How to satisfy the need for human touch in a suddenly touchless world

The trend toward touchless technology has been slowly gaining ground for about as long as anyone can remember. But there is little doubt COVID-19 is accelerating interest.

Indeed, an April Capgemini Research Institute study found 77 percent of consumers expected to increase their use of touchless technologies during the pandemic, and 62 percent indicated they would continue doing so even after it ends.

For marketers who were already heads-down trying to find ways to deliver superior customer experiences before this crisis began, this serves to underscore their mission.

“Savvy marketers understand the mandate to introduce touchless options into the experiences they serve up to customers has never been greater,” says Stephen Frieder, president of the Americas for Adobe. “That’s high priority for physical locations, obviously. But it must also extend across channels and weave in a variety of emerging technologies, such as voice, video and augmented reality (AR).”

Frieder notes marketers have to let go of the idea they can only drive experiences through events such as concerts or wine festivals. Virtual replacements will arise to present some opportunity. But he notes the days of investing in banners, parties, speaking gigs and differentiating on-site activations are gone, at least for now.

Moving towards touchless

The only way to go right now, Frieder says, is down a path of creating novel touchless approaches that clearly consider consumer hygiene concerns while still driving memorable digital experiences.

“This shift to more touchless experiences may be challenging, but it presents marketers with a unique opportunity to show customers you truly care about them,” he says. “That can be a long-term positive for everyone.”

David Mitchell, chief technology officer for VMLY&R, a major digital marketing firm, says companies successfully implementing touchless options into their marketing mixes by keeping one vital thing in mind: They start with customer needs and figure out the technological solution later.

“It’s not really about the apps or devices but about meeting people where they are at any given moment,” Mitchell says. “People are more physically distanced these days because of COVID-19, so marketers need to find ways to drive safe and meaningful connections with them. To do that, you have to deploy a variety of technologies, like chatbots, artificial intelligence, and machine learning to help automate that along the way.”

Having a voice

Patrick Gauthier, president and director of Amazon Pay, might be expected to tell you the best way to do that is through devices where you use a payment app on your smartphone to check out at stores. After all, a recent 451 Research survey finds one in six people made their first contactless transaction and nearly a third of consumers increased use of contactless payments during pandemic.

Amazon Pay has been a gamechanger for merchants.

But Gauthier notes that even though tap-to-pay options are important, it’s time for marketers to look beyond that. To focus on “connected experiences” driven by a sense other than touch – voice.

“When you listen to consumers, they do not focus on touchless payments but their entire brand journey. They’d like everything integrated between stores and online properties. And it’s our belief those experiences will not involve a smartphone or similar device. They will be voice-driven.”

Gauthier says we are already seeing examples of voice technology enabling more connected experiences. For instance, he notes people spend an average of 52 minutes each day in their cars. Car cabins, therefore, are becoming more entertainment oriented. And stereo systems are beginning to add connected Internet of Things (IoT) features that help people find and even purchase items before or possibly without ever stepping into a retail establishment.

Along those lines, Amazon, Exxon, and Fiserve recently announced “Alexa pay for gas.” The program, available at more than 11,500 Exxon and Mobile stations in the United States, lets motorists with Alexa-enabled vehicles, Echo Auto, and other Alexa mobile devices say, “Alexa, pay for gas” while driving up to the pump. After filling up, their transaction is automatically, easily, and touchless-ly processed through their Amazon Pay accounts.

“We’ve made it completely natural,” says Gauthier. “It isn’t just about paying but about creating an encounter at the pump on the customer’s own terms. We were really thinking about how to make those 52 minutes people spend in their cars more useful with a more connected experience.”

Banking on mobile technology

Like Amazon, Citi is a firm believer in creating end-to-end touchless touchpoints. Mike Naggar, chief digital officer for the U.S. consumer bank, has been leading its digital transformation efforts for more than two years now. In recent months, though, he’s started to see a considerable uptick in consumer use of touchless mobile banking and chatbot support options.

“With significant portions of the U.S. population having been under stay-at-home orders or choosing to self-quarantine, customers have turned to digital banking to easily manage their finances on an unprecedented scale,” says Naggar. “Since COVID-19 started to impact the U.S. earlier this year, we have seen a 30 percent increase in digital banking logins. We’ve also seen significant adoption of particular features such as mobile checking deposits with usage increasing by over 50 percent during the pandemic.”

