The COVID-19 pandemic is undeniably changing the shape of the economies around the world, the nature of work and the expectations of consumers. How this will all unfold over the long term is still anyone's guess, but now that we are eight-plus months into the pandemic, we are beginning to get a better understanding of how enterprises and buyers are thinking about their short-to-medium term investments.
To help support this decision making, data on how consumers and businesses are evolving with the times. Which is why we note with interest some of the findings in Salesforce's fourth annual State of the Connected Customer research report, which surveyed over 15,000 consumers and business buyers across 27 countries on how customer expectations and behaviours are changing.
The top line takeaway from the report is that customer engagement is changing at an unprecedented rate, likely being driven by the crises we are experiencing in public health, the economy, socially and with leadership.
However, Salesforce notes that the rapid pivots towards digital engagement in light of the COVID-19 pandemic, which has forced reduced physical interactions, leaves companies with an unprecedented mandate to push forward with their technology investments.
Commenting on the findings, Vala Afshar, Chief Digital Evangelist at Salesforce, said:
Regardless of who they market, sell or provide services to, businesses are navigating a landscape they couldn't have imagined at the beginning of this year.
A massive shift to digital channels isn't the only challenge that leaders have to grapple with. They also need to listen and respond to customer demands for empathy and understanding, innovative products and services, and a fundamental rethinking of the role of businesses in society. Connecting customers' various touch points - digital, human or otherwise-to gain a holistic understanding is the first step on the path to resiliency and growth.
A shift to digital as status quo
The availability of digital tools, including e-commerce and online collaboration, has been a saviour for many during the pandemic. And the State of the Connected Customer report notes that there is evidence that COVID-19 has accelerated a long-term trend towards "truly digital-first lifestyles".
This is reflected in the findings, which highlight that 58% of consumers expect to do more online shopping after the pandemic than before, and that 80% of business buyers expect to do more business online after the pandemic than before.
Furthermore, if you compare the data from 2019 to 2020, customers are leaning into their digital experiences more and more. For example, the online:offline interactions split with companies in 2019 stood at 42%:58%. However, in 2020 this has shifted to 60%:40%, in favour of online. It is expected that this trend will continue through 2021.
As such, Salesforce believes there are fewer reasons not to be accelerating those planned digital projects. The report notes:
Companies have the mandate - and opportunity - to expedite any digital transformations that were planned or underway before the pandemic.
The changing nature of customer experience
Interestingly, Salesforce also found that whilst great customer experiences continue to be as important to buyers as the product or services they provide - what constitutes a ‘great experience' is being redefined.
Some of the findings are to be expected and are in line with Salesforce's own customer platform strategy. For instance, the data shows that 76% of customers expect consistent interactions across departments, and yet 54% feel like sales, service and marketing don't share information with each other. In other words, silos persist and the lack of data flows between departments is negatively impacting the experience of the customer.
In addition, the persistent requirement for social distancing and restrictions on public life has found that convenience is more of a priority than ever for customers. Nearly 7 in 10 customers are prioritising convenience over brand and 83% say that they have come to expect flexible shipping and fulfilment options.
The importance of trust and the impact on business
The State of the Connected Customer report has previously highlighted the importance of transparency between consumers and businesses - particularly in a world where more and more personal data is being collected, shared and used. It's too soon to tell how the use of contact tracing and personal data use during the pandemic will manifest in new use cases in the future, but 71% of customers do expect COVID-19 to shift how they think about their personal information.
It's worth noting too that only 27% of consumers completely understand how companies are using their personal information (which is a lot higher than I personally would have thought it to be).
However, there continues to be a disconnect between the expectations of trust between a consumer and a business, and the realities of how much trust they actually have. And the situation is getting worse.
For example, when asked if a company's trustworthiness matters more than a year ago, in 2019 73% of respondents agreed. This number has now risen to 82%, since the pandemic hit. However, 54% of consumers agreed in 2019 that it was difficult for a company to earn their trust - which has risen to 61% in 2020.
In other words, expectations are getting higher, but the ability to gain that trust with the consumer is worsening.
As a result, consumers across a wide variety of age groups expect businesses to not only transform their customer experiences from a technology and data standpoint, but also from a business-wide values point of view. The data suggests that 56% of customers have reevaluated the societal role of companies this year.
The report states:
The role of values in paths to purchase is not new, but as acute and long simmering crises are cast into the public discussion, customers are putting more stock in brand values when deciding whether or not to make a purchase.
In typical fashion, millennial and Gen Z customers are leading the calls for companies to improve their social, environmental and economic practices, but a striking share of all generations now consider these items as a draw to - or repellent from - brands.
The findings of this annual report are more timely than ever. There is a general sense amongst technology buyers and business leaders that their interactions with customers will change in the coming years as a result of the pandemic and there is an intense focus on not making missteps in figuring that out. It rings true that digital investments are being accelerated, as companies push to be at the forefront of these changes in behaviour. However, I think what's critical is that customers now have a huge amount of choice at their fingertips and it's not just the ease and convenience that digital enables that matters. With more choice, consumers will lean towards companies that they can trust and represent their social values. The technology investments need to be coupled with a recognition that many businesses' values will need to change - not an easy task.