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Executives from American Express, Pearson Education and More on COVID-19 and the New Reality of Customer Experience

Authored by ActionIQ Team

On 4/30, ActionIQ hosted a virtual forum where executives and industry leaders discussed how they are adapting to manage the customer experience and meet rapidly changing customer needs during the global pandemic crisis.

Moderated by ActionIQ’s Ryan Greene and Tamara Gruzbarg, the panel featured:

  • Paul Evers, EVP of Financial Services at Merkle, previously an executive and leader at Wyndham Worldwide, Cendant and Ernst & Young
  • Sarkis Kalashian, VP of Product at American Express, Distinguished Faculty Member & Lead Instructor of Product Management at General Assembly
  •  Stefano Fanfarillo, Partner and Director, Personalization & Digital Marketing at Boston Consulting Group, formerly a consulting leader at CSC and Accenture
  • Drew Miller, VP of North America Marketing at Pearson Education, previously Executive Director of Marketing Analytics and Insights at Dell

The discussion delivered a series of helpful and insightful takeaways, beginning with thoughts on short term strategies for brands and marketers and moving on to strategies for emerging from the crisis stronger.


#1  Responding When a Channel Goes Down

In previous virtual forum sessions, panelists extensively discussed the effect of brick-and-mortar shutdowns on non-essential retail brands.

But the effect has also been profound in banking and financial services, where consumers and businesses are facing a financial crisis in addition to the health crisis. With the most vulnerable demographics of our population also the most dependent on branches—the shifts in behavior were immediate. Call centers were slammed.

Banks saw a need to react and respond quickly, taking measures such as:

  • Setting up processes to keep branches open for by-appointment services
  • Utilizing personalization techniques to rapidly deploy new processes, messaging and training to call centers
  • Creating training videos aimed at teaching offline customers to use online services
  • Implementing virtual conferencing to replace select in-person interactions

#2 — Taking a Solution Approach

Call center volume continued as a hot topic among the panelists. Nearly all consumer-facing sectors have seen a surge, presenting a nearly impossible customer experience challenge. How do you meet customer expectations for response time at the call center when volume is going through the roof, and your own resources are constrained due to stay-at-home orders impacting operations?

The answer for many was to take a solution-focused approach–finding alternative ways to address the underlying customer problem. For instance, one financial services institution was seeing a spike in customer inquiries related to travel charges. Rather than solely focusing on adding capacity to handle calls, they urged travel partners to craft and publicize more generous cancellation and change policies. With travel brands offering resolutions directly to customers, the financial institution was removed as an intermediary—and call center volume went down.


#3 — Going From Analog to Digital in Days

Brands and businesses of every type are working to increase their digital servicing capacity to most effectively and efficiently serve customers during the crisis.

Perhaps the most significant and rapid digital transformation, however, is happening in the education sector. Nearly all in-person schooling around the world has been shut down, and hundreds of millions of students’ learning experience was shifted online in a matter of weeks. Learning institutions were in varied states of preparedness to make the shift, and each is moving along its own maturity curve to provide the highest value online learning experience possible.

From a business standpoint, this shift has been especially critical for tuition-based institutions. For these schools, it’s not enough to meet a minimum set of education requirements. Rather, they must deliver tremendous value over virtual platforms in order to retain students whose initial enrollment was based on the expectation of an on campus experience. Learning platforms and schools are deep in a second wave of planning and execution to rise to the challenge.

Testing is another challenge the education industry is preparing to tackle, as even online tests were designed to be administered in physical locations supervised by proctors. Leaders in the industry will be developing technology and processes to maintain the integrity of testing processes in a fully virtual mode.


