People have to get comfortable to join the online journey. Image: Supplied

The pandemic and lockdown changed how people engage with a vast number of services online. Good businesses will need to help their customers and change with them, writes Antony Welton in this partner content with Vodafone NZ

We live in a world where we are increasingly comfortable ordering products or services from our smartphone. Whether it’s ordering a pizza, a flight, grocery shopping, a restaurant booking, or more, digital service is fast becoming the easiest way to get things done.

The next wave of digital service is breaking in the area of customer care. Digital customer care has long been espoused by futurists and consultants including McKinsey, who as early as 2014 were predicting an increase in “customer service via web-based user accounts, social networks, mobile phone, and the Internet” due to customer demand for such services.

While New Zealand companies and government agencies have been embracing these tools for many years, Covid-19 has vastly accelerated the pace of change, bringing forward years of digital adoption across the country. While there will always remain a need for some skilled experts to help solve complex problems, the transition to digital-first and self-service tools across all industries is now happening at pace.

Adoption follows a pattern. It wasn’t that long ago that self-service check-in counters at the airport and check-outs at the supermarket were a novelty. Yet today, digital self-service check-in counters are ubiquitous at modern airports, online shopping is the norm, we use self-service checkouts at supermarkets and we file our tax returns digitally.

Online banking is by far the dominant way we manage our money – and even three years ago  the Internet Trends in New Zealand 2007-2015 report from AUT’s Institute of Culture, Discourse and Communication found online banking had reached 88 per cent of users (having grown from 72 per cent in 2007), with 29 per cent of Kiwis using their bank’s online services every day.

Digital tools have proven to be faster, more convenient and more readily available than the traditional, office-hours model of waiting in line to speak to someone – whether that was in-person or on the phone. It puts power in the hands of the customers, who can get a service when they want it, how they want it. While offering benefits to the majority of customers, digital tools also enable cost savings for savvy businesses.

But therein lies the rub: while the vast majority of New Zealanders might like a greater selection of online options, in this early part of the adoption curve there is still a relatively significant percentage of people who are either unable or unwilling to access digital self-service tools. They either don’t have the physical tools to access the internet, or the ability to know how to navigate the online world. Just like many used to prefer to queue for a human check-out operator at the supermarket.

It’s a challenge we’re facing at Vodafone New Zealand, as we embrace the new digital world. For us as a business to grow and evolve, we need to embrace online service models – and help our customers get comfortable on the digital journey with us.

Covid-19 presented a unique opportunity in this regard. During lockdown, shops were closed and our people were unable to go to our physical call centres. We had no choice but to re-route customers to predominantly digital self-service methods.

Most customers got on-board quickly. We saw the use of our chatbot TOBi increase by a whopping 550 percent – and the live online chat option on our website experienced a four-fold increase in traffic compared with pre-lockdown levels. Social media inquiries flooded in and we needed to build bots to process the thousands of private messages we were receiving each day.

These tools all require human intervention to a degree, and skilled personnel who can train the robot via digital code – or physically respond to online inquiries. This will mean the roles required within a business like ours will continue to evolve over time. The deep product knowledge will remain, but the methods in which this knowledge is shared will alter.

Again, alert Level 4 lockdown provided us an opportunity to test the long-held theory that digital service will develop. With our 67 retail stores closed, we had 370 team members unable to work – unless we pivoted. All retail staff were offered the chance to be redeployed to a digital service channel – be it online chat, social media support or online customer care roles. More than 95 percent of retail staff took the opportunity to be reassigned, and were equipped with remote working tools to do their new roles from home. Those who were willing and able to adjust, thrived.

The new digital world is about adaption and resilience. It means future-proofing our businesses and taking employees on the journey as we – and other companies – inevitably shift to using even more technology and smart automation. With each decade, we see digital options expand – most far beyond the realms of possibility just a few short years ago.

Early signs post-lockdown are this customer adoption will continue, but we also need encouragement. Human behaviour shows that people often stick with old habits. The trick is how to help people create new habitual ways of accessing digital tools in a way that is simpler for them and gets the job done to their satisfaction – hopefully quicker and easier. This is something we’re committed to achieving, and helping our enterprise customers achieve, as Aotearoa strives to become an even more technology-driven and connected society.

As Heraclitus, a Greek philosopher, said circa 500BC, “change is the only constant in life”. As we look towards a brave new digital world, we’ll continue to embrace change and help our customers to come with us on the journey – learning new skills, and adapting to new tools – and allowing us to provide even better and more intuitive digital services when they trust us with their data.

Because the rewards for doing so have the potential to offer compelling consumer-centric value, as well as business success. Or, as two senior Deloitte executives recently highlighted in the Harvard Business Review, “the companies that figure this out will most likely be the ones that thrive in increasingly demanding markets.”

Vodafone NZ is a foundation supporter of

Antony Welton is customer operations director at Vodafone NZ

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