In short:

  • In the past year, many businesses were forced to take their customer relationships remote. This virtual nature of relationships and customer service seems to be an enduring trend.
  • Research has shown that a steadily-increasing majority of customers prefer remote engagement over face-to-face interactions.
  • Remote customer-relationship strategies that simplify and improve customers’ interactions in the virtual world will be integral to success this year and beyond.

2020 taught almost every business how to work with customers virtually. Some businesses may have considered these temporary measures. Yet, it’s becoming clear that many adaptations made last year should be permanent—in particular, the move to virtual customer relationship maintenance.

With some customers preferring self-service and virtual interactions, the effectiveness of a company’s remote sales process, customer experience management and customer service will fuel growth.

Customers Love Remote Relationships. So Should You.

In the past year, attracting, engaging and retaining customers has been top-of-mind for executives. In Brainyard’s winter 2021 survey, business leaders ranked customer acquisition as one of their top concerns for the year. And in Deloitte’s CFO Signals Report for Q3 2020, CFOs cited a shift in strategies for customer interaction: With the events of 2020 continuing to affect how business operates—and how customers prefer to conduct business—CFOs said their companies are focused on remote/touchless delivery, remote customer service, virtual sales and revising their pricing and credit policies. They also indicated more focus on maintaining and improving customer relationships.

It doesn’t appear that the need for these remote customer-relationship strategies will decrease as in-person interaction rebounds. In a McKinsey study from fall 2020, over three-quarters of B2B buyers and sellers said they preferred digital self-serve and remote human engagement over face-to-face interactions—a sentiment that has steadily intensified, even after lockdowns ended. Only about 20% of B2B buyers said they hoped to return to in-person sales, even in sectors where field-sales models have traditionally dominated, such as pharma and medical products. Buyers turned to remote platforms out of necessity, but the convenience and speed of getting information, placing orders and arranging service has kept them there.

In the consumer world, more than 70% of participants in Deloitte’s Global Marketing Trends Consumer Pulse Survey said they value digital solutions that help them connect with other people, like video chats, telemedicine and live online workshops. Sixty-six percent said the pandemic has increased their appreciation for well-designed technologies. Consequently, 63% believe they will rely on digital technologies more going forward than they did before 2020.

The transition to the remote realm isn’t lowering expectations; in fact, customer expectations are at an all-time high. Customers want personalization, effortless and rewarding interactions with your business, a consistent experience across departments and easy-to-access support.

Oh, and the evolution is far from over.

“As the effects of COVID-19 reshape our economies, organizations will need to strategically reengage with their customers,” said Tim Knight, a customer advisory partner at KPMG. “Whilst behaviors and spend levels have already changed dramatically, it is the evolution of customer needs, attitudes and values that will most disrupt how businesses compete.”

Thus, the roadmap becomes clear: Shift to a digital customer-relationship strategy that meets customer needs as they unfold—focusing specifically on building a seamless customer experience, using data-based insights and incorporating the human touch—or risk losing customers in an already competitive marketplace.

Our Sources

For this article, we spoke with:

Tim Knight, customer advisory partner at KPMG
Tim Knight helps business leaders create competitive customer experiences. He also chairs The Customer Experience Excellence Centre, the world’s largest CX think tank.

Austin Caldwell, senior product marketing manager at NetSuite
Austin Caldwell specializes in technology for CRM, ecommerce, marketing, professional services automation and customer success.

David Ciccarelli, CEO of Voices
Voices is the largest marketplace for audio and voiceover products and services in the world, with over 1 million members.

Delivering a Consistently Smooth Customer Experience

Multi-channel, multi-touch customer journeys are the norm. According to research from Forrester, 95% of retail and travel consumers use three or more channels in a single customer-service interaction: Think visiting a company’s FAQ page, then inquiring with a chatbot, then dialing a “virtual agent.” These customers expect an effortless transition from one touchpoint to another, which means your business needs to demonstrate the same branding, values and tone in each sphere.

What does it REALLY mean to be an omnichannel business? We’ll break down the buzzword in all it’s multi-channel, multi-touch glory:

For Aon, a multinational professional services firm, the importance of a smooth omnichannel customer experience spurred the Delivering Aon United program. With 50,000 employees across 120 countries, presenting a consistent experience meant unifying Aon's services under a global operating committee, adopting a single brand, creating a shared technology platform, and establishing a common model for its shared services.

