Now, experience the next big thing.

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We all assume that the biggest business shifts occurring now are about digital platforms and remote working. However, another fundamental shift underpins these changes. And it’s not hidden: most enterprises are encountering it.

It is the dramatic shift in customer expectations as the consumer navigates the new abnormal. This, in turn, has brought the concept of customer experience into sharp focus. Long the domain of marketing strategy, it has now become critical to customer retention, revenue growth and business sustainability. However, appreciation of its importance has been growing rapidly in recent years.

As a result, it came as no surprise, 18 months ago, when enterprise resource planning (ERP) giant SAP paid $8-billion to acquire Qualtrics, a world leader in customer survey and feedback software. Qualtrics was about to go public at the time, following the IPO of smaller and less profitable rival SurveyMonkey.

During SAP’s annual SAPPHIRE conference, held online due to the COVID-19 pandemic, Qualtrics founder Ryan Smith told 150,000 virtual attendees in the keynote address that the company’s origins as an academic tool provided a perfect example of customer experience driving business growth. The tool was first offered to professors, it spread to their students through word of mouth, and the students took it into their work environments after they qualified.

Later, he told us in an exclusive interview: “We're a real-life story of what happens if you provide people with a great experience. They'll be your champion. And they'll take you distances you would never have dreamed of before. And that cuts both ways. If you provide a bad experience, they're not going to take you.”

Now, the company has come full circle as universities turn to its tools to monitor their own performance as students return to classes.

“You've got every school and university right now trying to figure out how to allow ten, twenty or thirty thousand people to come back on campus together. It's like an ongoing sporting event. How are they going to navigate it? If they don't, they're not going to be in business.”

The Qualtrics tools will allow the institutions not only to track student experience and feedback, but also to make intelligent decisions on the basis of data collected. And that is the key to the new era of customer experience, said Smith.

“I think it's the next big market. I think it's bigger than customer relations management (CRM). We're going to see SAP have two major categories they own outright. Number one is ERP, and the next is experience.

“All of the data is pointing in that direction. Everyone sees how big this is. COVID-19 just magnified that and sped everything up by two or three years. But that's where it was headed anyway.

“Now, you'll kind of be looking at the world now through the experience lens, if you hadn't already. You'll be like, ‘oh, that wasn't a great experience, I wish I could communicate with that brand’ or, ‘that was great, way to go, thumbs up’. Especially as things start moving more to on-demand and where things are delivered to your house. People are pressing buttons to get things done that used to take in-person visits, and these supply chains and processes need to work smoothly.”

The future of experience in the business world, he says, is already becoming visible, and the university use-case is an early pointer: “The biggest piece is brands realising that, with a  tool like Qualtrics, not only is there so much data there, but it can actually recommend what actions to take. It's almost cheating!”

Except that, in such cases, it is “cheating” to reduce the pain of the customer, rather than increase it. And that is the fundamental demand that customer experience will make on businesses during and beyond the pandemic.

 By Arthur Goldstuck

  • Arthur Goldstuck is founder of World Wide Worx and editor-in-chief of Gadget.co.za. Follow him on Twitter and Instagram on @art2gee
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