Executive Q&A: Managing CX expectations and building business resilience in a COVID-19 affected world.

The pandemic has required businesses to move at unprecedented speeds to navigate the resulting operational and financial challenges while rapidly addressing the needs of their people, customers, and partners.

Michele Conforti

Michele Conforti

Michele Conforti, Managing Director and President of cxLoyalty International, spoke with Professor Moira Clark, Director and founder of The Henley Centre for Customer Management,  about how COVID-19 has impacted client and customer experience expectations, prioritising a response and building business resilience.

COVID-19 has brought unprecedented humanitarian challenges with significant implications for economic activity. Every business is working their way through their own set of challenges. What are the main impacts to cxLoyalty International and how did you prioritise a response?

London in Lockdown

London in Lockdown

As with every single business across the globe, the pandemic presented us with numerous challenges; we (cxLoyalty International) have operations in 18 countries outside of North America. As the virus spread across the globe, we experienced a domino effect in terms of the impact on our teams, client’s demands, and operations in Italy, Spain, France, Germany, and then the UK as life was disrupted and lockdown measures were introduced. Outside of Europe our technology development hub in India and customer support centre in the Philippines were also impacted. We moved quickly to devise and implement a three-point response plan.

We prioritised the physical safeguarding and mental wellbeing of our employees.

In retrospect, the foundation for the success of our response was the recognition and understanding that the demands on people had increased significantly. We acknowledged the different work patterns – especially with remote working and virtual teams – ensuring our teams were provided sufficient infrastructure, flexibility, and support to do their jobs to the best of their ability under extremely challenging circumstances.

Remote working is central to safeguarding our teams

 

Second, we had to ensure continuity of service to our clients. We have over four decades of experience in delivering engagement and loyalty solutions for some of the most well-known and respected brands in financial services, telecommunications, and e-commerce sectors which puts us in a unique position.

Our business today has a digital-first approach; however, our heritage and the type of customers we often serve means that we have strong roots in traditional (non-digital) programme delivery which includes services such as print, fulfillment, and phone-based service provision and support.

As the pandemic took hold even the most robust business continuity plans were put to the test. For example, we provide contact centre operations for our clients from locations in the UK, Nordics, Germany, Spain, France, and the Philippines. As lockdown measures were enforced – often with a few hours’ notice and effectively shutting down our contact centres – we had to migrate to a homeworking scenario, while still maintaining service availability. We successfully planned and executed the migration which included providing secure workstations, communications equipment, and ensuring compliance, also within regulated industries such as banking.

Interestingly, in order to respond to ongoing restrictions and to rapidly meet customer needs and demands we developed and implemented innovative digital innovations solutions, for example, we evolved our self-serve capabilities, thereby meeting client and customer needs quickly and effectively. I was impressed by the speed with which our teams found and implemented digital solutions.

Continuing on the digital angle, central to our innovation journey is the development of our cxInteract platform which brings together our core digital capabilities including personalisation, analytics, content management, and omnichannel communication into a highly secure, configurable and scalable cloud-based infrastructure.

With lockdown measures in place, we saw a sustained surge in demand for digital offers and streaming content as consumers moved from physical to digital channels. The cxInteract platform scaled to meet this demand and enabled us to easily utilise existing content sources and rapidly onboard new ones. We effortlessly maintained the high availability performance SLAs we have with clients and this was a great testament to our five-year digital transformation journey.

Finally, we re-formulated business strategy; the first priority was to navigate the immediate impacts of the pandemic, the second was to plot a course for future growth. While caution was needed in the early stages, we recognised that the business needed to adopt a growth mindset, even within this crisis environment. It was and still is imperative for our future success that we continue marketing and commercial activity maintaining brand visibility for the recovery phase, as well as actively consider new routes to growth.

cxLoyalty manages the customer experience and loyalty programmes for a number of respected and trusted brands. What were the key changes in the demands of their customers and how did you adapt to meet those demands?

As a trusted partner to our clients, we knew that the way we manage the crisis will define our client’s brand reputations.

The speed and extent to which the pandemic took hold created fear, uncertainty, and frustration across society; this was reflected in our client’s customers. Against this backdrop, customer experience takes on new meaning.

