us.

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