Vice President Analyst Gartner Marketing practice
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customer forgiveness
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How to refill the dwindling well of forgiveness for post-COVID customer experience

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Customers that had been forgiving of customer service shortcomings during the early days of the pandemic are no longer so lenient. So organisations must consider what is necessary to either get their CX right or to replenish their customers’ well of forgiveness.

22nd Jul 2021
Vice President Analyst Gartner Marketing practice
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Last year, as businesses struggled to implement “work from home” policies and contain service disruptions, customer satisfaction scores rose. Clients and Voice of the Customer (VoC) platforms reported that VoC scores improved quite broadly across categories and businesses.

Why would customers report more satisfaction as service quality declined? Forgiveness.

As customers fought to adapt to the new pandemic reality and saw many businesses grapple with COVID-induced difficulties, they were more inclined to forgive the sorts of experiences that would have previously generated a complaint. Then as life settled into the “new normal,” Net Promoter Score (NPS), Customer Satisfaction (CSAT) and effort scores tended to return to normal (and, in some cases, declined as brands tried to meet customers’ new expectations.)

This year, as restrictions slowly lifted, and people began to return to normal – it seemed a grateful population was ready to return with a new well of forgiveness for businesses striving to adapt to post-pandemic difficulties. But the well of forgiveness is rapidly dwindling, and that means organisations must consider what is necessary to either get their customer experience (CX) right or to replenish their customers’ well of forgiveness.

As CX improves and customer loyalty is strengthened, brands will measure direct financial benefits such as improved sales, reduced churn, and increased lifetime value. Brands also often seek to measure softer benefits, such as enhanced engagement and greater word of mouth. But one benefit of CX that is often overlooked is forgiveness. Strong, consistent customer experiences earn more forgiveness. More forgiving customers are inclined to overlook isolated problems and are less likely to seek redress or share frustrations with others.

While brands cannot count on their customers’ endless forgiveness, they can do more to earn that forgiveness. If your organisation is struggling to meet expectations, consider ways to fill your customers’ well of forgiveness:

  • Excel where you can to compensate for where you disappoint: The better your experiences, the more trust and loyalty you earn. Too often, brands strive for a “minimum viable experience” across all of their touchpoints, but if you are failing to meet expectations in one touchpoint, consider overdelivering in others.
  • Be transparent (but don’t make excuses): If you’re experiencing issues, be proactive in letting people know, but be cautious with justifications. Some companies have opted to complain about their difficulties hiring staff, but that can do more reputational harm than good. Instead, set expectations so that customers know what to anticipate and keep them informed.
  • Make honest apologies: An apology goes a long way, but most companies (and people) get apologies wrong. Apologies must be made honestly, and that means your scripted language (“I can see where that would be frustrating”) falls short. An apology and promise to do better earn a great deal of forgiveness when done properly, but a weak, rote, or self-interested apology will only reduce forgiveness. Make sure your employees know the difference.
  • Compensate disappointed customers before they complain: Don’t ignore today’s broken touchpoints or count on endless forgiveness from customers. If you know something’s broken and you can’t fix it quickly, then give something back to customers before they complain. Don’t wait for customers to complain because many won’t–they’ll just walk away disappointed and angry. Address your known issues head-on.
  • Give your employees more autonomy: In times of stress and challenge, empower your employees to make decisions in the moment that can resolve issues, satisfy customers, and earn more forgiveness. Don’t compound poor customer experiences because of an unwillingness to trust the judgment of your frontline workers.

After a difficult year, many businesses want to focus on improving profitability and growth rather than investing in their customer experience but remember that your most profitable customers in 2022 will be the ones you keep, build and foster in 2021.

The COVID pandemic isn’t over. The UK is seeing the impact of the Delta variant, with cases, hospitalisations and deaths rising 30 to 50% weekly. Cases in the UK have been rising for two months, but recently other European nations have experienced sharp rises in COVID cases despite having vaccination levels similar to the US.

Meanwhile, cases in the US are beginning to rise with particularly steep increases in some states with lower vaccination rates. Available data suggests the vaccinated are mostly protected from infection and greatly protected from severe illness, but businesses may yet experience more COVID struggles later this year. Marketers should continue to keep an eye on customers’ shifting needs and do what they can to earn, keep and grow their loyalty in what remains an unsettled environment.

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