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Consumer expectations for smooth online shopping grew in pandemic

Owner Harris Cohen, of Country Carpet in Syosset,

Owner Harris Cohen, of Country Carpet in Syosset, N.Y., browsing showroom carpets online on improved website.  Credit: Country Carpet/Jessica Cohen

The pandemic changed the way many consumers interact with brands and also their expectations of their overall customer experience.

More consumers shopped online or reached out to companies digitally and consequently expected more instantaneous responses and interactions. So much so that last Fall, 58% of customers reported their service expectations are higher than a year ago, according to a survey by Talkdesk, a provider of cloud contact center solutions.

"It’s the whole digital consumerism," says David Gardner, vice president of research and insights at San Francisco-based Talkdesk, which conducted the survey. "During the pandemic, we saw the rapid digital transformation and acceleration across industries."

Consumers had everything readily available at their fingertips on their smartphones, he says. Even consumers not accustomed to using digital had to adapt.

"There was no choice but to go digital," says Shannon Colquhoun, vice president of global industry strategy for retail at Talkdesk.

It was happening pre-COVID, but COVID "accelerated the need to have a better digital experience" for many companies, she says.

Country Carpet in Syosset, which sells carpets, rugs, flooring and fabrics, had started beefing up its digital presence before COVID, but during the pandemic greatly enhanced that, says President Harris Cohen.

They want to chat

Among additions, they quadrupled the number of images on their website so clients could better view their products online and also added the ability for clients to order samples through the website, which helped while the showroom was closed.

They also enhanced their book-appointment feature on their website that wasn’t highly utilized pre-COVID, but was frequently used during COVID and even today, Cohen says.

They added a chat feature to their website six months before COVID, but when COVID hit, it became "inundated’ by customers, Cohen says.

Having a chat feature either live or with an automated chatbot on a website, where customers could ask questions and get immediate responses, became more popular during COVID, says Nicole Penn, president of EGC Group, a Melville-based marketing and digital services firm, who assisted Country Carpet with its digital upgrade.

Voice search was also popular, Penn says. This is where customers might use a voice application like Siri to search for a product/service and that’s where good search-engine optimization helps brands, she says.

Calming customers during COVID

Text-messaging integration has also become popular, whereby customers can ask a question or book an appointment with a business via text, Penn says.

EGC offers a proprietary platform called Raydeus that offers these various applications and as more businesses gravitated towards digital technologies during COVID, Raydeus revenue from 2019 to 2020 was up almost 400%, Penn says.

Still, it’s not just digital that makes the customer experience. How a brand interacts with customers through their employees is key.

During COVID knowing how to react to customers was critical, says Linda Berke, president of Farmingdale-based Taylor Performance Solutions, Inc., a training and consulting firm specializing in leadership, service and sales training.

Customers were dealing with much stress and uncertainty, she says.

Throughout the pandemic, her firm spent a lot of time training customer service employees on how to navigate that stress, including more focus on listening, empathizing and being patient.

"We’d tell them to think about how they phrased things," Berke says.

Excuses got tired

For example, since many customer service reps were working remotely, giving customers the excuse that they were working from home and didn’t have a file or paperwork might have been tolerated in the beginning, but not as the pandemic progressed, she says.

Also "a big part of our training was delivering difficult messages," such as delayed deliveries, etc., Berke says.

With that said, contact centers became integral to the customer experience with a growing number of retailers recognizing the benefit of cloud-based contact centers not tied to any one physical location, according to Talkdesk.

Things have certainly gotten better since COVID’s height, but "we’re still sorting out exactly how many of the changes from COVID will last," says Tim Calkins, clinical professor of marketing at Northwestern University’s Kellogg School of Management.

What will endure is the adoption of new digital platforms, be it streaming or conveniences like ordering groceries online, he says.

"I think the technological changes will endure because people have learned how to navigate the new technologies," Calkins says.

But he said while businesses should continue to "refine and improve the most important digital platforms" they should also think about how to deliver a good customer experience again in-person.

While that’s challenging due to the labor crunch, etc., businesses may have to make changes like limiting assortment and focusing "on a few things they do really well and can deliver," Calkins says.

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How Customers Interact with Brands Today Vs. In Two Years

Store/Branch/In-person: Today (49%) In two years (33%)

Artificial Intelligence (AI) Chatbot: Today (31%) In two Years (44%)

Voice Applications (e.g. Siri): Today (23%) In two years (39%)

Video Chat: Today (24%) In two Years (45%)

Source: Talkdesk

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