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No going back to the 'Old Normal' after COVID? How the 'New Normal' experience shapes up is going to be complicated, according to Qualtrics

Stuart Lauchlan Profile picture for user slauchlan May 5, 2021
The new Roaring Twenties of the Vaccine Economy won't just see everything fall back into pre-COVID place, but nor will everything change. Managing shifting experiences will become a Holy Grail across industries if new research from the Qualtrics XM Institute is to be believed.


As the Vaccine Economy opens up, the so called ‘New Normal’ will theoretically begin to take shape. What that looks like remains to be seen. One of the most common comments from all directions over the past few months has been to the effect that there’s no going back, nothing will be the same again, everything you thought you knew you’ll have to re-learn etc etc.

But is that the case? For many people, the sign of a return to normality has been the ability to meet up with friends again. Or to have a pint of beer outside a pub. Or, as I rambled on about a few weeks back, being able to indulge in non-essential retail therapy.

On the other hand, it’s impossible to deny that the COVID crisis has forced many people to make significant behavioral changes, most notably around areas like contactless banking, remote working and e-commerce, particularly around grocery ordering and delivery. All of these have involved a societal shift to online transactional activity the world over - and to the surprise of a lot of sceptics, people have found that, leaving aside (if we can) the appalling drivers behind the move, they’ve actually rather liked this new way of doing things.

So what goes ‘back to normal’ and what is the ‘New Normal’ when it comes to consumer behavior as large sections of the world re-open for business? That’s what a major study by the Qualtrics XM Institute* sets out to explore, polling 18,000 people across 18 countries around the globe in an attempt to identify where the COVID change sticks and where it bounces back to the pre-pandemic order.

The Institute analyzed people’s relationship with organizations, focusing on three key areas - satisfaction, trust and advocacy. And the top line conclusion doesn’t come as much of a surprise given the nature of Qualtrics modus operandi of Experience Management. Bruce Temkin, XMP, CCXP Head of Qualtrics XM Institute, sums it up when he notes in the research foreword:

Whether it is online, in-person or on the phone, our research found a common thread central to business success during the pandemic - human experience.

Shift happens

Drilling down into the study results does throw up some interesting observations. Overall, more than 75% of consumers polled were more engaged in online activities in 2020, although the scale of this new interest varied from geography to geography. In India, for example, 97% of people took up a new online activity over past year, compared to 44% in Japan which was more digitally-connected prior to the outbreak.

As to what those new online experiences were, the answer there folds back onto what services helped to meet basic needs, such as banking, food shopping and video-calls for emotional connection and support, the latter of course resulting in Zoom being the company with the perhaps the biggest claim to having ‘had a good war’. Making online video calls for the first time had the highest global ranking (24%), followed by making purchases online (21%) and ordering meals from restaurants (19%).

That all ties in to what we’ve been seeing over the past year. Zoom and its ilk - other video-conferencing solutions are available! - have become a critical enabler for businesses to remain operational, but also for families and friends to remain emotionally accessible to one another. Zoom parties, Zoom quizzes and Zoom ‘virtual happy hours’ have been as much a part of life during COVID as the enforced adoption of virtual meeting etiquette in business circles.

Again, there are regional variations in play. While the shift to e-commerce in general has been pronounced all round the world, only eight percent of UK consumers were ‘virgin users’ as a result of a more mature market already existing. This might be seen particularly in the area of online grocery shopping which, as we’ve noted many times in the past, is far more a normal part of life in the UK and Europe than it is in the US. Or has been in the US, at any rate.

It’s telling to note that all of the highest ranking experiences that moved online have been essential activities, things that we couldn’t have coped without, so we just had to adapt to a new way of doing things. The restrictions on religious gatherings, for example, meant that 13% of people found themselves participating in online ceremonies. Given that funeral attendance was limited around the world, I’m only surprised it was that low.

Let’s get physical!

But religious activities are perfect examples of areas of life where people clearly can’t wait to get back to the old way of doing. The stubborn refusal of some of the most blinkered COVID denialists in parts of the US, who insisted their God would protect them and if they were infected (or infected others) it was down to His will, may have left left many of us raging on social media, but there’s no denying that being able to do basic things, like getting married in a church, attending a graveside or christening a baby, is high up on many people’s list of ‘back to normal’ benchmarks.

So what will stick online and what won’t? Going back to the grocery sector, another exemplar of ‘a good war had by most’ in the main - a few supply chain sticky moments aside - it’s clear that it’s a not a zero sum game going forward. The online shift happened and while many people will want to return to in-store, equally many will have been awakened to the convenience of online ordering and delivery.

That poses challenges for companies in the sector in terms of working out the balance of how they shape their operating model in the future. We saw last week that in the UK that Sainsbury’s expects that the amount of online shopping will reduce in coming quarters, but will still find a level that’s considerably higher than it was pre-pandemic, while in the US, the prep work being done at the likes of Albertsons or Kroger is indicative of the need to provide omni-channel options in the years ahead if you want to survive.

Grail quest

The Qualtrics XM Institute has its own views on what happens next, based on the findings from its research. Emerging economies will maintain a greater shift to digital, it predicts, citing stats such as respondents in Thailand particularly favouring online purchasing, online grocery shopping being a big deal in India and so on.