“Because we already had this in place, it made it easier for our colleagues to pivot [to remote customer interactions] during the pandemic while continuing to deliver value to and maintain meaningful relationships with clients despite physical distance,” said EVP Michael Moran. “Programs like this are important at any time but have become even more relevant as the world abruptly shifted to working with clients digitally.”

Some ways to make the customer experience frictionless (i.e., simple and easy) across multiple touchpoints (i.e., from chats with a bot to those with customer service rep):

Get to know the customer and their journey.

Understand where and how customers interact with your brand, as well as their pain points, through customer journey mapping. Journey mapping involves creating a visual representation of the stages a customer goes through when engaging with your company. For each stage of the buying process, the customer journey map considers: a customer’s emotions and objectives, their actions, and the tools, resources and touchpoints available to them.

As an example, let’s outline the potential journey of a B2B customer considering a purchase of your human resources management software:

  1. The first stage is awareness. The customer has learned about your product through an online ad. Right now, they don’t have specific goals formulated, but they’re feeling interested and curious about your software.
  2. The next stage is research. The customer is considering your product and comparing it to alternatives. Their goal is to find the best solution for their company. This part of the journey may entail excitement and perhaps a sense of feeling overwhelmed by options. As a business, your goal is to ease the latter feeling through actions like populating the site with clear yet concise information and providing a definitive value differential compared to competitors.
  3. At the buying stage, the customer has made their decision. Their goal is to commit to and pay for the software. There is excitement over the decision but also the pain associated with purchasing. The goal of your business is to reduce that pain by providing an effortless payment process and delivery of the product.
  4. The longest-lasting stage is post-sale. This stage can provoke varied customer emotions, depending on your product’s performance. To ensure loyalty and advocacy from the customer, your business needs to identify touchpoints and corresponding actions in each post-sale experience: For instance, perhaps the customer runs into an issue with the software that leaves them frustrated. Their touchpoint would be calling, emailing or chatting with customer service, and your goal would be to prevent churn by delivering a helpful customer service touchpoint with minimal waiting. And, even a satisfied customer requires attention—in the form of targeted marketing, upselling/cross-selling, feedback opportunities and check-ins—to maintain the “This is easy” feeling and perhaps upgrade to the “I have to share this!” feeling, which can promote your business.

    Mapping out the entire customer journey allows companies to spot any areas of friction or discrepancies preventing an excellent experience.

Despite the ever-expanding array of options for remote customer connection, keep one core tenet in mind: One company, one voice.

Ready to put yourself in the customer’s shoes? Download our customer journey ideation template.

Circulate a customer experience mission statement.

This guiding statement for your organization explains what the customer experience should be like every time. For example, Warby Parker’s statement is, “We believe that buying glasses should be easy and fun. It should leave you happy and good-looking, with money in your pocket.”

Facilitate communications harmony.

Create a style guide for your company with instructions around brand, logos, editorial style, imagery, tone and language. A comprehensive style guide will enforce standards around communications to create consistency and clarity, which boost a customer’s experience and perception of the company.

Create opportunities for customer feedback.

News flash: Customers have first-hand insight into the customer experience. Add customer feedback opportunities to ensure you’re meeting their changing needs.

Tools for Collecting Customer Feedback Remotely

Surveys Can be added to your website or sent via email. Avoid diffusion of responsibility via email with personalization tactics, like including the customer’s name.
Customer Satisfaction Score (CSAT) CSAT measures a customer’s satisfaction regarding a specific interaction with your company. (Cue those smiley-face response options.)
Net Promoter Score (NPS) NPS measures the likelihood a customer will recommend your product or service, on a scale of 1-10.
Customer Interviews With their open-ended formats, qualitative interviews can provide more nuance about customers’ experiences.
Social Media Monitoring direct comments and mentions, as well as taking advantage of polling tools, gleans candid feedback.
Website Analytics Use website analytics to gauge how customers use your site and tip you off to changes. For instance, if you provide product information on a page and it has an awful bounce rate, then the messaging likely isn’t sticking. Perhaps a helpful customer-service article has high traffic and a low bounce rate; it should be highlighted.

If you’re not sure where to start in improving your remote customer experience, consider conducting usability tests. Real users will test the site’s functionality with realistic tasks, and you will observe any issues, confusion or friction in their experience.

