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Customer Demands –> What Are They in 2020/2021?

Historically, customer demand was about products, services, and the ability to meet inventory. Business leaders turned to technology and customer data to understand their customer base, yield insights, and predict shopping behavior for product development and sales forecasts. Over the years, consumers focused on their experience with brands and the service received. This new type of consumer, the NOW Customer, expects much more from the brands they frequent: they want an on-demand experience that’s on par with what they’re experiencing at world-class brands like Amazon, Netflix, and Spotify.

The effects of COVID-19 have accelerated the demands of the NOW Customer, as many people have adjusted to the convenience of online shopping and on-demand services.

Before the COVID-19 pandemic, customers were primarily defined by in-person experiences that we share with family, friends, and strangers. Shopping included experiences with salespeople, trying on clothing, or testing products before making a purchase. Building relationships with prospects, especially for high price items, heavily relied on face-to-face meetings. The pandemic has transformed many aspects of life, including customer experience expectations and spending habits.

From humanized digital engagement and contactless service to demand for a new type of empathy-led support, 2021 promises opportunities and a new set of challenges. A company competing on product price is now facing a faster race to the bottom. Companies that support customers’ self-protective instincts while meeting them on their terms will continue to succeed.

Customer Demand 1: Meet Me Where I Am

2021 was met with the promises, opportunities, and challenges of what is being called “pandemic life.” Our social, outward-focused culture was radically transformed into one centered on the home. The COVID-19 pandemic and the various societal crises we experienced last year have changed the way we live. It’s changed how we engage each other, our willingness to try new things and change our behavior. We now desire needs more than wants. And more importantly, it’s changed what we expect and demand from brands.

The shifts in consumer behavior are significant. Many consumers are uncomfortable in public places and around people outside of the households. A recent Gartner study found 64% of consumers believe they are at risk of exposure to the virus in public places. 77% of consumers say that socializing the way they did pre-pandemic is no longer comfortable. This means companies need to be prepared to meet their customers where they are, which is at home.

Digital First Engagement

Pandemic life created an increased reliance on online shopping, telehealth options, and other digital services. With in-person services limited due to government-mandated restrictions and safety precautions, consumers were forced to use digital channels. Some businesses weren’t ready for this “tectonic shift” and needed to quickly invest in their website and social media platforms, increase their digital customer support abilities and embrace the NOW Customer.

eCommerce was already on the rise in 2020, and according to some estimates, the COVID-19 pandemic accelerated the transition of in-store shopping to digital shopping by roughly five years. 62% of U.S. consumers shop online more now than before the pandemic and research from Cap Gemini found that preference for digital shopping is on track to surpass in-store shopping soon. Some retailers were ready for the NOW Customer, while others struggled to humanize the digital experience for online customers.

Forrester predicts digital customer service interactions will increase by 40% in 2021. This means there is still a lot of work to be done because customers who buy online have different needs than customers who buy in-store. Since prospects can’t physically see and feel the products, they need an easy way to ask questions. Customer service agents need real-time visibility into orders and customer information data to quickly personalize responses to  inquiries. 

Omnichannel customer service and support with also be a requirement in 2021.And brands will need to master the art of pre-sale chat, the online equivalent of in-store greeters and salespeople. And NOW customers expect rapid and empathetic resolutions to challenges, regardless of how and where they share their needs. Therefore company resources need to be empowered to solve problems and provide solutions.

A Home First Lifestyle

Creating a great customer experience has never been more challenging or  important. Customers are empowered with more information, have higher expectations, and can access more options than ever. Companies need to invest in the right tools, set the right priorities, and build their teams to deliver experiences that meet and exceed customer expectations. Businesses must also innovate product offerings and buying channels to align with the new home first lifestyle.

Consumers have adopted digital tools to move through pandemic life. In 2021, we can expect to see significantly more customer experience investments applying human-centered design to enable safe and convenient digital experiences. We will see businesses incorporate more real-time, real place features into digital-first experiences to attract, engage, and retain consumers.

