REX: how to have profitable business relationships in a world that needs to be at a distance

Thoughts, design principles and ideas on how to build a remote, all-digital, end-to-end engagement service between customers and organizations.

Vincenzo Epifani
May 18 · 8 min read
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The distance and the difficulty of managing relationships and trust is an eternal issue. The social distancing caused by the pandemic has put this problem back at the centre of the political, social and economic agenda. It is urgent to build trust in contexts where it is not possible to meet in person, and thus ensure that relations between people, between customers and businesses, between state and citizens do not break down.

Let us now neglect the social and political dimensions of social distancing and focus instead on the effects this has had on economic relations. It impacts all types of business relationships: bank managers who have difficulty in receiving customers in the agency; insurance agents who must have more in-depth and frequent relationships than the agency’s receptivity can allow; energy consultants who find themselves unable to sign a contract; sales forces that until now, especially in B2B environments, were based on a strong capacity for interpersonal relationships and a thorough and complete knowledge of the offer and now find themselves unable to manage the business as usual, mainly due to a lack of communication tools with customers. And the list could go on.

From one day to the next, it was no longer possible to rely on meetings between people and on the number of meanings and information that these moments convey.

For companies, it becomes crucial to be able to complete the digital transformation process quickly to ensure business continuity and value generation.

Remote Engagement eXperience

At Sketchin, we design the experiences of the future, so it was natural to think long and hard about this change to understand how to help companies cope with it. From our point of view, it is necessary to rethink the context and design rules that shape the customer experience. We have precipitated our ideas into a service framework that we have renamed REX, Remote Engagement eXperience.

When do we judge a digital service as good? An excellent full digital service satisfactorily manages the relationship at all times in the life cycle of the customer relationship, remotely and without the possibility of meeting another human being.

The tools and opportunities of the relationship must allow the parties to understand each other clearly, develop mutual empathy, offer all the necessary documentation.

The types of service are many, but we have decided to focus on a purchasing experience (buying a good or a financial product, concluding a supply contract of some kind, subscribing, etc.).

What are the critical areas of a purchasing path? Relationships, onboarding and sales, regulation. We dwelt on each of these to understand what characteristics they should have to compensate for the lack of physical presence and, at the same time, ensure active service.

Relationship

It is essential to ensure a satisfactory relationship throughout the digital life cycle of the service. The parties involved should understand each other clearly and unambiguously to build a relationship of trust.

Especially in the B2B area, sales processes are based — or perhaps we should say, were based — on the figure of accounts: perfect connoisseurs of the offer for the customers and secure in their relational expertise to the point of not even having a standardized product catalogue available. An ideal model when you can meet customers in person, drink coffee, build bonds of trust, maybe talking about common interests as well as professional ones (do you remember the movie The Big Kahuna?). A model that instead miserably collapses when the relationship is broken and trust must be based on other assumptions, especially when it comes to acquiring new customers.

A few years ago, we were faced with a similar case, when a company that produces and sells electricity wanted to create a full-digital service for a new business market segment. We had to plan how to sublimate the empathic touch represented by energy consultants: new customers are guided in the choice of the most suitable energy product for their needs through a service tool that makes the value of each product evident.

Onboarding and sales

The onboarding and sales phases represent critical moments in the digital service lifecycle because, on the one hand, they mark the beginning or continuation of the relationship with the customer and, on the other, they define the standard for the level of service and interaction that the customer should expect.

Sharing information and documents securely, easily and quickly is paramount. So is completing the onboarding process smoothly, with no downtime that is tolerated in a face-to-face, but not in a digital process that the medium — rightly or wrongly — invites us to consider as automatic.

Users should be able to sign a contract independently and quickly, complete the process and fill in the necessary documentation in a few steps and leave and resume the onboarding process at any time.

It is not a minor transformation. It’s not just a matter of switching from paper — which is still the norm in financial services or banking — but rethinking the whole process within the company and the tools needed to make it useful.

Regulation

Each sector must follow specific rules and laws for the sales stages, and companies must comply, even in the case of online processes. Some industries more than others: just think of the masses of rules to which banks, pharmaceutical companies, telco, personal services must be subject.