It sees the continued growth globally of online video streaming for entertainment. This conclusion, I have to say, sits firmly in the box labelled ‘you don’t say!’. Give the rise of the likes of HBO Max, Apple TV, and Disney+ to take on Netflix, this is clearly a no-brainer, the real question being which ones thrive and survive and how the traditional broadcast media responds to this online threat?

And finally, the data suggests that education will continue to be delivered online and offline, with, once again, emerging nations, such as India, Thailand, Brazil, Malaysia and Indonesia, the most likely to turn to online courses. Globally, 44% of respondents expect still to take part in offline education. This is hardly surprising as the human experience of being in a classroom with other kids is a critical part of the education process and an area of considerable concern in terms of the long-term impact of COVID-enforced home learning in isolation. As for higher education, well, there’s really no fun in a virtual beer bust, is there?

Overall, it’s clear that there will be an eager return to certain offline activities from the 'Old Normal’ as soon as possible. Lockdown saw a big uptick in home exercising, which was great news for the likes of Pelaton, but people want back into gyms and exercise classes. It’s another of the ‘lockdown is lifting’ milestones to be ticked off the list. Equally, few people will choose to take part in religious ceremonies online, particularly in Germany, the UK, Canada and France, where more than a third of respondents in each case said they wouldn’t engage virtually anymore.

And yes, we’re all heartily sick of Zoom calls. Video conferencing may be here to stay in large part within business, particularly around the sales function, as we’ve seen articulated by the likes of Salesforce, but when it comes to meeting up with your mates, we all just want a hug. Zoom and its contemporaries have been invaluable in sustaining emotional wellbeing throughout the past year, but it’s clear that for most people, it’s going to shift towards a ‘talking to relatives in Australia at Christmas’ level again.

But some things will have online longevity, such as personal banking, purchasing, watching movies and accessing customer service, The means that the elusive omni-channel balance that has been such a Holy Grail for the retail sector for so long, becomes an Arthurian quest spanning all industries.

Organizations will need to think 'omni-channel experience' when designing and delivering products and services and to anticipate that customer behavior will be, well, not necessarily easy to anticipate. Certain key functions and processes in some sectors will lend themselves more to online; some will not.

So, according to the Qualtrics research, if a consumer has a complaint about a bill, 11% of us will be happy to chat to a company rep via computer, 18% will be up for dealing with this via self-service  functions on a mobile device and 10% will do the same on a computer. But 39% still want to talk to a human being on a telephone, while a particularly stubborn 21% want to see the color of the service agent’s eyes face-to-face. So, more than half of us aren’t going down the digital route if we don't have to.

On the other hand, for something like booking an airline ticket, digital is the future, with only 14% each expecting to do this either on the phone or in person. But when it comes to buying a new TV, more than half of respondents (51%) want to see their proposed purchase in action in a physical store and talk to a salesperson in the flesh.

It's complicated, pay attention! 

The conclusion from all this, in the words of the Qualtrics study, is:

As consumers adjust to a post-pandemic environment, we can tell that they’ll be looking for something different. But there’s no way to tell exactly what they will want. In some cases, they’ll be looking for new products, in other cases they’ll be demanding better experiences. It will be different for every company in every industry across every country.

For example, while product quality is cited as the top criteria in 16 of 18 countries surveyed, Western economies, most notably Canada, the UK and the US, are more interested in lower prices. But universally, consumers want to buy from companies that treat them well and provide them with a good experience.

That means, according to Qualtrics, it’s more important than ever that organizations design experiences with consumer needs front and center. Now, frankly, they should have been doing that anyway - it surely didn’t take a global pandemic for businesses and service providers to get their heads around that basic idea, did it? - but it’s now going to be a basic necessity for survival in many cases.

With that in mind, Qualtrics has a few suggestions for a to do list:

  • Listen to the consumer.
  • Use behavioral targeting to tailor customer journeys.
  • Use AI for analytics so you can keep up with fickle consumers changing their minds.
  • Embed actions in the plan so there are insight-led actions in the organizational workflow.
  • Use journey-centric analysis to keep tabs on your consumers across all your channels.
  • Take a holistic view to analysis since no interaction takes place in a vacuum.

My take

'New Normal', be damned! If I never hear that phrase again, it will be too soon, but it’s become one of those terms that has crept into the vernacular over the past 12 months and is, for now, unavoidable, if ultimately meaningless. 

That gripe aside, the basic premise of this research caught my eye as I’ve long suspected that things aren’t going to be as simple as ‘getting back to normal’ or ‘this is normal now, we’re sticking with it’. That poses some interesting challenges for organizations across multiple sectors which will have to demonstrate the kind of agility that so many showed in the early weeks of the pandemic last year as they moved to keep the operational lights on, but make it now a core part of day-to-day life from here on in.

Those who manage that - and keep the customer experience at the heart of their thinking - will be the ones who thrive in the new Roaring Twenties of the Vaccine Economy. 


*The full Qualtrics report can be found here - Post-pandemic: How consumer behavior will continue to change. (Registration required). 

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