Stay home

The pandemic created fear and uncertainty

We approach customer experience empathetically; through the use of insights we decipher customer needs, to create personalised and engaging customer journeys focused on providing customers with the content, rewards, and experiences that they value, need and enjoy; however, the needs of customers at the moment have shifted dramatically towards more essential concerns. People are feeling worried and anxious – with health and financial security being their primary concerns.

We reoriented our efforts to meet customers’ primary needs, such as safety, security, and everyday value. We have large programmes with travel and leisure benefits and our teams worked tirelessly to ensure that customers were re-assured as they faced – and continue to face – uncertainty. Our travel concierge teams still deal with a fluid situation such as the 14-day quarantine imposition upon return from travel to Spain. We hope that through demonstrating empathy and care during this crisis, we’ve helped our clients to build a foundation of goodwill, trust, and long-lasting emotional connections with their customers.

Our platform was the enabler and central to success. Through our dynamic content management system, we were able to meet new emerging customer demand. For a number of clients, we changed the focus of the content being offered from experiential lifestyle offers such as movies, shows and restaurant offers to digital content, aimed at providing value to customers in lockdown, such as film streaming services, subscriptions to digital magazines and access to online education. Moreover, due to the impact on the global economy and the ensuing uncertainty around job security, we have seen many consumer segments become more financially prudent and reduce spending across the board.

Our e-commerce cashback offering has proved extremely valuable for clients and their customers. Through a client-branded marketplace, customers have access to exclusive offers and cashback when they shop online with their favourite brands.

In the midst of the lockdown, we saw a significant uptick in both acquisition of new customers and transactions as consumers sought increasing value from their everyday spending. For example, we support a leading e-commerce business in France which experienced a 24% increase in conversion rate for customers joining their subscription-based loyalty programme during the peak of the lockdown between March and April in comparison to the same period 2019.

Providing much sought after financial value to customers during the crisis will strengthen brand affinity and customer preference which will prove to be a strong differentiator for businesses now and in the future.

What strategies did you put in place to ensure continuity in terms of client engagement, marketing, and sales?

In times of crisis, clients and customers tend to gravitate to partners and offerings that they trust.

Our ethos and approach have been proactive in adapting strategy to be able to continue to deliver client value through being responsive to their changing needs.

Our relationship teams have scheduled regular virtual meetings with clients, to maintain engagement, and to identify how we can support them through the pandemic and beyond.

We’ve noticed that the “reachability” of key contacts has increased, the pandemic has created a sense of community, people have come together to share experiences, advice, and best practice during this time.

We also adapted our go-to-market and messaging to reflect on how we could support clients whose business models have been affected by COVID-19.

For example within our e-commerce based loyalty cashback solution, we are targeting businesses that are facing a downturn (like travel partners) with new ideas and solutions on using subscription loyalty to compensate for lost revenues once restrictions are lifted. In parallel, we are also targeting the high growth sectors (like food delivery) with strategies for revenue maximisation to capitalise on elevated demand.

The cxLoyalty podcast brings together industry experts to share insights.

From a marketing perspective, we further embraced digital and have created webinars and podcasts with industry-leading experts to share insights and experience with our target audiences. The focus of these activities is primarily thought leadership and brand awareness through educational and entertaining content rather than it being a sales pitch.

We’ve also increased participation in online industry events and forums where we’ve shared insights, market reports, and whitepapers on the COVID crisis, changing consumer behaviour, revenue generation, and cybersecurity. This has been a hugely successful platform for us. For example, our latest report on Behavioural Economics was one of the most-watched presentations of a three-day UK online Conversion Summit.

Have you identified changes in demand or new emerging demand directly as a result of the pandemic? Are there any sector trends you have noticed?

The pandemic has changed consumer behaviours, many of which are here to stay.

The biggest by far has been the accelerated migration of physical channels to digital. We’ve seen a decade’s worth of migration to online retail in the space of just eight weeks.

Rapid adoption of digital channels

As a result, there’s been an explosion in demand within our e-commerce business from partners in the online retail and logistics sectors. Consumers are expressing the intention to continue to use digital even as lockdown measures ease. To remain relevant retailers are increasing investment in digital innovation and are looking to set new digital customer experience standards with a particular focus on personalisation.

