Do what you can to step into your customers’ shoes.
Get an outside-in view. Even if you’re indoors.
Ahead of the seventh Jericho Conversation on Business Life After the Virus: What Happens to the Customer, The Foundation’s Charlie Dawson and Anna Miley explore the customer myths and realities of the crisis, as experienced and informed by eighteen different households. Everything is not always as it seems. Sign-up here to join the conversation.
At 8pm on Monday 23rd March the UK Prime Minister asked us all to stay at home. We became a nation of Zoom calling, Tiger King-watching, Gousto-eating home-schoolers…Or did we?
It’s difficult, even at the best of times, to maintain an outside-in perspective. We have a natural preference for seeing the world from where we stand, somewhere physically and metaphorically far away from customers and their lives. And never more so than when the entire nation is in lockdown.
Literally confined within our own houses, it becomes nearly impossible for managers to see the world from where their customers are. Everyone’s lockdown is more or less the same as ours – right?
Wrong, for the most part – as we found out by staying closely connected to a group of 18 individuals and their families from all over the UK during the first three weeks of lockdown through Zoom conversations, daily video diaries and digital tasks. From a seventy-year-old psychotherapist living alone in East London to a civil servant and his teenage sons holed up together in Humberside, we were by their sides through the highs and the lows of their early lockdowns.
While some of our findings confirmed the obvious (people growing tired of Zoom, those with kids wishing they could social distance from them many times a day), much that we learnt was not, debunking some popular inside-out myths.
Myth #1 ‘Customers are settled in to the ‘new normal’ now’
We were struck by the constant, rapid, and dramatic changes in people’s feelings, opinions and behaviours over the course of just a few weeks. After Easter the sands were shifting again. People were considering spending on discretionary items for the first time in weeks. They were researching post-lockdown holidays. Dare we say it, they were looking and sounding much more like their pre-Covid selves – much more ‘normal’ in fact, than ‘new normal’. But as the second pay-day of lockdown approached, financial realities will be starting to hit home for people who have been furloughed or lost their jobs.
Reality: Customers’ lockdown behaviour is not predictable until you have hindsight, so stay close to diverse views to learn. Managers should steer clear of thinking the ‘new normal’ is a stable state of affairs and instead look out for timely ways to help customers solve specific problems they come up against as the situation unfolds.
Myth #2 ‘Customers are raring to get back to their usual lives’
Lockdown has revealed a host of uncomfortable truths about the way we’ve been living and encouraged some to consider longer-term changes that might make them healthier and happier. These are significant and admirable changes; living life more autonomously, connecting more meaningfully with their most important people, appreciating all they have, wasting less. One of our group put it succinctly: “I’ve not been living my best life”. But these aspirations are fragile: the realists fear that as soon as restrictions are lifted and the economy cranks back into gear, they will be inundated by companies encouraging them to slip back into their old habits, and receptive as those around them adjust.
“Many customers genuinely aspire to live different
and better lives after the crisis”.
Reality: Many customers genuinely aspire to live different and better lives after the crisis. This means businesses that don’t react might be vulnerable to competitors that do. The ideal is to have a genuinely held purpose and values that align with customers’ new priorities, and to act accordingly.
Myth #3 ‘As long as companies are putting appropriate measures in place, customers will be satisfied’
Organisations that have failed ensure safety of colleagues and customers will certainly suffer, as evidenced by one of our group’s reflections on social distancing: “We’d run out of milk so I had to go to the local shop where there seemed to be zero measures in place. I think I’m going to suggest we don’t go there again.” In a time when people are searching for heroes and villains – think tape-measure incidents and supermarket trolley checks – companies have new standards to meet that are like right and wrong in the eyes of customers.
Customers want to deal with businesses that care and that
act accordingly, whatever that looks like.
Reality: Customers want to deal with businesses that care and that act accordingly, whatever that looks like. Complying with rules is the bare minimum expected. Truly doing ‘the right thing’ involves much more – including tangible measures to really protect people, clear and straightforward communication, action to support those most affected by the situation like NHS and care staff or front-line colleagues and increasingly, as patience wears thin, solutions to ensure customers’ experiences meet needs despite business being far from usual.
Myth #4 ‘Everyone is feeling the crunch financially’
At the beginning of lockdown, our group was united by a sense of financial uncertainty and general abstemiousness. As time wore on, experiences diverged. A sailing instructor was working through job loss and re-planning his whole career; a supply teacher was anxiously trying to work out whether she’d be covered by the furlough scheme; for a civil servant it was business-as-usual financially; and a student was enjoying saving more than before the crisis.
Reality: The divergence of COVID’s impact on people’s finances is starting to hit home and organisations will need to respond to the very different needs emerging. While some customers were already showing signs of being tempted back to the (online) shops, others were scrutinising monthly outgoings and looking for more areas to save. With reality becoming clearer by the month, initial deliberation has become action for many, including cancelling subscriptions and taking payment holidays, storing up issues for later.
Myth #5 ‘Lockdown life has changed customers’ habits around food and grocery shopping’
Social media posts full of banana bread and vegetable boxes suggest we’re all getting creative with food and have discovered new ways of shopping. But for many of our group, once-pleasant food shopping and cooking took on more stress with pressure to plan more carefully and feed more hungry mouths more times a day. There was little time to peruse shelves at leisure, just a need to keep everyone fed when no one eats out anymore.
Reality: Customers are experiencing frustrations with meal planning, inspiration and food shopping. We’re far from an Instagram nation of happy bakers with issues around food long after initial shortages ceased. There’s a clear opportunity to help solve these problems for people experiencing them, and in so doing the chance for an extended trial period. The challenge is to be good enough for new habits to persist once lockdown lifts and more familiar routines return.
Myth #6 ‘Digital adoption will continue to accelerate, with customers expecting everything to be possible online’
While some digital alternatives – like online workouts, Zoom classes and re-sale platforms like eBay – were embraced by our group as useful discoveries they’d look to keep using in their post-lockdown lives, others fell short of the mark and will just be stand ins until it’s all over. Group activities like choirs and book clubs lack in-person camaraderie, live performances suffer when there’s no audience to laugh along with, and video calls can’t re-create just being in someone’s company.
Reality: The digital solutions that genuinely and fully meet customer needs in new and better ways will last. Frustration with those that miss the mark is mounting. Customers aren’t on an irreversible path to online-only. People are unusually open-minded to trying digital and virtual options, but patience is limited; the line is drawn at chat bots that send them round in circles. Organisations need to ensure that digital alternatives offered are fit-for-purpose and be conscious where human reassurance could be most valuable for their customers as the situation evolves.
For organisations navigating the crisis, our advice is to do what you can to step into your customers’ shoes.
- Don’t rely solely on data and opinion.
- Don’t be tempted to extrapolate your own experience to that of your customers.
- Question myths.
- Read broadly.
- Read what they read.
- Listen in person to as many people as possible, often.
- Challenge yourself to empathise – what is it really like to be in their shoes?
As much as you can, get an outside in view. Even if you’re indoors.
The seventh Jericho Conversation – Business Life After the Virus: What Happens to the Customer – is being hosted in partnership with our friends at The Foundation, experts in customer-led success.
Register here to join the conversation: