2020 year in review

Year in review: the 6 CX lessons that defined 2020

In a year dictated by the various stages and devastating impacts of the global pandemic, there have thankfully also been some inspiring moments. These included our ability as a global community to quickly adapt and evolve all aspects of our lives to safeguard our collective health and well-being, including the creation of COVID-19 vaccines.

In the business world, these types of promising developments extended to companies investing in digital transformations, which in turn better protected employees by enabling them to work remotely and consumers by enabling them to shop online, and also helped minimize impacts to the economy by remaining operational.

Additionally, companies' investments in next-gen technologies resulted in more efficient, empathetic and high-quality digital customer experiences (CX). In 2020, this type of differentiated CX, delivered by engaged employees and supported by agile operations, quickly became a necessity for brands to survive and thrive during this time of massive change and upheaval.

Here are the top six takeaways from 2020:

1. Flexibility without sacrificing core values was key

"Anytime there's a crisis, there's a magnifying glass put on people, process and culture," says CX expert and public speaker, Shep Hyken.

Without exception, businesses experienced pain points in 2020. Some had difficulties transforming to a digital-first, curbside environment, while others transformed too quickly without having the adequate team to fulfill demand. Others performed well with regard to transformation and workforce management, but fell short on inventory controls.

Big companies like Target, which offers an all-in-one shopping experience, benefited from the breadth of their offering. Upon seeing their success, smaller, more niche brands may have been tempted to follow bigger brands and radically transform operations, says Hyken.

While there's no doubt that flexibility and agility were some of the keys to navigating 2020, the most successful brands, big or small, kept their core values and value propositions — i.e., what makes them special to their customers — top of mind, despite the challenging year. Continuing with what made them successful in the first place while adapting to face the current situation has been crucial to business success.

For instance, a hotel chain may need to cut costs to account for slower demand, but beware cutting close to the bone. "A dirty room, in the middle of the pandemic or in the best of times, is still a dirty room. That customer is not coming back, so be careful where you cut," says Hyken.

2. Corporate culture and employee engagement drove real value

There's a reason why employee experience as a driver of differentiated customer experience became a renewed focus for many companies this past year. Those that had value-driven corporate cultures and demonstrated a strong commitment to employees prior to the pandemic were those that fared best in a turbulent 2020.

Since the start of the pandemic, Salesforce — which has always enjoyed a reputation for being an employee-centered company — took that ethos a step further and created pandemic-specific benefits and support programs for employees. That's all part of its "Ohana" foundation, which is: "collaborate, take care of one another, have fun together, and work to leave the world a better place."

During times of rapid business transition, business leaders must oftentimes rely on the extraordinary efforts of their team members to act for the greater good. Highly-engaged employees who felt safe and secure were those who went the extra mile for their companies in 2020.

3. Empathy and transparency reigned supreme

In a year when so many have been under more stress than usual, companies that were empathetic and openly communicated with their teams and customers performed best. "Empathy comes from attempting to understand what the other person is feeling. In the case of a crisis, it also involves understanding that silence breeds fear and distrust," says Adam Toporek, founder of CTS Service Solutions and a CX trainer.

When the pandemic became a global concern in March, and travel became radically disrupted, airlines around the world took varied approaches to serving customers. Delta Airlines' CEO, Ed Bastian, displayed both empathy and transparency, says Toporek. Delta communicated through its website weekly, directly addressing the concerns travelers would have around safety, cancellations and flight statuses.

Toporek says Delta also delivered tangible, empathetic, customer-friendly policies from the start, like implementing clear safety protocols and eliminating change fees. Other airlines were slower to issue customer-friendly policies and only did so after the market demanded it.

Beyond air travel, the pandemic really pushed companies to establish policies for what they would and would not allow — and what they could, and could not, do for customers — and communicate those clearly. This type of elevated transparency will be an ongoing trend in 2021 and beyond.

4. Digital transformation got a shot in the arm

Companies that had already hopped aboard the digital transformation train prior to the pandemic were in an ideal position to rapidly pivot to accommodate shifting consumer behavior.

In the case of Starbucks, its customers had already heavily adopted its mobile app to order on-the-go before COVID-19. According to a May 2020 letter to U.S. partners by the company's CEO, Kevin Johnson, about 80% of store transactions were driven primarily by the app.

"Our digital leadership and ability to transform lower performing locations and formats to successful new store formats… are unique strengths that we will lean into in the coming months," Johnson said back in July. More recently, he launched the idea of a "walk-thru" store — a Starbucks kiosk with no seating — as well as using a suite of AI solutions the company calls Deep Brew to improve store management and create personalized rewards.

Companies that thought a mobile app, or some other kind of digital experience, was a "nice to have" before COVID-19, now realize their criticality, and many have been able to launch new initiatives in 2020. Toporek says he expects a continued focus on digital transformation in 2021, since customers will still need blended digital/in-person experiences. "They will not go backwards," he says.

5. The power of the cloud was fully revealed

As the world adopted remote work models in a span of mere days and weeks, companies with cloud-enabled infrastructures and platforms hit the ground running because they were spared from awkward, cumbersome tech transitions from on-premise to off-site locations.

Although many companies plan to have employees return to brick-and-mortar workplaces when it's safe to do so, others aren't looking back. Canada's ecommerce powerhouse, Shopify back in May said employees could work from home forever, and branded itself a "digital by default" company. That company was also able to flex according to surges in customer demand much better than if they had not been on the cloud. Streaming services like Spotify and Netflix, too, were able to bend to meet new demand rather than break under the weight of it.

The biggest changes have been in the customer-facing realm, but many companies with cloud-based CX operations are likely to use the cloud in other areas of their operations, too. The efficiencies gained through the cloud have meant greater access across a decentralized workforce, better performance and streamlined experiences for both employees and customers.

6. Information privacy and security became a true differentiator

Although companies already investing in the technologies of the future like cloud solutions had a head start on adjusting to the new normal, the rapid pace of technological change exposed them to weaknesses and liabilities, particularly in data security.

Tech leaders in the CX industry already understood that security cannot be location specific, nor can securing data come through physical controls alone. Think of physical contact centers where employees offload their personal mobile devices before entering a PCI certified floor. That's just not possible in a world of remote work.

Many companies scrambled to create a set of standards, best practices and oversight for the world of remote work, while implementing technologies like biometrics for identity verification.

Moving into 2021: A look ahead

The past 300-plus days have been challenging for every business globally in one way or another. Whether trying to maintain business continuity while also delighting customers or juggling technology and supply chains, it certainly hasn't been easy. But, it has taught us that sustained evolution and adaptation in order to "keep up with the times" - even when modest - will help companies be more resilient when faced with unpredictable events, exogenous factors and massive upheavals.

When we look back on the lessons from 2020, we'll realize the vastness of the changes we underwent — and the progress — wrought by the pandemic. As we continue to build the CX industry of the future, it would be wise to do so while keeping in mind what Theodore Roosevelt once said, "The more you know about the past, the better prepared you are for the future."

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