Despite the ever-expanding array of options for remote customer connection, keep one core tenet in mind: One company, one voice.

Despite the ever-expanding array of options for remote customer connection, keep one core tenet in mind: One company, one voice.

Using and Optimizing CRM

Using a CRM is one of the best ways a business can drive sales, retain customers and continue to develop relationships remotely. Smaller businesses in particular have to do more with less, so it’s critical for them to save time and gain efficiency with a single, unified customer database.

With a CRM, “sales, marketing and customer service can all leverage the same system of record and remotely share customer details,” said Austin Caldwell, senior product marketing manager at NetSuite. “If everybody is referencing the same system, then they don't need to bug another team member in the office to learn more about a customer's past interactions [with the business]. They can easily leverage these customer touchpoints to provide more personalized and relevant engagements.”

what is crm

What Is CRM? Get the definitive answer, plus an overview of benefits and how to choose a system.

David Ciccarelli is a longtime CRM user and CEO of voiceover company Voices. For him, the push to remote work reinforced the importance of his business’s CRM system.

“Now more than ever, companies need to embrace the CRM as the central repository for all customer interactions, from calls to video conferences, emails and notes,” said Ciccarelli. “For many businesses who are operating remotely, there isn't the informal information-sharing that would happen as conversations occur in the open or on breaks in the kitchen.”

Of course, transitioning to primarily remote customer relationships has the potential for hiccups. Communicating too much, communicating too little, providing inadequate support or sending materials that the customer finds irrelevant are common pitfalls that can result in a poor experience. Adopting a CRM system or optimizing the use of your current one can help you avoid those missteps by tracking customer interactions, mapping behaviors and preferences and providing tools to connect with customers.

Communicating too much, communicating too little, providing inadequate support or sending materials that the customer finds irrelevant are common pitfalls that can result in a poor experience.

Tips for Optimizing CRM Use

  • Automate the simple tasks: Take advantage of workflow automation features like email follow-up, promotion offers, appointment scheduling and payment processing.
  • Keep data clean: A CRM is only effective when the data it provides is current. Regularly audit or update your data, removing any duplicate, incorrect or outdated entries.
  • Integrate with other data sources: Integrate your CRM account data with data across other enterprise systems you may have, like an ERP system. Connect other sources of customer data, like your company’s social media platforms, for more valuable insights.
  • Create a process for data entry: Without a standard process, data entry can result in many iterations of the same piece of information. Guidelines around naming conventions, punctuation, abbreviations and numbers keep data clean. And due diligence—like searching for a name and any potential misspellings prior to data entry—keep your CRM system efficient.
  • Sync CRM to calendar and email: This saves time and prevents missed opportunities by syncing events, meetings and contacts and their applicable information.
  • Train employees to use the CRM: Train sales, customer service, help desk and other employees who might deal with a client or a client’s CRM account. Consider advanced training for a CRM administrator to get the full value of the system without forcing everyone to be an expert. Provide training regularly for new hires and existing users who need to brush up.
  • Take advantage of customer segmentation: Dividing your customer base into smaller groups with shared characteristics can help you analyze patterns and trends, better determine the lifetime value of a customer, increase sales and heighten engagement.
  • Define your KPIs: Identify KPIs to measure the ROI of your CRM efforts, like close rate, net-new revenue and upsell rate.

Focus on Customer Data and Analytics

To boost the remote customer experience, you’ll also need to compose a single view of your customer—their needs, views and more—from data and analytics, which will allow you to tailor communications that cut through the noise. This practice allows businesses to shape a holistic customer experience and thus gain the brand appreciation, revenue and engagement that comprise a competitive edge: In a survey from Harvard Business Review (HBR) Analytics Services, 58% of respondents said their companies have seen a significant increase in customer retention and loyalty resulting from customer analytics.

“The expectation of consumers today is [rooted in immediacy] and that their interactions will be personalized,” Jeff Jacobs, a partner at McKinsey, told HBR Analytic Services. “[Customer] analytics is absolutely core to enabling companies to deliver those kinds of experiences.”

It’s easy to point out the importance of customer analytics—and harder to actually implement them. These tactics can move your business toward embracing analytics for a more personalized and memorable customer experience:

Define a clear strategy and goal.

