In the Next Normal, Customer Expectations are Moving Targets

It’s no exaggeration to say that COVID-19 has completely changed the business landscape. It’s not just about wearing a mask, shopping online instead of in-person, or working from home instead of going to the office. Every single aspect of your work and life has been turned upside down – and if that’s true for you, it’s also true for your customers.

The total transformation of everything that was familiar has serious consequences for marketers and brands. Companies trying to meet customer expectations for “the new normal” are scrambling to keep their footing in the shifting sands of the marketplace. But not even consumers know what they want in the long term yet.

We’re hearing the phrase “the new normal” bandied around a lot, but from my perspective, “the next normal” is a lot more accurate. We still don’t understand the coronavirus, so we haven’t reached either stability and certainty. Experts predict that the virus will be with us for a long time yet, with different countries and cities going through waves of lockdown and re-openings.

If you want to succeed, you need to adapt to “the next normal.”

What Has Changed? Everything.

Adoption of telehealth and online health services shot up; people who had never previously depended on online shopping began to do so; and consumption of online content skyrocketed.

The desire for touch-free shopping to reduce infection risks led a spike in shopping app downloads, which rose by 62% in April and May 2020, according to data from Braze. Consumers embraced BOPIS (buy online, pick up in person) and curbside pickups as well as online orders for delivery, but they also haven’t abandoned in-store shopping. Some 82% of Boomers say they’ll still shop in person for food and beverages, which means that brick-and-mortar stores may need to rethink store layouts in order to support a touch-free, safer in-store journey.

People have changed their attitudes towards consumption, too, as unemployment has risen and personal income levels have fallen and become less dependable. Consumers who’ve seen their income plummet have cut their spending overall, especially on luxuries. McKinsey estimates that private consumption in the US will drop 12% overall in 2020, and it won’t fully recover until 2023 at the earliest.

It’s not just consumers – brands have adapted and shifted as well. Numerous companies have had to pivot their value offering to remain viable as people shrunk away from in-person contact, travel and tourism withered up, and staying at home became a primary goal. If your value proposition has undergone a seismic shift, then you can’t expect your marketing to remain the same.

Loyalty Has Evaporated

Since the pandemic hit hard in March, we’ve seen a mighty shakeup in customer loyalty, and there’s no telling where it will resettle. The need for stability led to a shift towards A-brands, but at the same time, consumers want to support local small businesses.

With a new set of needs, priorities and values, the consumer definition of “good” customer experience has changed. People are holding brands to higher standards of ethics than ever before. The supply chain has been disrupted, and our favorite “non-essential” businesses have been shuttered, leaving us looking for alternatives. We want different things from customer service, such as a move from in-person to online or over the phone interactions. Tempers are short, and a willingness to put up with mistakes is low.

Source: Braze

As a result, brands can’t take their long-term customers for granted any more. According to Braze, if the 26% of consumers worldwide who have tried at least one new brand since the pandemic hit, 95% are somewhat or very likely to buy from them again in the future. But it would be a mistake to rely on COVID-19-driven customers sticking around, as they’ve shown remarkably poor retention rates. Over 50% of new users have already churned.

You can’t expect old retention tactics to work their magic on these numbers.

There is No New Normal

Whatever it is that you might call “normal” changes almost every day. All the changes mentioned above could continue, or accelerate, or change back to previous norms, at any given moment. The economy keeps changing, as has the science that informs public policy, which might vary dramatically, depending on your locale.

For example, although 83% of global consumers plan to continue to shop online, looking only at worldwide statistics is a major mistake. In Italy, online shopping rose 60% during lockdown, but there’s little indication that it will persist. In China, on the other hand, the lockdown accelerated an existing shift to digital, and it looks likely that the trend will continue.

We could see a backlash against pandemic behaviors, such as a push to embrace sustainability in reaction to single-use plastic, and a desire for increased social contact after enforced isolation, or we could see those changes become more entrenched. Continued telehealth and e-health adoption will depend on whether or not the CX was good for each individual. Healthcare companies that provide poor CX in a hastily thrown-together framework could lose all their new online users.

What Can Brands Do to Keep Up?

If you’re wondering what to do next, you’re not alone. You need to throw out your entire marketing playbook and start again from scratch. All your current personas are useless, because those people don’t exist any more. You need flexibility, agility, and a willingness to accept change, because as much as you plan, your marketing strategies are still going to have to pivot midstream when the next normal comes along.

Kate Adams, VP of Marketing at Drift, laid out a five-point plan for marketers to future-proof their marketing, but it’s essentially about going back to marketing basics.

Source: Drift

First and foremost, remember that your customers are human. Express empathy and concern, but above all else, listen to them. You need strong feedback loops that keep you in touch with ever-changing customer demands.

Along with that, rethink your marketing strategy and channels. Life has shifted online, so you need to move your events, interactions, and messaging online too. Now’s the time to double down on digital and social media, but keep revisiting your messaging to make sure that you’re not missing the moment.

Put content to work by repurposing evergreen content to meet new realities. With retention rates so low and loyalty all shook up, you’ll need a different approach to retention too. It’s time to rebuild trust and learn how to talk the language that consumers want to hear.

The Only Certainty is Change

The attitudes of the next-normal consumer are still fluctuating, but they sure aren’t the same as they used to be. From adoption of digital services to a drop in consumption, customer expectations have shifted significantly and still haven’t settled down.

You can’t go over, under, or around this to get back to the way you used to do business in 2019; the only way out is through. Accept the unknown and learn how to roll with the changes, reading the winds as you go, and you’ll be ok.

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