Customer Demand 2: Make Me Feel Safe

In 2021 there will be continued demand for trust, safety, and inclusion. When Forrester surveyed consumers about their attitudes toward companies’ ability to provide effective guidance through the pandemic, they found consumer trust to be very low. For example, only 13% said they trusted retailers. Yet, Americans have high expectations for the brands they choose when it comes to protecting customers from COVID-19. With a deeper understanding of how the virus spreads in public spaces like stores, restaurants, and airports, consumers will seek out businesses they trust for in-person experiences.

customer demands in 2020. 55% of consumers believe that their favorite online retailers can't handle volume of customer service inquiries during the holiday shopping season.

Companies need to clearly communicate customer safety procedures, expectations, and sacrifices to let customers know what to expect ahead of time. Be sure to let customers know there will still be requirements expected of them. For example, if they need to wear a mask, rules for maintaining social distancing, and if they need to consent to a temperature check, etc. Sacrifices made to ensure safety also need to be made clear. An example of this will be if certain face-to-face services are replaced with contactless solutions. Businesses should be transparent and honest about why some changes have been made. Customers are more likely to appreciate the measures to provide safety, be understanding, and remain loyal.

A Rise In Zero U.I.

Many companies offer services, such as curbside pickup, to meet customer demands for safety. But most still use POS systems that require physical contact, with buttons and signature pads. These technologies will be replaced as  business usage transitions toward contactless interfaces. Zero U.I. refers to interfaces that rely on voice, gesture, and proximity instead of touch. This contactless interface would also apply to publicly shared U.I. controls such as ATM screens, checkout PIN pads, elevator buttons, and more.

In 2021, companies will adopt touchless interfaces where they are already available—for example, facial recognition analysis with temperature screening for building entry and QR codes to access menus. It will most likely take longer for businesses to design touchless interfaces that serve their unique customer needs. The important thing is to be honest with customers because they know what a fully contactless experience looks like. And the self-service card payment that asks for a finger signature (even a quick swipe) at the end of the process is not a contactless solution.

Customer Demand 3: Lead With Empathy and Equality

Aside from the pandemic, the social justice movement of 2020 had a significant impact on customer values in the United States. According to Salesforce research, 71% of customers believe businesses that have shown more care and empathy this year have gained more loyalty during the time period. In addition, Gartner’s recent 2020 Consumer Values and Lifestyle Survey reported loyalty, which was a decade-long top consumer value, was displaced by equality. Equality – defined as “I strongly believe that all people should have equal opportunity and equal access in all areas of life” – is now the number one value with which consumers identify. This means in 2021, your brand is being evaluated on the human scale more than before. Customers are paying close attention to how you conduct your business.

A New Level Of Customer Experience

Last year U.S. unemployment broke records with pandemic related job losses. Millions of people found themselves struggling to  purchase food, pay bills, and secure resources to finance other necessities. Customer service became and will continue to be a lifeline for devastated consumers, who are emotional and anxious over pandemic uncertainties and dealing with unexpected hardships (financial or otherwise). 

The purpose of customer service evolved to meet customer demand for a new type of empathy led support. In 2021, customer service must continue to reduce the frustrations of, and advocate for, consumers struggling in pandemic life.

Many companies, especially those in financial services who have extended grace periods for payments, have already done a great job providing emotionally sensitive customer support. All companies need to follow suit and provide high-quality, empathy lead customer service in flexible ways that meet customers’ needs. Embrace this opportunity to deepen relationships with existing customers to build advocates, who will, in turn, attract new customers.

In 2021, companies should also prepare to engage in the cultural conversation in new ways. Customers demand equality, and they not only expect but value brand speech. Highlight aspects of your brand values that speak to social justice in communications. And prioritize ethical and purpose-driven business practices now, if they aren’t already because they are becoming more important for customers.

Closing

Pandemic life has been a global-scale intense experience, and it is not over yet. In theory, we can expect more change in customer demands and needs, a desire for faster solutions, accelerated product innovation, and unpredictable sales trends. 

In 2021 customer loyalty to brands that do right by them will be amplified. Going above and beyond to meet your customer where they are and provide them the safety they require will leave a lasting impression. And leading with empathy and equality can lead to memorable customer experience stories that will solidify life-long relationships with your customers.

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