Your customers have changed - are you changing with them?

Shawna Wolverton Profile picture for user Shawna Wolverton May 17, 2021 Audio mode
The world is trending toward something preferable to the past year. Zendesk’s Shawna Wolverton shares some guiding principles to help your organization navigate a reopening world.

Hand holding speech bubbles in communication on an internet chatting concept © Tero Vesalainen - Shutterstock
(© Tero Vesalainen - Shutterstock)

Spring is in full swing, and the world is showing signs of renewal. With every shot in every arm, that virus that we're all weary of talking about, that has taken so much from so many, has less of a chance to further devastate. And the prospect of, as the Atlantic says, a wonderful summer, grows brighter.

There is no going back now, only forward. Locally and collectively, businesses and communities have found ways to adapt to fluctuating restrictions. Over the past year, we've carefully studied all of it, in particular how businesses and customers have interacted. Regardless of your business size or industry, there are a few ideas that will be foundational to the road ahead.

The customer drives innovation

People know what they need and want, more than ever before. Necessity, the mother of invention, has led the charge. The customer that you previously knew as a VP in HR or a chief technology officer might also now be a kindergarten teacher or a home plumber. Or, more likely, both.

"There is a way in which this pandemic may be calling us to slow down and listen," says author Peter Bregman in the Harvard Business Review. His point is for individuals suffering from lack of human contact and the external validation of workplace camaraderie — and the advice is solid on an organizational level. As your customers' needs have changed, you as the business need to be listening and aligning what you offer and how you're available to their needs.

There are a few ways to get this information. You can speak to your customers directly via surveys — one-offs, designed to solicit their thoughts, and also CSAT surveys after an interaction with customer support. There should also be channels for agents, a critical front-line force, to send the feedback they hear when customers contact support. But chances are, you have a wealth of customer preferences available to you via data. Investigate what your customers are searching for in your knowledge base or help center. Those searches are invaluable clues to what you should be offering. In your data lies clues to your own company's particular path to innovation.

How we communicate has changed

Behaviours of communication have drastically shifted over the past year, with increases in asynchronous and video communication. We love video chat, we're exhausted from video chat, we can no longer live without video chat. How businesses use communication can and should change as well.

In our Customer Experience Trends Report 2021, we found a significant turn among customers to social messaging apps, and live chat for customer service. WhatsApp in particular has experienced a surge — a 124% increase in usage globally since late February 2020. This increase was the highest of any channel for contacting customer service in our findings.

It's no surprise that customers are favoring messaging apps and live channels. Given the cumulative effects of all the pressure and uncertainty, who among us has the energy to keep up with the back-and-forth of an email thread? The most adaptable companies are going where their customers are, adding new channels so they can better assist customers in real time. These organizations have seen a 29% increase in messaging adoption and a 13% increase in adoption of live channels like phone and chat.

You have to meet your customers where they are

You don't need to create the infrastructure and persuade your customer base to try it out. They're already on WhatsApp, or Messenger, and text. When the world was shut down and they were uncomfortable or unable to go inside a store, people realized anew or for the first time how powerful that chat popup can be on a website. Even now, for example, with the recent reopening of many shops and gyms in England ("It's like being out of prison," Kate Asani told the New York Times), customers will expect you to continue offering the channels they grew to prefer in the past year — to show up and meet them where they are.

It's not enough, either, to adopt new channels and coast. Chat is a different beast from phone support and text. Some customers appreciate text support because it's asynchronous but gives the feeling of an open line of communication. With chat, customers are more likely to expect real-time interaction — the pace of phone support without the voices. And, as they keep your brand listed in their contacts next to friends and family, they may expect the conversation to be just as continuous when they reach out with the next question two weeks later. Expectations around language, tone, and vocabulary can differ dramatically by channel. It's crucial to wholeheartedly immerse in the capacities and promise of each medium so that you can maximize the potential for rich customer experiences no matter where the interactions occur.

Empathy must infuse innovation

There are already books on how social media impacts hiring, CSR, CX, and how we experience the world overall. They are likely to keep coming. There's no hiding anymore. Everything your business does is under a spotlight at all times. The Edelman Trust Barometer 2021 says that "trust remains the most important currency in lasting relationships" between the institutions it studied — government, business, NGOs, and media — and their various stakeholders. Business emerged as the most trusted institution and the only one "seen as both ethical and competent." But it's complicated and high stakes — 86% of respondents said they expect CEOs to lead on societal issues — and the research also found CEO credibility at an all-time low in several countries, and that none of the leaders it tracked were trusted to do what's right. People are paying closer attention than ever before to how institutions move in the world, and anything done "behind closed doors" can be leaked to disastrous effect.

Particularly for millennials and digital natives, a company's product can at times be secondary to the less tangible aspects of an organization — its beliefs, how it cares for employees, how it responds to racial injustice, how it cares for employees who are struggling in this crisis — from taking on that teaching role or having to learn home-repair skills, or from mental health issues exacerbated by fear and solitude. One of Edelman's conclusions: 

Societal leaders must lead with facts and act with empathy. They must have the courage to provide straight talk, but also empathize with and address people's fears.

In recent headlines, Ellen DeGeneres, host of one of a wildly successful and long-running daytime TV show, has lost a million viewers after apologizing for reports of a toxic workplace. One expert in the New York Times article remarked that the backlash may have been particularly harsh because one of DeGeneres's trademark lines is 'Be Kind'. "You cannot have hypocrisy better defined than when you've chosen those two words to define yourself and everyone is seeing the opposite is true," said Stephen Galloway, the dean of Chapman University's Dodge College of film and media arts, in the New York Times.

Positive examples of action, by contrast, can be effective in building trust and loyalty. These are seen in companies that take the time to recognise and address the feedback of their own customers. One such example comes from LinkedIn, who took on board the feedback of its users by adding new titles such as 'stay-at-home mom' or 'caretaker' to job title options, helping its users to reflect the jobs they have beyond the paid labour force. One could argue that the change is long overdue — but it's by listening to their customers that LinkedIn made the change, and putting that at the centre of their ethos can set brands up for even faster innovation in the future.

There's been harsh criticism leveled at those known as ‘Covid preneurs'. But we are in a time of clear opportunity to be authentically better organizations that show up for the people who trust us with their data, their money, and their loyalty. The customers are watching.

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