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Post-pandemic digital customer experience: What will change?

Overstock.com, FTD and Giant Eagle all revamped their CX tech stacks during the pandemic to meet the demand for online service, and upgrades continue.

CX leaders at several large companies were forced to quickly deploy digital customer experience processes and technologies during the COVID-19 pandemic. Those changes are here to stay, as customers found online ordering and fulfillment more convenient and operations teams rely more heavily on digital revenue streams.

While technology-savvy consumers had used e-commerce for two decades, it turns out that the channel's use wasn't evenly distributed: Many consumers bought groceries or used online payment systems for the first time during the pandemic -- and they liked how it worked.

"Digital engagement is here to stay; the pandemic changed consumer behavior," said Forrester Research analyst Kate Leggett. "Ultimately, it's easier, and digital engagement values our time."

She said companies will continue to invest in digital customer experience tools even after the limits imposed during the pandemic are lifted -- there's no "return to 2019" that will happen.

FTD rips and replaces CX stack

National floral retailer FTD and its subsidiary ProFlowers.com partner with local florists to deliver plants, bouquets and related items same-day. As if the pandemic wasn't enough of a disruption, the brands were bankrupt in 2019 and purchased by private equity firm Nexus Capital Management. The company reemerged from bankruptcy just in time for COVID-19, which devastated retailers. Moreover, people stopped buying flowers in general, outside of supermarket bouquets.

FTD used the business lull as an opportunity to rip out its tech stack from a leading experience platform vendor. The plan was not only to slash costs, but to strategically build proprietary apps and augment them with technology tools from smaller companies and startups, to shape the customer experience in a more granular way, said Matt Powell, FTD CTO, who joined the company in March 2020.

That process is ongoing -- with major announcements to come -- as FTD has changed "dozens" of SaaS vendors in the last year-plus to remake its technology mix while maintaining its business. FTD currently uses tools from CX software vendor Verint ForeSee to capture customer feedback, FullStory for digital experience diagnostic insights and Sailthru's customer notification tool. The company also uses Salesforce Service Cloud for contact center customer service, which mirrors service operations digitally and over the phone.

More important than the CX tech stack rebuild, though, FTD had to repair and rebuild its relationship with florists, which had become tattered before and during the bankruptcy and lead to high rates of rejects, returns and refund requests from consumers. The company decided to view florists as customers, too, "because they are -- and when the florists are happy, the customers are happy," Powell said.

FTD set up Salesforce Sales Cloud to support florist interactions, as well as an advisory board with about 60 florists to help understand their needs, reset incentives and simplify fulfillment processes. Those actions, along with changing the algorithm that routes web orders to local florists to increase the odds of successful completion, have greatly reduced returns and refunds.

FTD has kept pace with planned growth through the pandemic. Technology to improve the customer experience -- for both florists and people who order the flowers -- played a big role in that.

"We've got a variety of good data that suggests we've taken market share from [larger competitors], and I believe that's because we've been better on the e-commerce fundamentals," Powell said. "The next 12 months is much more about transformation and innovation -- and trying to lead in terms of customer experience. Right now, our brands are a little duplicative and our customer experience is not where it should be."

Giant Eagle continues 2020's big bang

Technology buyers who embark on rebuilding their CX stacks post-pandemic should choose their vendors with the digital customer experience in mind. The digitization of a process itself will not be enough to reap success in the post-pandemic economy, said Jason Ten-Pow, an author and CEO of the Toronto-based CX consultancy firm ONR.  

Half of brands that open up digital channels see increased revenue when they do it, but brands who also consider digital customer experience when digitizing processes are more likely to reap bigger benefits, according to a survey Ten-Pow conducted earlier this year among 1,000 CX leaders working for companies of all sizes.

"Getting technology just to get technology is not going to be the solution," Ten-Pow said. "It's only by aligning customer experience with their digital transformation efforts that will draw in customers and keep them long-term."

Giant Eagle, Inc., a 474-store supermarket and convenience store chain in the midwestern United States, kicked off a digital customer experience revamp in 2019 by setting up a martech stack for the first time and building an online ordering platform from scratch. Both are supported by a CDP from mParticle, as well as a new personalization engine that sorts recommendations by shopper preferences -- think "don't send steak coupons to vegans." 

Giant Eagle curbside pickup
Curbside pickup at Giant Eagle stores was one of the first ways the grocery chain expanded its digital customer experience.

When the pandemic hit, the company had to launch digital ordering along with in-store and curbside pickup. Giant Eagle exceeded its website traffic numbers for all of 2019 within the first six weeks of 2020. Everything went into overdrive.

"[Pre-pandemic] online grocery [ordering] was just nascent, a small thing that we had to figure out for our future," said Damian Scott, vice president and chief customer officer at Giant Eagle. "We had to fast-track it, and that platform rolled out a month and a half after COVID-19 started... because we had to. Our legacy system couldn't handle it; everyone wanted to try out online grocery ordering at the same time."

Is it three years we jumped, or five years? I don't know, but either way, we still jumped. My feet left the ground.
Damian ScottVice president and chief customer officer, Giant Eagle

Not only did Giant Eagle have to set up online ordering and pickup services -- and manage scheduling -- the store chain had to work on its website to make it more user-friendly to older customers, who were teaching themselves how to order online. Scott's team set up a chatbot from Intercom to answer frequently asked questions to help swamped customer service agents.

This year, Giant Eagle's digital team will catch up to things it skipped during the big-bang digital ordering setup of 2020, including streamlining processes it couldn't work on during the pandemic rush, and replacing shortcuts with more permanent processes.

"The path to unlocking commerce got fast-tracked," Scott said. "Is it three years we jumped, or five years? I don't know, but either way, we still jumped. My feet left the ground. Now I have to make sure that all the things we launched in the last nine months are productionalized -- not Band-Aids."

Overstock.com to revamp mobile experience

While consumers were in lockdown, many upgraded their living spaces. With that, e-commerce home furnishings provider Overstock.com became a big winner during the pandemic, more than doubling its sales, as retailers such as Neiman Marcus and JCPenney declared bankruptcy. That trend continued into 2021 with a revenue spike that might have been even bigger of not for the supply-chain disruptions that affected businesses across the board.

Now, the company plans to upgrade its CX tech stack to support a brand-new mobile app, said chief marketing officer Elizabeth Solomon. The customers will guide the process.

"It will be ongoing experimentation," Solomon said. "We are going to test our way into knowing it's a compelling experience for our customers."

Another facet of the digital customer experience Overstock plans to upgrade is to match and exceed benefits other online retailers offer through deeper competitive analyses.

B2C companies that are to succeed in the long run will look deeply into their typical customer's experience and figure out how to make what are short opportunities during quick transactions -- such as ordering flowers through FTD -- into long, loyal relationships, Forrester Research's Leggett said. While chatbots might be close to the front end the consumer needs, the tech stack requires a customer data platform and deep personalization tools to know who a customer is when they call, to find out where their delivery is, or if they want to upgrade their bouquet.

Social media management tools, point-of-sale systems for online sellers who also have shops, social management tools to address questions sent by text, and loyalty and feedback management applications should all be part of the next-generation CX tech stack.

"If you look at supporting a consumer along their journey as they research their purchase, buy, learn how to use, and then as they ask questions and deepen their engagement with you -- the entire stack has changed," Leggett said. "It's not CRM anymore."

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