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snakes and ladders

How are customer relationships changing in 2020 and beyond?


For customers, our experience with many companies or suppliers or public services took on a new meaning, a new context with COVID-19. Peter Massey explores whether customer demands have varied from country to country, and what underpins the many global similarities.  

4th Dec 2020
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Change or no change ?

At the end of every year and beginning of the next there is a reflection requested at that imaginary milestone in time. As you sit and stare out of the window and wonder, this year will not be an easy one to forget. Yet it is so easy to forget the sharp or blunted emotions we felt in real-time as we experienced and became accustomed to things we’d only seen in sci-fi films.

Work and home experiences have become more mingled for many, those lucky enough to have jobs which are not frontline. The drab of commuting and hotel life - have we changed our views on the sense of these, forever?

For others, the frontline people who braved public transport, a busy workplace, cared for sick people and food supplies amid a deadly virus. In the UK, they were clapped as heroes in April and forgotten by September when it came to the billions being doled out. Priorities changed to suit within less than one year, one period of reflection. Yet the fundamentals of that care ares till there.

In many ways, that conflict between the fundamental feelings and the ‘in the moment’ experiences, sums up the contrasts and contradictions of the human psyche. Which hasn’t been changed by a pandemic.

At work we set up things in days which used to take years. Homeworking went from a policy question to the norm. Endless Zoom or Teams. There were new questions for some: What is a ‘management by walking about’ when there’s no office ?  Unsung operational skills, just getting stuff done, was put in sharp relief at work. And showed up as so clearly missing in the politicians of some countries. Planning ahead, preparation and rehearsal, maintaining vulnerable budgets to avoid massive costs, moving to the cloud. These things paid off handsomely and were noticed by customers in the maintenance of services - or not, as the case may be.

For customers, our experience with many companies or suppliers or public services took on a new meaning, a new context with COVID-19. But one thing remained clear: the value of “brilliant basics” doesn’t change. Customers’ basic needs being met consistently and easily takes on even more potency in a crisis.

Did experiences vary from country to country? I tried asking some of my international colleagues [see below]. You’ll recognise all of these shifts, if they are such, whichever country you’re reading this in.

  • Germany: “People are more conscious about decisions they take, both at work and at home. And of the consequences.”
  • India: “The need is for ‘not-in-person’ services, so make everything contactless.”
  • Australia: “People are more conservative, they’re saving more and trusting less. And yet they are more gullible.”
  • US: “Customers are more demanding. There is an added intensity to discussions. Perhaps as people travel less and have more time. They are less tolerant, perhaps against a backdrop of political intolerance.”
  • France: “Acceleration - More and more, digital channels are being taken up and more people work from home.”
  • UK: Customers are digitally ahead of businesses, who in turn are ahead of government decisions.
    COVID + Brexit - Capability = We should prepare for Recession.

For sure our government responses were different, with different levels of prevention rather than inconvenience. And therefore our expectations of the danger of COVID have been different. As extreme as perceived unnecessary inconvenience for a few cases in Australia vs massive and unnecessary bereavement in the US and UK. And still the systemic economic and wider health implications are yet to be known. Hindsight will be a wonderful thing. Foresight is more useful. Real-time insight is in short supply when your leaders don’t believe in detail, in data and in review to learn lessons.

But despite the complexity businesses have to get on and do stuff real-time, with the same context. Make decisions. Never more clearly have our values and care for employees been spotlighted. For every Expedia giving 100% B2C refunds and supporting its B2B customers, there’s a TUI refusing to refund and being difficult to communicate with. What politicians value and don’t value has been in starkly revealed in their communications or lack of them and that has been the same for every CEO and senior leader. It takes a lot of stamina to raise and maintain the communications of respect for your frontline people who are looking after customers over months and years. But that’s much easier if it’s what you believe in and what you prioritise as key to success.

So there are many global similarities in our human responses, but the question I pondered is what underpins these? So here’s my view - it’s not right or wrong, but I hope it’ll provoke your thoughts.

The two key points I’ll propose are:

  1. Human behaviour changes slowly.
  2. Mega trends dictate CX trends.

Slow, slow, quick, quick, slow

Of course, lockdown shock came suddenly to many countries. We’d not have imagined, indeed the behavioural scientists didn’t imagine, the extent of adherence to staying away from other people. Or the benefits that many saw in being at home with family, where fresh air and walks were valuable resources. Some of these will be lasting reactions but many are an acceleration of trends which were there if you looked for them. Working and social trends which existed in some industries but not others.

For many tech companies working from home and job sharing to care for children have been normalised for years. In financial services that was different. Putting motivation of staff first so that productivity results was the norm in some cultures. To others motivating staff working under pressure, in kitchen classrooms and flat shares, was a new but evidently necessary idea if you want any productivity.

Volunteering demonstrated why people want to work - to have purpose, to socialise, to give some meaning to strange times. It’s not all about the money. Paid furlough showed this too. For the vast majority of people I spoke to, they would rather earn their income.

So, did lockdown change what people want or just accelerate our ability to address what we want? I’d argue the latter. Most changes in group behaviour take much longer than a year, more than one shock. There are no remnants of specific human behaviour change from Spanish Flu, despite its extent, 50 million deaths, the mask wearing and people avoidance at the time. Although it is arguable that it created the awareness that led eventually to socialised medical care.

One of the big shifts this year was the amount of communication, as previously mentioned. A realisation of how much communication impacts, sets expectations and perceptions of  “Things Are As They Are” (as The Tao of Pooh refers to it). Managers spent much more time checking in with staff than checking up on them, communicating what’s going on, connecting people with the business they work in. 

