Preparing for the Next Normal with Customer Insights

The realities of COVID-19 have disrupted our routines, rituals, and sense of normalcy, unraveling our long-held assumptions, expectations, and behaviors as customers. Inventory stock-outs have thrust many of us into trying new products and brands for the first time. In some ways, the pandemic has precipitated an enlightenment defined by a “make-do” mentality. Long gone are the days of insisting on your favorite brand of paper towel or, as a B2B buyer, selecting your preferred case quantities. And while customers may now be less discerning about the product details, brands they buy, or suppliers they use, the pandemic will nonetheless reshape the future of the “next normal” in unforeseen ways.

As the pandemic continues to dominate the news cycle and public conscience, customers are critically evaluating intent, comparing levels of responsiveness, evaluating policy changes, and seeking the demonstration of purpose, empathy, and authenticity—all in response to fears surrounding economic security, supply chain disruptions, and the well-being of loved ones. And in the end, an organization’s fate will be decided in the court of public opinion, whether the verdict be competitive differentiation or irrelevance. The moves that businesses make today impacting customers, employees, communities, and other stakeholders will transcend the crisis and define the future of loyalty, partnerships, and ultimately, organizational performance.

As a customer experience (CX) leader navigating this climate, you must critically reexamine everything you’ve come to expect or thought you knew about your customers. The answers can be found in your customer data. Visibility into customer behaviors, inquiries, and sentiment paints a clear picture of desires, fears, and anxieties. Armed with these insights, you can apply your core competencies to address emerging needs in differentiated ways while demonstrating the higher-order purpose that customers expect during these unpredictable times.

Examples of organizations in past crises underscore this opportunity. Car sales plummeted 22 percent during the financial crisis of 2007-2009. Mining data and customer insights, Hyundai recognized that customers feared large purchases amid economic uncertainty, launching its Assurance program. The car manufacturer assuaged customer fears with a simple message underscored by the promise: "Now finance or lease any new Hyundai, and if you lose your income in the next year, you can return it with no impact on your credit." Following program roll-out, Hyundai’s market share rose to 4.3 percent in the first ten months of 2009, up from 3.1 percent the year before. Confronting COVID-19, it’s not surprising that Hyundai is running a similar campaign—promoting not only its cars but also “peace of mind in uncertain times.” 

B2B organizations are similarly reimagining their strategies to address the headwinds that their customers face. Lockheed Martin, the United States’ largest defense contractor, is paying $50 million to smaller players in its supply chain to ensure the continued production of essential defense products. With small and medium businesses hit especially hard by the pandemic, Lockheed Martin’s move reflects an effort to address the fear shared by small businesses as COVID-19 stifles their growth and survival prospects. It also signals a recognition of the importance of solidarity through uncertain times—highlighting the company’s empathy for its partners and the belief that even the smallest players in its ecosystem are integral to success.

With the sea change brought by COVID-19, your organization’s next customer breakthrough is on the horizon, and it starts with the insights you’re already collecting. There are a few fundamental principles CX leaders can apply to accelerate customer-centric transformation through COVID-19 insights.

  • Leverage your existing customer data. COVID-19 has transformed ways of life (and, in turn, customer behaviors and expectations) in a matter of days. To win customers and address emerging needs, organizations should move quickly with the data and insights resources they have today. Tap into existing customer feedback mechanisms and voice of customer programs to find new applications for the data you’re currently mining. For example, data used for efficiency or process improvement purposes could be reexamined or integrated with other sources to inform the redesign of offerings or programs—like diversifying delivery offerings, creating touchless experiences, adding self-service options, or speeding up response times. In our research, only 51 percent of organizations are using CX insights to drive operational efficiency, signaling an untapped opportunity in today’s climate.1
  • Understand real-time environmental factors. Customers today put stock in corporate conscience and the way a business aligns with their ethics and ideals—weighting these factors as highly as cost, quality, or customer service. Driven by the fear, sensitivity, and uncertainty brought by a global pandemic, customers even more closely scrutinize the actions of organizations and public institutions. With the overnight emergence of websites like “Did They Help?” customers now have access to the details of an organization’s COVID-19 response at their fingertips. The democratization of technology and information have increased the need for authenticity, with the narrative about brands and organizations easily accessible and constantly changing on social media. In this climate, consider how you might tap into sources of external data intelligence to inform decision-making (e.g., via social scraping techniques, competitor data, or disease-related data). In many cases, this is a more timely, cost-effective, and less invasive alternative to traditional customer insights techniques (e.g., surveys).
  • Focus on unmet customer needs. With these insights, you’ll have the context you need to determine how to pivot quickly and fulfill the highest priority needs. The strategies you bring to leadership will leverage your existing capabilities and infrastructure to address these unmet needs. For example, a ridesharing app might make use of its driver network and logistical capabilities to become a delivery system for a partner, or a manufacturer may shift its production line to make hand sanitizer instead of beer. There’s a comparable example for organizations in nearly every industry—finding it starts by taking inventory of your current capabilities and reimagining or repackaging them to address emerging customer needs. When identifying and evaluating potential opportunities, you should consider how customer expectations will evolve in the post-COVID-19 “next normal.” Factors such as increased use of touchless experiences, enthusiastic support of local businesses, and heightened demand for authenticity can all help influence where and how you focus your efforts.
  • Don’t ignore the outliers. In these volatile times, companies may be hesitant to survey customers about satisfaction and service, fearing that the results will reflect the broader reality of the pandemic rather than true sentiment about the company’s level of service or satisfaction. Instead, we recommend you move forward with planned surveying efforts, making necessary modifications in the context of today’s uncertain climate (e.g., shortening survey length, demonstrating empathy for customers throughout the surveying process). As you analyze the data, pay close attention to any outliers. These outliers can offer early insight into how customer expectations and sentiment will evolve permanently as we approach the “next normal.”

A close up of a blue background</p>
<p>Description automatically generated

Given the near-term realities of COVID-19, customers may not be insisting on a particular brand of cereal. Similarly, B2B buyers are likely less concerned with the color of the packaging they purchase from suppliers for the time being. Yet, now more than ever before, customers expect that brands will be empathetic and attuned to their needs through evolved offerings, services, and messages. Meeting these expectations starts by tapping into insights. In knowing your customers and how to address their fears today, you’ll also accelerate the customer-centric transformation to drive organizational performance tomorrow.

1. In February 2019, we surveyed 300 cross-functional director-level and above leaders at U.S. and U.K.-based organizations with 2018 revenues > $1 billion. Survey questions gauged measurement techniques, prioritization, and decision-making capabilities related to Customer Experience (CX).