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by Steve Peltzman, Chief Business Technology Officer at Forrester

As a pre-COVID-19 prolific business traveler myself, the lifestyle difference is stark. And travel is just one of many industries that have been dramatically impacted by the pandemic. Like so many others, I thought there would be temporary changes, and then we’d eventually go back to normal.  That scenario is looking far less likely.

Recent research by Forrester showed that consumer expectations are changing:

  • 40% of UK online adults state that they buy more online now than they did before, and 38% agree that they are likely to continue buying groceries online
  • 50% of Italian consumers say they will try to avoid crowds for the next 24 months
  • 31% of French online adults are using contactless payments more to avoid touching screens and other physical surfaces in stores

As consumers get used to these fears and resultant behaviours, expectations begin to rise and the new bar remains.  Have no doubts, we’re experiencing a permanent shift in customer experience expectations, and the travel, hospitality, and retail companies that endure will be the ones that evolve the greatest and the fastest.

Seeing this play out at the cross-section between research and operations, we’ve concluded that there are 3 main tenets the travel industry should use to guide their post-COVID-19 CX evolution:

  1. Provide Comfort. It’s not enough to say ‘we care’ or to simply acknowledge that new measures are in effect.  Hygiene and social distancing comfort won’t come from temporary accommodations, but from entirely new solutions, technologies, and customer journeys that go above and beyond the competition.

Cleaning a bathroom every 3 hours used to suffice, but now you might need a system to show your customers that you clean it every 25 uses.  Airlines that say they won’t book the middle seat for now are listening, but the first airline that really “solves” the middle seat (and not just by moving it forward a few inches!) will win and the others will be left behind.  Check out the “Janus” design by the Italian company Aviointeriors. Now that’s the kind of dramatic thinking that this moment demands.

  1. Provide Control. Fear and anxiety have an intimate psychological connection to lack of control. When designing new COVID-19 customer journeys, companies should provide control whenever and wherever they can.   For example, stores currently use various means to control the number of customers in one location to enforce social distancing.   This is critical for now, but it won’t last long-term, nor will it disappear completely — the new normal might be systems that show the customer in real-time how crowded the space is that they’re about to enter, giving them the control to decide whether they feel comfortable enough to enter.

Control can come in many forms, such as systems and features that allow customers to dictate when they want service (“click here to have this bathroom cleaned now!”), more options for interacting that require less contact (scan to pay versus handing over my germ-carrying plastic credit card), or even greater flexibility over decisions (“alert me when the flight becomes 75% crowded so I can rebook”).  Customers are likely to give their loyalty over to the companies that provide them the control they need to feel safer.

  1. Provide it Immediately. From a strategic point of view, the COVID-19 situation changes every day, and the resulting behaviors and expectations are therefore changing too rapidly to meticulously plan out customer journeys.  Companies need to approach CX like software developers approach agile development: a rapid, never-ending iterative cycle of “try, learn, and improve”. To do that, they need systems and tools that provide the most information and the most flexibility to execute on that agile CX development cycle.

Tactically, the new standard across all industries will become Real-time CX – the ability to measure, analyse, and improve customer experience in the moment of experience.  Surveys are helpful, but they provide information companies analyse and ponder over and eventually improve from — weeks and months later.  Surveys also produce the answers to questions you ask, not the feedback customers really want to give.

Real-time CX is about rebuilding your “factory-floor” to create a new operation – one that can sense issues to correct and opportunities to delight as they happen, and then act to deliver them there and then.

Rebuilding the factory floor is probably the most difficult thing a company can do, and we hear all the time that “we’re just not ready for that yet”.  With COVID-19, the travel, hospitality, and retail industries may not get to choose when they’re ready for real-time CX.

COVID-19 is not a temporary shock to the system – it’s an event of industry natural selection. Simply adjusting and reacting won’t cut it; customer-facing industries must evolve in every sense of the word.  The competition is no longer another airline, retailer or hotel, it’s not traveling or spending at all.

As Forrester’s first chief business technology officer, Steve Peltzman is responsible for guiding the transformation of Forrester’s own internal technology efforts from the traditional information technology (IT) approach to what Forrester advocates companies should adopt: business technology (BT). He leads Forrester’s real-time solution FeedbackNow business and helps drive the company’s revenue, innovation, and growth as well as client value and success.

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