8 min read
May 21, 2021
Customer experience

Online Vs. In-Person Customer Experiences: Which Should Your Business Focus On?

If you adopted new strategies in 2020 and are wondering which customer experiences are most important to keep around, look no further.

Collin CoueySenior Content Writer

Nearly every business had to pivot to a digital experience in order to survive during the pandemic. Whether that was moving classes online to facilitate online learning, adopting a buy online and pickup in store policy (BOPIS), or offering virtual fitness classes, businesses that adapted using software such as eCommerce tools, video conferencing systems, or customer relationship management (CRM) software were more likely to keep existing customers.

You might be wondering how to transition back toward in-person customer experiences now that face-to-face interactions are slowly returning because of increased vaccine rollout. 

Whether you’re a small retailer that hasn’t reopened your brick-and-mortar location, one that has partially reopened but with limited capacity, or you're wondering if you should resign your lease in order to keep a physical location at all, you should consider all of the advantages and disadvantages of online versus in-person customer experiences and how they can bring revenue streams to your business. 

Do you keep some of those online experiences that you adopted? Do your customers even want those experiences any more? You don’t want to risk losing customers who have begun to rely on your online customer experiences. 

We’ll guide you through some of the common ways small businesses have pivoted to prioritizing customer experiences. We’ll also talk about the advantages and disadvantages of the common types of online customer experiences to help you decide which are worth keeping and which might be OK to let go.

Businesses took advantage of software to provide meaningful online experiences

In our recent Small Business Comeback survey, we found that an astonishing 84% of small and midsize businesses (SMBs) adopted new software in 2020. It’s not surprising considering the circumstances—nearly all of the businesses surveyed moved most customer interactions online as well. (See the survey methodology at the end of this piece.)

Most SMBs moved customer interactions to virtual or remote in 2020 graph

Businesses were forced to get online quickly, which isn’t exactly ideal considering that choosing software can be a time consuming process. Businesses used eCommerce tools, online payment portals, supply chain management software, video conferencing systems, and customer relationship management (CRM) software to quickly pivot to adopting online customer experiences.

Switching to an online customer experience strategy quickly was a key factor to the success of many businesses in 2020, and software helped them accomplish that by increasing customer loyalty and helping temper customer expectations.

Don’t go straight back to only offering in-person experiences

If done correctly, an online customer experience can be even more rewarding for customers than in-person. We know that sounds blasphemous since in-person customer service is often considered the gold standard, but consumers have grown accustomed to finding what they need online, purchasing it, and either having it shipped or going to pick it up curbside or in the store.

Once in-person customer experiences start happening more frequently, you might be tempted to cut out your curbside program. After all, you’re probably worried that those online orders are cannibalizing some of your profits since your customers aren’t making as many impromptu purchases while they’re shopping in-person. 

We’d caution against cutting it out cold turkey, though, because many consumers have grown accustomed to the convenience and immediacy of this method and might be even less likely to return if you remove that option. There’s also the group of consumers who are still nervous about returning to in-person experiences.

How to determine whether to increase or decrease your online customer experiences

Take the time to understand how these online experiences improve your revenue and increase customer satisfaction. If you’re offering BOPIS or other online customer experiences, analyze your customers' shopping and spending habits by looking at customer data. 

Ask yourself a few key questions:

  • Are your customers using the service or continuing to shop as before?

  • If they are using the BOPIS service or online customer experience, have they reduced their use of other existing services?

  • How has their weekly or monthly total spend changed? Are the new experiences making them spend more in total or just spreading their historical spend value across more services? (This will help you identify any increase or decrease in spend as a result of offering online customer experience.)

You should also try to identify any new shoppers. These new customers can be considered a genuine net increase in profit because the BOPIS or online customer experience brought them into your business. 

If you’re finding that some of those online experiences are starting to wane now that things are opening up more and your analysis reflects that, you might consider scaling back some. 

This analysis will help you hone in on which parts of your business are most important to keep online versus which aren’t as successful so that you can transition to a more hybrid model.

Keep what’s successful and what customers have grown to expect, and transition back to in-person for those experiences that weren’t as successful.

When in doubt, poll your customers

We can offer as much general advice as possible here, and, while it’s backed up by statistics and data, it doesn't directly reflect your individual needs as a business owner. When it comes to customer experience, there’s only one source that is absolute for your business: Your customers. 

Want to increase customer engagement? Gather customer feedback directly. That’s why it has always and will always be important to go directly to your customers when making decisions about your business. 

If you’re not sure about which services are most popular online, and you don’t feel confident in your ability to run an analysis, you should work to get as much survey data about your customers as possible.

Using customer survey software is a great way to get a pulse of what your customers expect and want from your business and is something you should be doing periodically, pandemic or not. 

Additional resources

Check out "How To Write the Most Useful Customer Satisfaction Survey Questions" if you don’t know where to start when it comes to collecting customer feedback.

Once you have that customer data, check out "How To Measure Customer Satisfaction" so that you can get the most out of the data.

Re-evaluate your existing software stack

With the coming increase of in-person sales, it might be time to re-evaluate your software stack to make sure it can support that increase. If you aren’t confident it can, you can read more about diversifying the offline and online channels customer can find and buy your products:

Survey methodology

The GetApp Small Business Comeback Survey was conducted in January 2021. We surveyed 527 small-business “leaders,” defined as full-time business owners, leaders, or entrepreneurs in small-to-midsize companies in the U.S. with up to 500 employees.

We used screening questions to narrow our respondents into those with relevant experience and expertise, and we worded the questions to ensure that each respondent fully understood the meaning and the topic at hand.

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