The regulations in force have already begun to take into account the case of remote processes. For Italian banks, for example, the principal regulations are provided for by the rules of the Bank of Italy on Adequate Verification (latest version issued on July 30, 2019) and the AGID (Italian Digital Agency) indications for the process of issuing the SPID certificate. For Italian insurance companies, however, IVASS Regulation 44 (April 2019) regulates the remote identification process.

In Switzerland, on the other hand, Finma (Swiss Financial Market Authority) has accurately described the “Video and online identification” in Circular 2016/7 and its update published in 2018.

Fulfilling these requirements is mandatory, but must not affect customer satisfaction.

These steps are not sequential, but deeply intertwined with each other, and must be dealt with simultaneously to ensure the quality of the service.

What, then, are the principles to be taken into account when designing such a service?

  • Ease of access — it is necessary to ensure that people can operate their devices without problems, performing all the necessary operations quickly and safely.
  • Immediacy — People are more patient with other people than with tools. So it is essential to give users the ability to perform every action — register or set up an account registration, request operations or purchase services-products — in minutes, without waiting, nor barriers, nor service flow interruptions.
  • Completeness of information — People must clearly understand what they are doing and buying, especially when they cannot ask a person for clarification. They must be enabled to go deeper by themselves, by offering them explicit material that can be consulted independently.
  • Independence — The customer must be in full control of their purchase path and must be able to change service preferences (e.g. pause, update or change conditions) independently and with ease.
  • Human assistance — A full-digital service does not mean that human beings are excluded from it. People become one of the touchpoints of the service: a team of consultants should be in place to respond in time — almost — real-time to the needs of users.
  • Service Integration — Opening up the system API to facilitate integration with third-party services to allow users to live the experience in a single stream, even when it involves a multiplicity of functions.
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Human, artificial, more than human

The REX system finds its reason-of-being in the distance between people and in the way to overcome it to offer a valuable experience throughout the journey that the company and its customers make together. Saying ‘remote’ is not the same as saying ‘without people’; instead, we need to think deeply about what role human beings can or should play, and what part should be assigned to digital technology, which increases the possibilities available to those involved.

These two components are both essential and often complementary.

Communication, dedicated and stable care, the ability to offer help should be as stable and reliable as in presence. Human beings only can establish this kind of empathy with people’s needs. Customers and suppliers must be able to identify themselves, respond to doubts, share information and documents in a fluid and reliable way.

Technology — Natural Language Processing algorithms, artificial intelligence systems, chatbots, etc. — can take the level of experience to a whole new level. Robots can help the user at different stages of the purchase process (from the first contact requests to the completion of the sales phase), offering continuous support, at any time of day or night.

Not only that, but robots can also scale on humans in specific cases (e.g. when they are unable to respond to the user’s request) and vice versa, humans can rely on robot support to complete time-consuming or repetitive tasks.

Thinking on how technology can enhance the capacity of humans arises questions on the value of time for those involved in a service. A remote experience framework can ensure that the entire duration of an ongoing relationship — explanations, questions, building a bond based on trust — is of value without downtime, waiting or delay. On the contrary, all the time needed for enabling operations — signatures, collection of documentation, analysis and evaluation of profiles — is carried out behind the scenes, thus preserving the unique quality of meetings between individuals.

Reflecting and designing full digital services is not contextual to the moment. It is a problem that was already well present in everyone’s agendas and that forced distancing has led to the very first places on the priority lists.

Since lockdown began, in its different forms and degrees of separation, we have intensified collaborations with companies that want to transform their sales services according to the framework described by REX.

The results we have been able to appreciate so far are positive. Similarly, the context, also driven by contingency, is continually evolving, and we understand with our customers the boundaries and opportunities to change the purchasing experience accordingly.

Maybe the post-social distancing world and the digital marketplace will not be entirely digital, and instead, we will settle on a hybrid physical and digital situation.

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I’m Vincenzo Epifani, Lead Strategy Director at Sketchin

If you are interested in learning more about REX and want to have a chat write to:

✉️ vincenzo.epifani@sketchin.com

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