Digital strategy: balance customer experience and efficiency

By Garry Hamilton, Chief Growth Officer at Equator
Save us from sterile digital, says Garry Hamilton, Chief Growth Officer at Equator – four factors that drive good digital transformation

Remember the adage, ‘people buy people’? To wander along the High Street today is to witness the slow but steady demise of the human touch as digital takes over the entire consumer experience.

It's not just happening in physical spaces, of course. Chatbots are replacing call centres, and self-service systems are increasing across the piece, from government channels to charity advice portals.

As a society, we're getting used to this full-on digital way of life. In fact, we asked for it. How often have you read brands' desire for ‘frictionless’ services to satisfy time-poor and digital-savvy sections of society?

There's no doubt that digital transformation adds efficiency for both brands and customers alike. Speedy, convenient service on a mass scale is becoming universal across verticals. Done well, it boosts margins and can save consumers time, money, and hassle.

But in the digitisation of everything, we must beware of pulling the rug from those elements of customer experience that make the heart beat a little faster, make the day happier, and strengthen the bond between brands and their buyers.

In other words, let's not forget the customer experience as we press on for the promise of an efficient, digitised future.

Are we ready for conversation-less coffee?

Let's take a simple example. Sam and Jessie use the same branch of the same coffee shop chain. Customers used to queue, place their orders, and give their names to the server. When drinks were ready, names would be called – sometimes incorrectly. This has now changed, and a new way of taking orders has been introduced: customers use an app to place and pay for their order, then wait to collect it.

This new system is the culmination of the company's relentless pursuit of optimisation and efficiency. It can process more orders with all staff members focused on producing drinks. The app removes human error from the order process and minimises wastage.

Sam loves it. They have their preferred drink saved in the favourites section of the app, have ordered, and paid as they walk in the door. After a few moments of waiting for their coffee to be prepared, Sam is back out the door.

Jessie is less keen. They miss the interaction with baristas. While it does mean more time chatting with friends, it's another unwelcome intrusion of technology into what a social event should be. Also, those deliberately shunning smartphones have no way of ordering or paying.

Loyalty is lost. When a new independent opens in the same area, Jessie goes there instead for catch-ups.

That scenario is fictional but not significantly removed from reality. Visit McDonald's, and you'll have the option to order at a digital screen. Starbucks, meanwhile, has tested a ticketing system rather than ‘names on a cup’.

All these examples highlight how fraught the introduction of digital technologies can be. The coffee chain wants to optimise its processes so it can serve more customers faster, with greater degrees of accuracy. It will argue that this demonstrates a hyper-focus on its customers and what they come for – fast refreshment – while controlling rising costs and resources.

On paper, the chain has done everything right: it has created a user-centric process while making everything more efficient. Yet, in doing so, it overlooks other, less tangible drivers for customers choosing its product over someone else's. And it has sacrificed the quality of the overall experience for a key audience segment.

Strike the right balance of efficiency and experience

It is this struggle between experience and efficiency that many are currently wrestling with as they seek to digitally transform their organisations. They know they must change. As McKinsey puts it, "better overall technology capabilities, talent, leadership and resources... are linked to better economic outcomes."

Despite this clear imperative, many organisations prioritise either efficiency or experience. It's a trap any businesses can fall into, whether a major food chain, healthcare or financial services provider, or retailer. Relatively few have been able to deliver both at the correct levels. But it is possible.

First, agree on what you're trying to achieve. This is where experience and efficiency come in. Are you trying to deliver a seamless user journey, a ruthlessly simple buying process, or a lean service organisation?

Looking at the three options above, it's theoretically possible to deliver all of them. In which case, a balance would be achieved between experience ­ the seamless user journey; and efficiency ­ simple buying process and lean service organisation. Ultimately, this will be dictated by an organisation's business model.

Four factors that drive good digital transformation

With that key question considered, you can turn to four things that will help your business find the right balance:

1. Process Activities and actions determine how tasks are completed within an organisation. Having a clear view of current processes shows businesses how technology could be used to fix broken processes, reduce process duplication, and speed up employees' time. It also provides the foundation for creating a good experience for customers. Most processes are designed and built to meet the needs of the systems a company deploys. If the organisation relies on legacy systems to run the business, so the processes themselves will be legacy oriented.

2. Data Companies realise the potential of accessing real-time insights they can understand. They can do this because the barriers to entry have come down. While data scientists remain critical, adopting usable analytics tools and intuitive user interfaces means that knowledge doesn't need to be at the degree level for employees to use data effectively. With that widespread use of and fast access to data comes decision-making that is less about gut instinct, bias, and experience, but instead based on demonstrable, scientific, and irrefutable evidence.

3. Technology Understanding what you have, what you need, and how your technology can work better for both your business and your customers to achieve your strategic goals is critical. More agile architecture helps companies realise significant efficiency gains and provides a foundation for driving experience innovation and creating new intellectual property. It empowers organisations to transform continually, thereby futureproofing the business against new disruptions and market changes.

4. People Many people remain wary of the term ‘digital transformation’. They think it means cutting jobs and improving employees' ability to do their roles. It also signifies change, something the vast majority aren't inherently comfortable with. So, the value needs to be sold to customers and employees. If teams are involved and allowed to develop the skills required to implement the change, the project's chances significantly increase.

The message to organisations is clear. As you transform, you ignore the needs of your customers and your people at your peril. To paraphrase, Kipling: if you can treat your efficiency and their experience the same, yours is the digital future and everything in it.

About Equator

In 1999 John McLeish, Jamie Jefferson and Garry Hamilton saw that digital would revolutionise the world; levelling the playing field for smaller brands and creating new business models.

Realising that few businesses were equipped to respond to this transformation, they left the security of successful careers to build a new type of agency for the digital age. 

Garry is responsible for Equator’s strategic direction, leading the agency’s growth, as well as its sector-specific offerings and proposition development.


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