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4 keys to bridging physical and digital customer experiences

In a post-pandemic world, marketers must have a deeper understanding of the customer’s relationship with technology to bridge the physical/digital divide.

In many ways, the COVID-19 pandemic has been the single greatest accelerator of customer experience transformation since the dawn of the internet.

Over the past year and a half, consumers have moved nearly every aspect of their lives to digital channels. They’ve learned how to substitute online behaviors for a broad range of physical transactions and in-person experiences—from work meetings to grocery shopping to alternative forms of physical activity, leisure and entertainment.

Even segments of the population that historically have lagged in moving these behaviors online were forced to do so as the pandemic shuttered businesses, stressed supply chains and isolated families. More than two-thirds of consumers say that technology will change the way they bank (70%) and shop (67%) for the better in the future, according to an Ipsos MORI study of 12,000 working-age adults conducted in collaboration with EY Consulting between July and September 2020.

As businesses analyze which of these behaviors are permanent and reset for a fully re-opened economy, one thing is clear: expectations for a pristine customer experience remain sky-high. After a year of sacrifice and social distancing, consumers are craving more in-person experiences but also expect that the handoff between digital and physical interactions will be seamless.

And with many more consumers now re-entering physical spaces—July marked the first voyages for cruises from a U.S. port in the past 15 months—there will be even more pressure on marketers to deliver on those expectations and help customers bridge the physical/digital divide.

Unfortunately, this is precisely where the customer experience typically breaks down. Marketers are losing too many customers in those crucial moments that matter. For example, consider when a shopper realizes she’s wasting time in a store looking for an out-of-stock item that was marked available on the website, or is kept on hold with a bank’s call center after unsuccessful attempts to verify a basic transaction. Some marketers are unable to provide any continuity with non-digital interaction methods. In these moments, friction mounts and brand opinion erodes.

Banks, cable companies and utility providers all pushed the majority of their communications online during the pandemic. They now must re-evaluate the end-to-end journey when a consumer either desires or is forced into an in-person or non-digital interaction. At scale, these kinds of gaps or failures can translate into hordes of dissatisfied customers and millions of dollars in lost revenue—an unacceptable risk, especially in light of the ever-widening gap between today’s winners and losers.

So why is this happening? At a macro level, part of the explanation is that some businesses had under-invested in digital capabilities and were caught on their back feet by the rapid acceleration of online relationship trends. Others may have invested heavily in digital marketing or e-commerce independently but failed to address the continuous end-to-end experience. This situation is exacerbated by a tendency to consider “digital” as an independent entity divorced from physical interactions.

Marketers’ typical span of control is marketing, and their job is considered done when a lead is generated or an e-commerce conversion is made. However, if done poorly, all those physical to digital handoffs downstream can destroy the very brand value that marketers have worked tirelessly to build.

To regroup, brands have to get back to the basics of tightly linking marketing with overall customer experience. That includes developing rich personas—not merely segments for targeting and remarketing but fully realized customer profiles—that consider technology use and maturity. Some of the questions to ask: Do customers all have the same access to technology? Are they equally comfortable or proficient with smartphones, apps, mobile payment, etc.? What happens when a customer has to—or wants to—jump from digital to physical and back again? The ability to act on these insights using personas is much more than checking the “we have personas” box.

Here are four keys to the process:

1. When developing personas, marketers should account for the entire customer base.

Often, a persona library can weigh too heavily toward digital natives or digital-only, overlooking those who lack access to technology, are uncomfortable doing everything online or via an app, or have language barriers that require other channels to complete tasks. The persona library should include all of those needs.


2. Extra careful attention should be paid to the handoffs from digital to physical, and vice versa.

Frequently, the digital journey is designed in isolation from the physical. And this includes post-sales usage, service and support journeys as well. While it is obvious that a great purchase experience that is broken when someone needs help can lead to retention issues, organizations often don’t think and execute against those end-to-end journeys.


3. Data-driven persona development should also balance art and science.

Personas are used to giving characteristics to individuals for the purpose of empathetic end-to-end journey development and measurement. They enable marketers to define intangible things about a customer (e.g., what they fear, what is going on in the home, etc.). Good execution of a strategy against well-defined personas should ultimately be measured by customer satisfaction (CSAT), net promoter score (NPS), customer lifetime value (CLV) or an equivalent happiness score.


4. A consistent persona library should be used across marketing, sales and service, and actively used to design all customer journeys and experiences.

Too often, each department has its own set of personas disconnected from the other parts of the organization. Or, it executes persona development as a one-time exercise, eventually puts those persona cards on the shelf and returns to business as usual.

Marketers (and the organization as a whole) should use personas as a lens to develop customer experience (CX), gauge whether or not a new experience is complete and account for the needs of a diverse customer set. This first step is important but only one piece of the puzzle. Marketers have known for years about the importance of synchronizing and orchestrating the customer experience across channels.

Still, given today’s rapidly changing conditions and impact on the consumer psyche, marketers must shore up their entire arsenals and commit to meeting the customer with appropriate resources and messages. It must happen consistently and effectively in each critical moment and at every step along the end-to-end journey.


This article was written by Chris Gianutsos from Ad Age and was legally licensed through the Industry Dive publisher network. Please direct all licensing questions to