Caring. That wasn’t a new need. I’d argue it was a forever, for everyone need which had been under-addressed. It wasn’t a homeworking vs in-the-office need, it was a human need that was always there.

Perhaps, as a result of this pandemic, we might learn to spend as much time investing in the psychology as the technologies of customer and people experience. Every day and every project. Maybe that could be your 2021 work resolution?

“I don’t know”

So human behaviour is complex and contradictory. Hence, behavioural science is the idea expanding in customer experience. In the UK the behavioural scientists had more sway on SAGE than the public health scientists at one point. It is embedded in the ideas of AB testing or designing user experiences. And in focus groups used in commercial and political decision-making.

Saying "I don’t know" doesn’t come easy in most boardrooms. But its a culture you need to foster. Saying “I don’t know” is the key to customer experience. It would be another simple 2021 resolution you could adopt.

By not knowing, you are more inquisitive, take more risk but more sensibly. You experiment and find out what happens for customers in the real world, rather than betting on a hunch.

Whether human behaviour changes quickly or slowly or not, in big or small ways, the only way to really know is to observe carefully what people do. Not just what they say and definitely not what social media says they think.

Mega trends

The second point, I propose that if you want to know what’s happening in customer experience trends then you need to look at the wider decade level trends - or “mega trends”. If you can observe the big waves coming, you can usefully translate that into tactics for the next year.

Going back to the international comments, this made me think what are these symptoms there? What are the underlying mega trends? I think the issue is Maslow’s hierarchy is being challenged. It’s something we might feel rather than know.

You’ll probably know Maslow’s hierarchy - water, food, shelter, warmth. The basic needs of the human animal. Let’s take a look at the threats.

Water is not to be taken for granted, too little or too much. The supply of drinking water in many parts of the world is still challenged although it is designated a basic human right. Lack of potable water kills 16,000 people per week according to the UN.  Water availability might be drought for crops or flood. The threat of sea levels rising with melting ice caps. And you can have too much warmth as much as too little. Climate change is the biggest problem the planet faces. In the last year the “crisis” is starting to be recognised as such. Time is ticking (see figure one).

global temperature

Figure one: Global temperature. Source

What is your company doing about being ready for customers new demands and about your ecological footprint? The supply chain questions posed by climate and environmental impacts are plain to see. How is your business looking at them? Through the eyes of your consumers?

Food is not a given, even in an economies such as the UK or the US. As Marcus Rashford has illustrated to UK politicians so eloquently. Poverty is not just something in other parts of the world or developing nations.  It is here and now and we have to decide what we do to address it. Doing nothing would be ignoring the elephant in the room in our values system, in our employment and social systems. It poses questions in your business - but have you looked at them?

And for those who can afford it there are many concerns for food standards, animal welfare and the long-term husbandry of natural resources globally. Growing enough food may or may not be a problem globally with rising populations, depending on who you read. (see figure two)

changing population

Figure two: Changing populations. Source

There are predicted structural falls in some populations and big increases in others over the coming decades. For example, what will it look like when Nigeria has more people and a better education system than the US? Reductions in fertility rates in many populous countries mean an ageing population requires care from a reducing number of wage earners.

Decisions now on the good use of land and science will decide what the earth looks like for our grand children. Decisions on investment in education, your own, your family or your workforce’s, will dictate your future options. Decisions on healthcare policies, medical, financial or ethical are to be faced.

Certainly migration of populations, driven by economics, a better life, a better education, avoidance of war and exploitation is a major factor in what services people need and what people feel about their communities. My shelter is for sharing or my shelter is mine? Selflessness & kindness or selfishness is a big question for countries, communities and individuals. Philanthropy or paying local taxes fully where they are earned? How open is your business to sharing the benefits it creates ?

These four factors are joined by some aggregating factors:

  • Reducing real privacy & expansive digital identities. A few tech companies know more about you and have more power and cash than your elected (or not) government and the traditional media. Combined with the ability to quietly change people’s minds at the behest of those who pay for the service, who knows where this leads.
  • Work will undoubtedly change as AI (artificial intelligence) and robotic automation take over not just repetitive work but a range of skilled jobs as well (see figure three). This challenges economies, taxation systems and human motivation. It challenges education (sic) systems as they need to be addressing the need for non-routine cognitive skills like passion, perseverance and decision making. No small challenge in this so called 5th industrial revolution.
  • “Education is the most powerful weapon we can use to change the world” - Nelson Mandela. Educating our next generations to be ready for these challenges will be the real test.  In emerging economies, you see how much parents divert whatever they can to help get their kids a great education. It’s the way out of poverty. In mature economies not everyone sees it that way or funds it that way.

Maybe the lesson on these points is to look east, not west. I’d love to see as much media coverage in the UK in 2021 of Chinese, Indian, Nigerian and Indonesian politics and economics, culture and outlook. And their customer experiences. And less about a failed dictator in the US in 2020!!

job types

Figure three: nature of work. Source.

Going back to asking my international colleagues what they think, we also asked “What do our kids say”?

As customers, our kids' suppliers must prioritise the climate crisis, racial and sexual discrimination, poverty. Perhaps those three should be your test criteria to say if your company is fit for 2021. Are you aligned to what your next generation customers want? The trends are there already if you look for them.


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By Nisha Batel
05th Dec 2020 15:53

I really enjoyed this article Peter. I agree with everything here.

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