Plugging in to customer experience

It wasn’t that long ago that Google Maps became the go to plug-in for business websites. The fact you could “find us” with a mere click of a button revolutionized the customer experience.

That initial offering seems like child’s play compared to the features that are available today. Those same maps not only provide locations and directions, they provide details on local eating establishments, links to local business operations, street views, directions by all modes of transport and time to destination – along with countless other tidbits of information – all for virtually no cost to the business or enterprise posting its site.

This level of service is indicative of the fact that consumer expectations have become exceedingly high when it comes to their online and mobile experiences. At the same time, businesses have more options available to them than ever before to deliver on that demand. The plethora of plug-ins making their way to market is making it both affordable and simple for businesses to ratchet up the customer experience with very little capital investment or drain on internal resources.

The impetus behind these offerings is a simple one: the more seamless the access to information and choices, the better it is for business. Whether a consumer wants to compare insurance rates, make travel plans, select delivery and/or payment options, check out reviews, or find complementary products or services, customers’ demand for a better online experience is driving organizations to find ways to keep them engaged; or at the very least, connect them directly to their website, whether that’s through a third party service like Trivago or Yellow Pages or under the direction of their own IT team.

According to a May 2016 Forrester report, Digital Experience Technology And Delivery Priorities, “across the board, organizations’ investments revolve around implementing personalization initiatives, solving people challenges, and assembling digital experience platforms.” Report authors added that personalized experiences have gone well beyond the nice-to-have stage: “The front-end experience is a critical priority for 2016.”

In a survey of 115 technology, marketing and business professionals with decision-making roles in customer-facing web and mobile experience delivery, the report found that:

  • 69 percent of firms surveyed prioritized user experience
  • 68 percent prioritized personalized experiences
  • 46 percent prioritized customer self-service

At the same time, businesses can be challenged in terms of resources, software and agility to make customer experience happen – shortcomings that have provided a rich field for innovation in plug-in options.

Canada Post capitalized on this three years back when it turned its technology expertise to the creation of back-end integration tools for e-commerce merchants that enhance the online experience on the checkout and logistics front, from auto refill and delivery tracking to multiple delivery options (e.g. home, pickup at nearest Canada Post location or retail store, etc.) and return labelling. With those integrated tools, retailers are able reduce costs and speed processes to get items to shoppers as quickly as possible, in the way they want them delivered.

The service permutations today encompass a wide scope, ranging from general essential services for all businesses (e.g. delivery calculators, currency conversion, way finding, etc.) to niche offerings targeted at specific consumers. Neste, a Helsinki-based producer of waste and residue-based renewable fuels, for example, has just published CleanTrail, an “eco plug-in” as they call it for existing apps that enables businesses to offer consumers a sustainable delivery option. Buyers can simply indicate their choice at checkout and the product will be delivered using renewable fuels.

Ziv Schierau, head of national accounts for Canada, OpenTable
Ziv Schierau, head of national accounts for Canada, OpenTable

OpenTable has been riding the wave of meeting consumers’ expectations through the evolution of its reservation and table management solution. It was founded in 1998 as a service that allowed consumers to make reservations online at a restaurant of their choosing. Since then, Ziv Schierau, head of national accounts for Canada, reported that more than 38,000 restaurants have “plugged into” the service globally.

“Back in the day, websites were very informational,” he explained. “Consumers went there to look at a menu and find a phone number to make a reservations. When we enabled them to make the reservation while looking at the menu, it changed the whole hospitality experience. We became an extension that allowed restaurants to provide greater convenience to diners so they didn’t have to go to multiple places to get one task done.”

The fact that OpenTable accounts for CD$59 billion in spend at partner restaurants and has seated one billion diners globally since its inception, speaks to consumer demand. “That continues to grow and balloon,” Schierau said. “More people want to be able to do things without speaking to someone at a time that’s convenient for them. In fact, 30 percent of online reservations we provide through our systems happen in the middle of the night.”

OpenTable has come a long, long way since 1998, he said. The first iteration was a server-based software system that required considerable maintenance and integration work. Once the service moved the cloud two-and-half years ago, the possibilities became limitless. The move changed everything from a product development standpoint, he said. “It was a fresh slate and chance to reinvent the process. We’ve been able to add new features that would have been much more difficult with the original solution. It adds a lot more power underneath the hood, and is much easier to support seamlessly.”

Since then, the pace of development has escalated considerably, with the company now introducing new features every six to eight weeks. “Providing convenience is enabling restaurants to be more nimble in how they run their business, and enabling customers to manage their dining experience, right down to selecting the type and location of the table they want. It’s all about removing friction for consumers.”

But OpenTable.com is hardly alone in getting to this point. Schierau said that since its own early efforts, there has been a noticeable increase in the pace of innovation in plug-in offerings for business websites of all types. “More and more people want to get plugged into using a service that is convenient and easier to use. The more this is demanded of business, the more others learn and it starts to snowball from there. We’ve seen it in the travel industry, postal and logistics, restaurants and so on.”

The real argument for the approach is that when it works, it’s a powerful conversion tool for businesses. “The more a consumer can transact on a website, the better it is for business,” he concluded.

 

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