While many customers were already familiar with mobile banking, Naggar says interest in touchless options has attracted many who weren’t as comfortable with the newer technology. For them, Citi provided a series of popular educational campaigns and videos designed to get people up-to-speed.

“Our mobile check deposit video garnered 20,000 views on the first day it was deployed,” he says. “So certainly there is an appetite for educational digital content, and we’ll continue to infuse this content within our marketing materials.”

Chatbots for 24/7 answers

Research shows that 57 percent of businesses also see value in chatbot technology, believing it delivers strong return on investment (ROI) with minimal effort and much faster complaint resolution.

“We actually have a lot of activations that begin with a chat experience,” VMLY&R’s Mitchell. “It can help take some of the drudgery out of interactions, like getting account numbers or setting up payment systems in an otherwise creative engagement. That’s a wonderful place for a robot to lend value and assistance.”

Adobe’s Frieder backs that point.

“We often think of chatbots as those somewhat annoying little pop-ups that serve little purpose – until we need them,” he says. “The truth is they serve a vital function, especially during this pandemic when people are sheltering in place. They allow organizations to offload many basic and menial tasks in order to focus on more revenue-generating activities. And they can also act as a starting point for customers to discover and possibly take advantage of other services they didn’t know about.”

Citi is one company using chatbot technologies for both of those purposes.

Since it introduced the Citibot last year, usage has steadily increased. However it rapidly accelerated during the pandemic, Naggar says. Today, Citi is handling more than 325,000 conversations through its bot each month.

“And while we’re focused on continually expanding messaging capabilities across channels and adding new features that enable our customers to bank in the palm of their hands, we can’t lose sight of the importance of the human touch,” Naggar says. “That’s why, for more complex inquiries that fall outside the realm of topics that the bot can respond to, the customer is seamlessly transferred to an agent who is able to view the entire conversation with the bot and continue to service the customer.”

Meeting customers where they are

Even prior to COVID-19, the trend to buy online/pay in store (BOPIS) was already well underway. For example, during Cyber Week 2019, retailers that offered consumers the choice to buy online, pick up in-store (BOPIS) were the stars of the show. According to Adobe’s real-time “2019 Holiday Online Shopping Trends” report, BOPIS usage for the key five-day period grew 47.8 percent year over year (YoY). And consumers were 20 percent more likely to convert with retailers that offered BOPIS vs. those that didn’t.

For COVID-19 some retailers took BOPIS one step further, offering curbside pickup. Case in point: Tractor Supply, Panera Bread and Petco, which both rolled out curbside pick-up options within weeks – something that would typically take a retailer years to do.

“It literally would have taken years to do that, if not for this crisis, Frieder said. “But now they’re going all in on digital and leveraging the connectivity of their mobile apps along with analytics and personalization technology to really understand consumer behavior as part of those curbside pickup programs.”

Keeping distance while staying customer-centric

Steven Fournier, vice president of omnichannel marketing for Discount Tire, says his company is taking the BOPIS model to the next level. Before COVID-19, he says up to 80 percent of customers were already going to its website to advise their purchases before coming into a store to pay. But the pandemic caused Discount Tire to look for new ways to service customers without requiring them to spend much time, if any, in the physical stores themselves.

“We already had a pretty good appointment system where customers could go in, book a time for an installation, and be in and out of the store fairly quickly,” he says. “But knowing customers wanted to spend even less time indoors, we added a few things.”

Addressing customer desires to limit physical interactions, Discount Tire started allowing customers to wait in their cars while their tires were mounted.

“We did the work so they wouldn’t have to be near anything that might have been touched,” Fournier says.

The stores also installed dual monitors at each register so when a clerk was looking at a particular set of tires from behind a plexiglass partition, the customer was seeing the same thing on their side of the barrier. Finally, the company began allowing customers to check in, reserve a place in line, and go wherever they please until a text alert signals them to return.

“The marketers that succeed with these programs do it by putting customers at the center of them and utilize data and analytics technologies to provide more targeted, personalized, and touchless experiences,” Adobe’s Frieder says.