The disruption that ensued from the Covid-19 outbreak early this year has impacted the relationship between businesses and their customers. While the effect has been more pronounced for traditional companies, even internet companies are under pressure to not lose their customers as differentiation thins and competition thickens.

As consumers pivot away from physical access to brands of their preference in a digital-first world, the relationships between them is also under threat. Unless, enterprises are willing to go the extra mile in product and service innovation, it will be difficult to sustain in the long run. Gone are the days when a few established players monopolised customer bases as there are several young companies who are offering similar or better services, albeit with a sharper focus on quality customer engagement. This probably explains why just half the companies that were on the Fortune 500 list in 2000 are still part of the rankings today.

If we look at the evolution of commerce in the digital revolution era, it is starkly different from how people did business during the industrial revolution. In earlier years of capitalism, commerce was dictated and determined by what companies wanted to sell and how they influenced their potential customers into believing they needed it. Affordability was a key determiner of buying decision for the consumer. But today, the power has shifted from brands to customers, and the consumer is also of a different make.

Today’s customer is an empowered one who is willing to put value before price, provided they experience that value for its worth. And this worth is typically governed by three basic parameters: an unmet need, ease of access to product/service, and most importantly the quality of the experience. Only if these parameters are met adequately can one win, nurture and retain a customer. So, in order to attract, cultivate and retain customers in a digital world, one must follow some basic tenets.

Create digital first experiences that are user friendly

The Covid-19 crisis has acted not only as a change agent, but also as the biggest accelerator to digital adoption. In a pre-Covid world people had a choice- they could be digital first, or continue in their traditional ways of dealing with services and transactions. While Gen Zs were born digital natives and millennials were pro-digital, the older generation associated accepting digital as a choice that one had to take for career advancement or for the youngsters and not really a way of life for them. However, the technology adoption lifecycle itself has been thrown off balance by the global pandemic that has forced a whole generation of laggards and late adopters into a tizzy and are trying to grasp a world that is hitherto unusual for them. This is a big opportunity for businesses.

A whole new market that was erstwhile rigid now awaits to be explored. This means that user design of products and services now need to be simplified enough for the late adopters to use as well. Take Google pay or Paytm for examples. These innovations have helped many skip the whole internet banking step and straight into contactless transactions. And what has helped the two companies take the lead in the payments app and digital wallet space are the simplistic UI that helps make transactions in under a minute.

Build a customer-centric innovation culture

Taking away from my first point, innovation in today’s testing times needs to be consistent to stay relevant to their customers. As the front end experience becomes more and more simplified, the back end is only going to get more and more complex. So organisations need to invest in an IT architecture that can not only automate and self-heal to a large extent but also continuously improvise. A lot of this is what cognitive technologies like A.I., M.L., and cloud enables. But technology by itself can’t do much. It’s in its utility that the value is unlocked and, hence, the design of the product becomes important.

Take apps for instance. Even in a digital world, most of us are mobile first for the simple benefits it offers- mobility and convenience. But as companies experiment with a multichannel strategy, they need to ensure that a web app, desktop app, or a mobile app based experience are all seamless with minimal disruption. If you take pride in being the largest private or public sector bank but your customers get frustrated with the loading time of your app or your app is under frequent maintenance due to downtime, it will only force your customers to move away from the service provider.

Customers are spoiled for choice and are willing to shift their loyalties to companies who best address their needs in the easiest way possible. So ensure you have the right IT architecture that can not only roll out hyper-personalised products with significantly shortened development cycles but also keep pace with new tech advancements.

Work towards building trust

Trust is a key parameter in building customer loyalty. While in a physical world building trust is relatively easy it needn’t be as simple in a world where all that your customer experiences is an abstraction of your service through a faceless interface. But they are expected to entrust you with their personal information in order to experience the service as well. In such a situation, brands must work towards ensuring constant communication that is not only personalised but also reassuring.

As customer interactions are increasingly being voice led and bot- addressed, the highly limited human interaction should not be a cause of concern. Take the leading food apps for example. When the nation was under lockdown, food tech companies had taken a major body blow. In order to recover from this, brands like Swiggy and Zomato were quick to ensure that adequate precautions were taken at a physical level by their delivery staff which was communicated seamlessly to their customers through their apps so they could be reassured of the safety with which their food was prepared, picked up and delivered to their doorsteps.

This is one of the key reasons why they have successfully recovered to 85 percent of pre-Covid level earnings. So communicate, communicate, and communicate while you ensure that your IT architecture follows the highest levels of cybersecurity to protect your customer’s data and interest at all cost.

For several companies who have had to fast forward their digital transformation from their earlier inertia this is not going to be an easy task. It’s not about throwing technology at the problem as a solution, but about how they can carry their customers along in this journey. There is no shortcut to building customer loyalty in a virtual world, but there are plenty of solutions that one can handpick that best suit their business model and customer needs. The bigger task at hand is to invest in a technology architecture that orchestrate customer experiences across channels with maximum ease and least complexity.

Views are personal. The author is CEO, Mphasis. He is also the co-author of the book, 'Transformation in Times of Crisis'.

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