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Business has been digitally accelerated by pandemic leading consumers to demand better contact and engagement

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The coronavirus pandemic has accelerated the digitisation of UK business by more than five years in 10 months – and that is pushing consumers to demand even more ways to contact and connect with businesses and brands.

According to research into consumer engagement in the Covid-19 era by cloud comms platform Twilio, the pandemic has changed the communications preferences of almost half (48%) of respondents in some way.

As part of the research, consumers ranked industry sectors on their ability to handle queries during the pandemic, with healthcare (27%), delivery (18%) and retail (16%) rated best, while telecoms (5%), travel (3%) and insurance (3%) trail behind. The top reason (34%) for ranking a sector best was the ability for a business to respond quickly and resolve the query at hand.

Across the board, COVID-19 has sped up the digital transformation efforts of UK businesses, by an average of 5.3 years, with many transitioning to remote contact centres in order to enable teams to work from home and socially distance. As a result, many businesses are still able to effectively serve their customers despite the pandemic, but the research shows that digital acceleration must continue.

Consumers want more ways to make contact

Only 20% of respondents said businesses in the sector they considered the best at handling their queries offered their preferred communications channel. Moreover, when asked how customer service could improve on the back of the COVID-19 pandemic, 34% said having more ways to make contact.

In line with this, research from McKinsey shows that 75% of consumers who used digital channels for the first time in the pandemic, plan to continue to use them as we revert to ‘normal’.

“Many businesses that embraced digital acceleration in the first phase of the pandemic invested in digital communications to stay in contact with their customers,” said David Parry-Jones, vice president, EMEA, Twilio. “However, they must not think that their work is done. As the world keeps adapting, consumers want to use the communications methods they are most comfortable and familiar with. Good engagement comes from having an appropriate mix of channels in place to cater to customer preferences. The demand to engage digitally, using a range of channels, is here to stay.”

Yet while a quarter (25%) of individuals are seeking more digital channels in light of the pandemic, 27% would prefer less automated communication. While this highlights the importance of human interaction in business communication, it also indicates that consumers do not yet see the benefits of automation to deliver instant access to address their needs. Businesses must strike the right balance and consider how automation can be used to expedite simple tasks and deploy human skills where abilities such as empathy are required.

Eliminating silos and creating conversational experiences

While communications options have increased during the pandemic, diversifying channels is only the first step for businesses when it comes to creating an engaging experience. Just 11% of consumers feel they can pick up a query at any time, through any method of communication (whether by email, SMS or phone), and even fewer, (10%) feel able to do so without having to re-explain their query each time they make contact with a business.

“The next big opportunity for businesses wanting to create engaging experiences will come from breaking down communication silos,” Parry-Jones said. “Consumers want to be able to pick up a prior query on the channel they prefer, without the friction of having to re-explain themselves each time. Eliminating these silos of customer data in each channel enables businesses to deliver personalised and effective interactions and provide a better experience to their customers.”

Investment in customer engagement must benefit all

Almost half of consumers (48%) saw a change in business communication over the course of the pandemic so far. However, opinion was divided on the benefits of these changes by generation, with 46% of 18-24 year olds feeling businesses had communicated more effectively, while 27% of 65-74 year olds said businesses had been less effective. On average, consumers aged 55 and above feel that more human interaction options (including phone) is the most important factor when contacting businesses.

The findings reinforce the importance for businesses to understand their customers and their communications preferences to determine how best to engage them. As organisations continue to invest in digital channels, they must also assess how automation can be used without impeding the customer experience. Only by listening to customers and developing the right suite of communication channels will businesses be able to address the varying expectations of customers and drive meaningful engagement.

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