#4 — Rapid Increase in Digital Servicing

Across the board, consumers and companies are reaching for—and racing to deliver—digital solutions. Whether it’s bringing new solutions online or scaling existing platforms. There is such a surge in digital needs, one panelist described it as working to achieve “10 years of change in 2 weeks.” Ecommerce channels have been supporting Black Friday levels of volume for weeks, with ecommerce seeing a 25% or more increase in overall spending. Panelists described a number of different digital trends they’re observing:

  • Acceleration in digital media spend relative to non-digital
  • Rush to provide omnichannel capabilities such as click and collect
  • Increase in use of digital payments and use of digital products
  • Massive efforts to enable remote workforces

Businesses are also working to increasingly deploy timely personalized communications via website and email. For example, banks were charged with meeting aggressive rollout requirements for the CARES Act set by the federal government. Business applicants were thirsting for information about how and when they could apply for relief funds, and were eager to start the process as soon as possible.

The banks who were either a)small enough to handle customers personally or b)had invested in web, email and app-based personalization were able to distribute timely and relevant information to customers, manage the application processes digitally, and help their customer secure funds.


#5 — Achieving Empathy at Scale

During the discussion, panelists described a conundrum: while serving customers effectively during the crisis requires the efficiency of digital processes, people are also seeking human interaction. To serve these competing needs, brands must seek to achieve what a panelist described as “empathy at scale.” Doing so requires:

  1. Making customer experience the responsibility of every single person in the organization
  2. Listening intently to what customers need at any given time
  3. Taking action to meet customer need

Immediately, the conversation turned to customer signals, and how to use data to improve the customer experience.


#6 — Listening to Signals

Understanding customer needs–and being ready to serve them at scale—requires listening to signals. Our panelists described some of the key data to which businesses must be attuned as they manage the crisis and make plans to emerge from it. The data falls into two categories:

1. Internal data generated by the operational systems within your enterprise—key areas of listening for signals include:

  • Demand data by segment, category and geography, to understand what products and services customers need, and where
  • Channel, journey and experience data to understand how effectively the customer is being served through their channels of choice
  • Supply chain and inventory management data to manage availability in-channel, relative to demand
  • Promotion optimization data, especially as companies use promotions to manage shifts in demand and free up capital

2. External data supplied by third parties or from public sources—key areas of listening for signals include:

  • Consumer behavior and demand data to understand how behaviors and spend are shifting with and across categories and sectors
  • Public health data to understand where different geographies are along the curve as well as government mandates that may impact operations
  • Government-supplied statistics and data to measure macroeconomic conditions to understand, for example, when to prepare for inventory increases and reopening

#7 — Agility: Fewer Meetings, More Action

Panelists also discussed internal organizational changes they’re seeing—and expecting—as a result of the crisis.

Agility has become a key theme across nearly every organization, especially as it applies to digital transformation. For the most part, rather than introducing new innovations, companies are pressing forward on existing digital transformation plans but at a much faster clip.

One panelist described a 12-week content approval process that the company had been working for months to try to whittle down to 10 weeks. Once the crisis hit, the organization immediately found ways to approve content within days or even hours. Another panelist described working on digital initiative projects that would typically have taken 6 months being completed in 6-8 weeks.   


#8 — Agility: Short and Long Term Organization Change

In a time where rapid action is needed to help customers and stabilize businesses, how are companies achieving this? For one panelist, it all comes down to less meetings and more actions. Boiling everything down to the 4-5 core workstreams needed to achieve immediate goals. Other organizations are creating rapid response and transformation teams to drive immediate and mid term goals.

In the longer term, these temporary measures will translate into permanent org structure changes including the flattening of organizations and greater empowerment of the individual. This will also lead to changes in talent acquisition requirements—reflecting the different types of skills and experience required in an agile environment, as well as the accelerated digitization and automation of certain business processes and functions.

Thank You

This discussion marked the final installment of our virtual discussion series on COVID-19 and the new reality of customer experience. We hope you found it informative and helpful in building strategies for navigating the crisis. A special thank you to all our panelists, without whom this series wouldn’t have been possible. If you missed any of the sessions, be sure to catch up by reading the in-depth recaps here.

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