From a business perspective, we are seeing different geographical demand. In the Nordics and Germany, we have seen an increased demand from the financial services sector for Cyber Protection and Identity theft solutions. This has been driven, to some extent, by the rapid shift to digital, which has given rise to an increase in COVID themed cybercrime. Our teams are working hard to deliver eight new client launches this year in the Nordics alone.

In the UK, our telco and banking clients are primarily focusing on customer retention and protection. With limitations on how they can engage with customers and what they can offer they have primarily focused on adapting benefits and content to be more relevant to customer needs during the lockdown.

More broadly, European banks could lose up to 40% of their revenues this year: in order to return to profitable growth, banks have to innovate with new products and propositions. We have seen a demand to strengthen their already advanced analytics skills in order to identify new and untapped customer opportunities, particularly in the form of customer-centric personalised loyalty marketplaces.

Finally, we are experiencing new demand from employee benefits companies as they seek to add more online offers to their existing reward and engagement programs.

Your teams have played a central role in continuing to deliver to client expectations while at the same time adapting to a changing landscape often with unique challenges, what employee-focused programmes have been implemented?

Our HR teams have been at the centre of our rapid response to this crisis.

We have introduced a number of initiatives to ensure teams globally could continue to perform during the pandemic. Our employee initiatives centered around three key pillars including physical safeguarding, wellbeing, and engagement.

From a safeguarding perspective, we had started migrating to remote working before official distancing measures were introduced. We had recognised the value of remote working for a number of years and already had the option in place for our office-based staff. Switching to a fully remote operation was relatively straightforward as employees were already equipped for remote working with secure access to important systems.

The mental health and wellbeing of teams are as important as physical safety. Those working remotely face the mental stress of isolation and the challenges of new workspaces that are often far from fit for purpose. Staff may also be juggling work commitments with increased childcare and home-schooling responsibilities – and worries about older friends and family members.

We extended our “Journey to Well Being” employee wellness programme to include advice and guidance on managing stress, fears, and anxiety around the pandemic. We have introduced mental health first aiders as part of the wellbeing programme – this team proved invaluable in providing “front-line” mental health support to employees.

A new group-wide intranet was launched globally, which as well as providing another channel to share and access information, enabled the creation of an employee community where people could share experiences or simply just feel more connected to their colleagues.

We also encouraged employees to stay regularly connected with video meetings and virtual social events; for many people, communication with colleagues can provide an important buffer to their feelings of disconnection.

Finally, the Executive leadership team has been regularly sharing information and insight with teams globally; updating teams with strategic initiatives and sharing successes to ensure people feel connected, motivated, and engaged.

As the pandemic appears to be showing signs of abating in Europe, attention of governments and business leaders has turned towards reopening – how are you approaching the potential of returning to operating under the “new normal”? And what will be the lasting impact of COVID-19 on cxLoyalty International?

We are closely monitoring government advice in each of our markets.

The manner in which the business and teams have responded to the pandemic has been exceptional and demonstrated strong organisational resilience.

We will only start to re-open offices when we feel it is safe to do so for our employees, and when we decide to move from the response phase to the recovery it will mean re-evaluating the workplace and how we work.

We are closely monitoring emerging trends and gauging employee sentiment. This insight will help guide the decisions we make about how our teams are designed, organised and how we collaborate and work going forward.

In terms of lasting impact, there’s no denying that COVID-19 has been a catalyst for change, the speed and scale of this change are illuminating the fact that companies are facing a generational shift. Clearly, we won’t revert back to our old ways of living, working, and doing business once the worst of the crisis has passed. The future is certain to be very different – which is why we must start reframing the future today.

We will continue to invest in our digital innovation programmes particularly in the evolution of our data-enabled capabilities, digital marketing, and workforce collaboration. The pandemic accelerated digital innovation and has been the foundation of how businesses have adapted and responded, and it (digital) will continue to be in sharp focus as we look to move forward.

We also recognise that now more than ever we need to invest in our people. The landscape for businesses has changed in so many ways, and we are investing in training programmes that will mean our teams will be more commercially fit, agile, and resilient than ever before.

As uncertainty still surrounds the world, I am confident that we have put in robust measures that will ensure the business is prepared and ready to continue to overcome the challenges created by the pandemic.