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Why manufacturers need to create an end-to-end digital customer experience

Sep 20, 2021

Exceptional customer experiences don’t just happen. They are designed — and they are the new product that manufacturers need to start producing with as much fervor as the physical products and services they deliver today.

It’s no secret that customers prefer to do business with companies that make doing business easy. Increasingly, that means embracing an end-to-end digital customer experience in manufacturing — a trend the industry has been slow to adopt.

Why a digital customer experience is important

Consumers have been conditioned by Amazon and other online retailers to expect responsive, timely and transparent interactions. They want to browse, purchase, track and return items from a device of their choosing at a time that suits them. If they have to jump through hoops to find information or complete a transaction, they’ll take their business elsewhere. This is a cultural phenomenon that is not shifting back, and it clearly applies to users across all generations.

Those same expectations are shaping interactions in the manufacturing sector. If we can research, order, track and pay for everything from furniture to groceries online, the thinking goes, why can’t we expect the same from the manufacturing industry?

Yet many manufacturers are still operating in the “black box” model of engagement. That is, the customer places an order on one end of the transaction and accepts the order at the other end. Everything that happens in between is a mystery.

This level of engagement won’t be enough to maintain customer loyalty, much less grow volume and revenue, over the long term. As buyers become more discriminating, the pressure is on for manufacturers to adapt.

Shift from vendor to partner

Manufacturers of commodities are well aware that there are limited options for standing out in a crowd. They can compete based on price or quality, or even on faster turnaround or reliability. But a competitor can enter the market tomorrow promising the same, or even better.

Conversely, manufacturers that embrace the digital customer experience have an edge that is harder to replicate. Why? Because an end-to-end digital experience is the outcome of an integrated cross-departmental effort — an operational strategy that integrates people, process and technology — and it goes well beyond a website or an ecommerce portal (no matter how pleasing and user friendly those tools are).

By breaking down the walls of their black box and embracing a digital customer experience, manufacturers can make it easier for their customers to do business with them. In so doing, they can shift from being just another vendor to becoming a trusted partner — a status that is even more precious in the aftermath of the COVID-19 pandemic, which exposed the fragility of supply chains and the need for greater visibility. The basic ability to manage expectations and commitments to customers with greater certainty has been essential to the survival of many businesses.

Create a frictionless digital customer experience

So, we’ve established that turning the customer experience into a competitive differentiator requires more than surface improvements. Although your sales and operations may benefit from a new website or an updated enterprise resource planning (ERP) system, the tools alone will not create a better experience. The key is in the strategy, not just the capabilities.

Creating a truly frictionless digital experience starts with the customer. Before investing in new technology, manufacturers need to map the end-to-end experience from a customer’s point of view. This includes asking such questions as:

  • How do customers find you?
  • How do customers research your products?
  • How do they browse your inventory?
  • How do they ask questions?
  • How do they request a quote?
  • How do they make a purchase?
  • How do they track the status of their orders?
  • How do they manage returns?

Also, consider the role of data. Unifying information across the enterprise and leveraging that information to both serve and share across the supply chain opens new avenues to strengthen relationships. It also makes you more valuable to your various channels — from the traditional wholesale/distribution channel, to the direct sales approach through salespeople or online. You are no longer manufacturing a commodity; you are creating value.

Improve accuracy and visibility

Automation and industrial internet of things (IIoT) capabilities go hand-in-hand with creating a digital customer experience. Manufacturers that rely on manual processes will be increasingly hard-pressed to cater to customer demands for quality and accuracy, much less provide real-time information on orders.

Manual tasks are ripe for error, which naturally degrades the customer experience. Automating tasks on the shop floor, as well as in back-office functions, can improve accuracy and reduce costs across your operations. Likewise, connecting your assets and implementing such capabilities as automated data entry, barcode scanning and radio-frequency identification (RFID) allows for real-time data collection. This in turn will enable manufacturers to provide their customers with greater visibility into order status and tracking.

When considering technology investments, keep in mind that those tools can have broader positive impact beyond the customer experience. They can help your operation reduce time, waste and costs.  Aim for multiple benefits to make the business case more appealing.

Boost employee value

Designing for a digital experience does not necessarily mean reducing your head count. In fact, digital experience automation can free up staff to focus on higher value functions.

For example, employees can concentrate on more complex undertakings or business priorities, such as continuous improvement efforts, business improvement processes or customer engagement. Manufacturers may even find they can expand into new areas, such as taking on more customized work.

Another positive: They can expect to see a rise in engagement and retention as employees find more meaningful ways to contribute to the company. 

How Wipfli helps manufacturers

Embracing digital transformation and an end-to-end digital customer experience is no small task. Fortunately, this is not a journey you need to make on your own.

For more than 90 years, Wipfli has partnered with manufacturers of all sizes to harness innovation, improve efficiencies and unlock growth. From strategic planning to process improvement and technology integration, Wipfli can help you define your needs, prioritize your goals and mobilize your resources to create a digital customer experience that sets you apart.

Learn more about how Wipfli can help you innovate your digital customer experience and jumpstart your digital transformation.

Next up, we dive into how manufacturers can create a frictionless customer experience without losing the human touch. Don’t miss out on that and our other thought-provoking articles just for manufacturing leaders. Sign up using the form on the righthand side of this page to receive articles and our manufacturing newsletter directly in your inbox.

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Luis J. Murgas
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