Buffeted by deteriorating economic conditions and ongoing pandemic disruptions, Australian retailers are realising the importance of delivering first-rate customer experiences.

This realisation comes at a time when consumer shopping habits are shifting. Online purchases are growing rapidly while bricks-and-mortar stores are feeling the pressure of reduced foot traffic in the wake of the virus.

Multi-channel interactions are also on the rise. A customer may select and purchase a product online and then opt to collect it from a store. Meanwhile others may peruse items in person before placing an order on their mobile device for home delivery.

Unfortunately, many customers find inconsistent experiences when using these different channels for making purchases and seeking after-sales support. Clunky websites can make it difficult to assess product ranges while some retailers choose to ignore queries directed to them via social media channels.

This is not to say that no progress has been made by financial services firms when it comes to delivering strong customer experiences. A recent survey conducted by research firm Ecosystm titled The Digital Mindset of Business Leaders in Asia Pacific found many retailers have recognised the changes occurring in the market and have begun meeting customer demand for better digital experiences.

Of the retailers surveyed, 44% nominated customer engagement as a key business goal during the next 12 months. Also, 36% pointed to bringing new products and services to market while 31% said innovation would be their primary focus.

Across all industry sectors, 36% of those surveyed nominated driving business growth as their top goal for the coming 12 months. This was followed by cost management (35%) and leveraging technology (33%).

Customer engagement channels

When it comes to the ways customers interact with retailers, the survey found there have been some noticeable changes during 2020 in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic. Websites have become an even more prominent channel for 84% of retailers surveyed, up from 74% in 2019. Next most important is social media, nominated by 64% and up from 53% last year.

Interestingly, in-person interactions, in outlets or customer centres have fallen sharply. It was nominated by just 27% of respondents, down from 57% in 2019.

These results emphasise the importance of a retailer’s website as a key communication channel. Those firms that continue to prosper in the months and years ahead will be the ones that invest in their online presence and make it as compelling as possible for customers to use.

Reaching digital maturity

Information gathered during the research also allowed direct comparison between surveyed firms of the stage they have reached in their journey to digital maturity. Sitecore’s Digital Experience Maturity Model was used to place each firm into one of five categories:

  1. Established where there is no personalisation of communication materials and only a limited number of digital channels are used

  2. Aligned in which content is created to target the needs of the main customer groupings but there is still no personalisation

  3. Optimised when customer experience management is seen as a high priority and there has been a shift from gut-level to data-driven decision making

  4. Nurtured where the customer base has been segmented for personalisation and a culture of experimentation is highly supported

  5. Individualised which is the optimal category where every customer interaction is personalised and automated.

Among Australian firms, just 1% achieved the category of ‘individualised’. This was followed by 22% in the ‘nurtured’ category, 44% in ‘optimised’, 29% in ‘aligned’ and 4% in ‘established’. This confirms that, even though progress has been made, there is still much work that needs to be done to improve digital customer experiences.

Australia’s results map well against those of the entire ASEAN region. Of the total survey group, 3% were in the individualised category followed by 22 in nurtured, 44% in optimised, 26% in aligned, and 6% in established.

Overall, there are encouraging signs that firms understand the need to improve their digital customer experiences and are making the investments required for this to become reality.

As Australia and the world slowly recovers from the heavy impact of the virus and returns to growth mode, those firms that make the most effort in this area will be best positioned to flourish.

Peter Belton is vice president of sales for Australia and New Zealand at Sitecore