empty grocery store shelves
PHOTO: Mick Haupt

COVID-19 has amplified customer expectations for safety and convenience, according to a new report from Forrester Research. That finding should come as no surprise, but businesses are doing a mixed job on delivering.

The report, The New, Unstable Normal: How COVID-19 Will Change Business And Technology Forever, said consumer risk avoidance and desire for convenience will coexist over the short term. More than half of US and Italian consumers Forrester surveyed said they plan to avoid crowds for the next 24 months, but 48% of Italians and 40% of US respondents expected to return to stores and resume normal shopping as soon as possible.

Much of the move to convenience will be through an increased reliance on digital solutions. Six-in-10 metropolitan Chinese online adults said they are buying more things online now, while more than 35% of US and UK online adults say they would rather purchase in stores now because they find shopping online during the pandemic frustrating.

The demand for efficiency will continue as the pandemic starts to wane, according to Forrester.

Experience choice will become the new luxury status symbol over the long term, according to Forrester. As companies hedge against new outbreaks by limiting gatherings, branded experiences in physical spaces will be available only to consumers who can foot the bill for enhanced safety measures.

Related Article: What Does Great Customer Experience Look Like Today? Giving Customers Peace of Mind

The Connection Between Trust, Safety and Customer Experience

Safety and convenience may seem like unrelated standards for business, but they’re actually intertwined, said Ali Cudby, CEO of Your Iconic Brand and adjunct professor of entrepreneurship at Purdue University.

“The notion of ‘safety’ is greater than physical or even purchase safety. It extends to trust in your organization,” Cudby added. “When customers trust you, they’ll feel safe doing business with you. Similarly, when it’s convenient for customers to work with your company, you’ll elevate their level of trust. No matter what products and services your company provides, you can take steps to build the trust your customers need — now more than ever.”

One way to improve trust is through your customer experience, Cudby added. Be more than a faceless transaction-bot. Humanize your relationships by letting customers know the people behind the corporate façade. Your company likely has some kind of formal purpose, such as a mission, vision or values. Translate your purpose to make it relevant for customers. Then share that message with employees and customers. Everyone in your ecosystem should know precisely why your purpose applies to the people you serve.

Even better, share how your purpose is guiding you to make customer-driven decisions by using it to drive actions customers can experience, Cudby said, citing a McKinsey & Co. report that 70% of a customer’s buying decision is based in how they feel about their experience with a company.

Related Article: Customer Trust: Are We Experiencing an Existential Crisis?

Acceleration Into Digital

The pandemic caused businesses to accelerate adoption of digital solutions, but the convenience these solutions promise don't always come to fruition.

Four-in-five customers have increased their use of digital customer service since the onset of COVID-19, driven in part by Gen Z (92% are relying more on digital) and millennials (87%) according to a recently released eGain survey.

Yet not all digital customer service is meeting customer expectations. According to the same report, more than half (57%) of customers complained about receiving different answers to the same question from chatbots and live agents or from different live agents.

Baby Boomers were the most likely group to be dissatisfied, with 39% reporting that digital customer service had gotten worse since the onset of the pandemic. However, 78% of those in Gen Z said digital customer service had improved.

Related Article: The Unintended Real-World Consequences of Internet 'Conveniences'

Current Customer Expectations Are Nothing New

“I think the safety and convenience features that will continue into — or be expected for — the future include things like touchless options, contactless options (including contactless delivery), and digital everything,” said Annette Franz, founder and CEO of CX Journey, Inc. “Quite honestly, these are really not that different from the things that customers were already expecting (simple, effortless, seamless, convenient) prior to the pandemic; now brands are forced to make them happen in order to survive."

Why survival wasn’t a concern previously makes no sense, but it wasn’t, obviously, Franz added. Digital transformations had been lagging, ineffective or nonexistent for many brands, but what we learned during the early months of the pandemic is that change is possible. It can happen when we have to change — when survival is at stake. As McKinsey noted: “We have vaulted five years forward in consumer and business digital adoption in a matter of about eight weeks.”

“There will have to be a balance between technology and human interactions,” Franz said. “The more technologically advanced brands become, the more people want to talk to and interact with people. They’ll need to keep that in mind as they design the experience of the future.”

The best way to meet customer expectations is to listen to them and understand what they are expecting, now and in the future, Franz added. What problems are they trying to solve? “We can’t transform something we don’t understand. We can’t design an experience for customers if we haven’t taken the time to listen to — and understand — the customer.”