They should encompass your overall intent when incorporating customer analytics, as well as the granular steps to make that incorporation a reality. Ask yourself:

  • What is the customer problem that our business is trying to solve?
  • What is the goal associated with solving that problem? (For instance, are we trying to increase sales conversions, raise customer satisfaction or decrease churn?) How do we intend to solve it?
  • Which technology infrastructure and organizational change is required to get there?

Break down departmental barriers.

Customer experience and its associated information spans departments. Marketing, sales, customer service and operations need to work together to deliver a holistic customer experience—which is why an improved customer data and analytics initiative needs organization-wide buy-in.

Ditch outdated information systems.

Outdated systems were the top-cited obstacle to gleaning quality customer analytics in HBR Analytics Services’ survey. When systems aren’t built to deliver analytics, trying to build an IT stack on top of them is bound to fail. Instead, executives in the survey emphasized CRM, predictive analytics, social media monitoring and content management systems as the technologies/capabilities integral to their organizations’ ability to deliver tailored, targeted and timely customer interactions.

Act incrementally.

Dip a toe instead of cannonballing straight into the world of customer analytics. Select a few use cases for analytics application; define the business objectives for each; and prioritize them based on value and viability. Conduct one use case first, and once it’s delivering results, expand what you learned to adjacent areas. The same applies to capabilities: You may not have the perfect system set up from the get-go. Start with a mindset of continual learning, and layer in the new systems, data and functionality over time.

Align stakeholders.

When asked to assign responsibility for customer experience and customer technologies, 36% of HBR Analytics Services respondents named the CMO, and 25% named the CEO. When asked who was responsible for customer experience technology, 53% cited the CIO/CTO. Yet, only 29% said those two groups were well-aligned. There needs to be organization-wide commitment to client-focused efforts, specifically among these groups.

Understand your types of analytics.

Not all customer analytics are alike. There are four main types, each with their own purpose:

  • Descriptive: gives insight into past customer behavior
  • Diagnostic: helps define the “why” of customer behavior
  • Predictive: forecasts future customer behavior
  • Prescriptive: provides suggestions on how to influence or address customer behavior

When setting more granular goals for your use cases, understand which type of analytics will help you achieve them.

Go Digital, But Don’t Lose the Human Touch

As customers, we’ve all been there: The digital tools and assistance seem great—until you have an issue. The bots aren’t helping, let alone resolving the problem. And try as you might, you can’t find a way to contact a human being.

As paradoxical as it may seem, companies embracing the digital to facilitate remote relationships must maintain the human touch. Customers love the convenience of digital, but they want human connection too, particularly when they run into an issue.

Companies that add human touch to digital sales—by giving potential buyers the opportunity to chat with a human online or via phone, for example —outperform their peers, according to research by McKinsey. The firm found that these companies achieve five times more revenue and eight times more operating profit.

Further, consider that only 3% of U.S. consumers want their experiences to be “as automated as possible,” according to a 2018 survey from PwC.

customer experiences technology

Even amid technology advances, people will still be core to customer experiences, according to over half of respondents in a 2018 PwC survey.

To create that human-digital blend, identify areas of the customer journey map in which human interaction would add incremental value. The general rule of thumb: “High-effort is bad for digital; low-effort is good for digital.”

For example, if I send a package, I don’t want to talk to a customer service rep to get the tracking status, a relatively low-effort task. I want to use a digital tool. However, if my package hasn’t arrived by the delivery date, I want to speak with a human to get this sorted.

A McKinsey survey of B2B customers details parts of the customer journey that could benefit from human touch:

  • When customers were researching a new product or a service, two-thirds of those who tend to lean toward digital interactions wanted a human interaction.
  • As customers moved into the evaluation and active-consideration stages, digital tools that provided information, like a comparison tool or online configurator, were popular, especially when combined with a highly skilled salesforce.
  • After the purchase, amid discussions about renewal, cross-selling and upselling, 85% of those who usually lean toward human interaction said they preferred digital interactions.

customer journey human touch

B2B buyers prefer different modes of communication—between human and digital—at various stages of the buying process, according to McKinsey research.

Digital tools are valuable for providing assistance and information to customers. Just don’t cause your customers to yell “Let me speak to a human!” to the unlistening robot on the other end.

The Bottom Line

Want the competitive edge in the future of customer relationships? Then it’s time to prioritize digital excellence and dynamic customer insights.