Big companies are reinventing customer experience after the pandemic

One of the biggest challenges for companies during the coronavirus pandemic was a business basic: How to effectively reach customers at a time when many people were hunkered down at home. Out of that, the world became more digital—with more medical patients opting for virtual care and customers favoring digital purchases, for example.

Now, As business rebounds from loosened restrictions and rising vaccination rates, several CEOs say some of the trends that began out of necessity will long outlive the pandemic. 

 “We’re never going back to where we were,” Ronan Dunne, CEO of Verizon’s consumer group, said during a virtual session of Fortune’s CEO Perspectives Series on Wednesday. “There is an opportunity to be thoughtful about which elements of the last 12-18 months … we want to introduce [permanently].”

Companies across industries—from banking to cinemas to health care—all learned some tough lessons during the pandemic. Namely, they had to rethink how they do business and communicate with their customers at a time when they couldn’t physically see them as often or, in the case of movie theaters, have a product to offer them. 

Adam Aron, the CEO of AMC Entertainment, said his company went from making $450 million in monthly revenue to $1 million during the pandemic. In March, Aron furloughed his entire staff, himself included. The company ran through its cash reserves and five different times almost ran out of cash entirely. 

“We were ordered shut but when we were opened, we had no new movies coming out because the studios weren’t releasing new movie titles,” Aron said. “You just keep communicating with them … and you put in a whole series of consumer-friendly policies so that your customers think you’re bending over backwards to be fair and treat them well.”

In Verizon’s case, the company said it found a way to install Fios, its high-speed Internet service, without sending technicians to customer’s homes. The company created Fios installation kits in milk crates and left them at customers’ doors for self-installation.

“What’s happening now is more people feel competent to do a self-install or the self-upgrade than they did a year ago,” Dunne said. “People realize it’s actually pretty straightforward.”

Similarly, people are becoming more comfortable with mobile and online banking, according to Stephanie Cohen, global co-head of consumer and wealth management at Goldman Sachs. At the height of the pandemic, about two-thirds of new checking accounts at Goldman Sachs were set up online, up nearly 17% from pre-pandemic levels, Cohen said.

“We really believe the pandemic has sped up trends that were already happening,” she said.

In health care, providers have struggled to bring patients back to their facilities for acute care. Patients are still afraid they could contract the coronavirus at a doctor’s office or hospital, said Tomislav Mihaljevic, CEO of the Cleveland Clinic. As a result, more patients opted for virtual care, causing virtual visits to rise more than 70% at the height of the pandemic. With COVID cases dropping in the U.S., virtual visits have declined but are still nearly 20% higher than pre-pandemic levels.

“What have we learned is that certain patients have certain needs and a greater familiarity [with digital platforms],” Mihaljevic said. “It’s a convenience.”

Dunne said many of the trends that started in the pandemic have changed business forever. For Verizon, that won’t mean downsizing its retail stores (Dunne said he’s actually recruiting 1,000 more staffers for retail locations and extending the hours of operation). But it will mean reinventing the customer experience.

“What we’ve been focusing on are what are elements of the physical journey and elements of the digital capability and bringing them together,” Dunne said. “You [can] call it humanizing digital or phy-gital.”

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