Author, Speaker, Creative Catalyst LiorArussy.com
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How are customer personas changing and how do companies create value for them?

Customers have experienced a once in a lifetime event that will reshape their perceptions, beliefs and behaviours in the years to come. Understanding these changes is key to recognising the new-normal customer and responding.

18th May 2020
Author, Speaker, Creative Catalyst LiorArussy.com
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The unprecedented nature of COVID-19 and its devastating economic impact caught everyone by surprise. There was no textbook on how to handle a near complete global economy shut down. As a result, companies were scrambling to make it as they go and reinvent their response and business model during the crisis.

The recovery back, however, should not be as chaotic and should follow a disciplined approach to rebuild customer relations, value and revenues. This post COVID-19 discipline should revisit the definition of the “target customer” and evaluate the compatibility of the new-normal customer with the company’s value.

Key changes may emerge in both the value delivered by the organisation as well at the nature of the relationship (and its profitability). In examining the impact of coronavirus on customers, organisations will discover that their value delivered to customers, may have shifted dramatically and therefore will require adaptation, recreation, or a complete redesign.

In considering lifetime value, the impact of COVID-19 may redefine what relationships and which customers are in fact the ones delivering the best lifetime value. A recalibration of segmentation and customer focus may be required as well.

The reshaping of the customers mindset

To assume that customers will return to conducting business without a new frame of reference, will be a mistake. Although some are peddling this idea out there, the likelihood is that the new-normal customer is different from her pre-COVID-19 version.

In his book Who Do You Want Your Customer to Become? Michael Schrage argues that companies who want to maximise lifetime value ought to aim at making customers better and not just merely delighting them. It is innovation that focuses on increasing customer’s health and wealth that will result in longer commitment to a profitable relationship. The question of how to make customers better is relevant more than ever in post-COVID-19 era.

Customers have experienced a once in a lifetime event that will reshape their perceptions, beliefs and behaviours in the years to come. Understanding these changes is key to recognising the new-normal customer. We have identified four dimensions of the new-normal customer that have been affected by the pandemic experience.

Amplified emotional awareness

The mandated quarantine has forced many people to spend time with themselves. Loneliness was affected even the introvert, as was claimed by Adam Grant in a New York Times article. Despite all the possible distractions, people were forced to face their thoughts and feelings alone. One side effect of this forced self-reflection is the 21% increase in anti-depression and anti-anxiety prescriptions during the first month of COVID-19 as reported by Fierce HealthCare.

Another aspect that further amplify the new normal customer’s self-awareness is the loss of control over key aspects of his life and the unprecedented exposure to risk. The loss of control experienced during the height of the pandemic will be permanently tattooed in the new-normal customer’s mind. The pictures of emptied streets in New York, London, and Paris, a phenomenon not experienced even in world wars, will remind the customer how his traditional tools, even if advanced, were of limited support during this time. No one likes to lose control. But a loss of control of this magnitude will leave many customers feeling fragile and vulnerable for a long time.

COVID-19 presented a type of risk never experienced before. It presented extreme threats on combined personal, health, economic, family, and society levels. “This hits all the hot buttons that lead to heightened risk perception,” says Paul Slovic, a University of Oregon psychologist who helped pioneer modern risk psychology in a New York Times Article. Professor Slovic explained that our assessment of risk is highly influenced by emotions and is far from being aligned with reality and statistics.

The new-normal customer will be more self-aware and emotionally engaged.

Discovery of self sustainment

If in the past years we have outsourced many of our chores to others for either convenience or lack of interest reasons, the coronavirus has enabled us to rediscover our ability to do things we forgot we could or never bothered with. From cooking to DIY work at home, the ample available time and the lack of services, combined with the need to keep busy, has forced us to rediscover skills and passions we have not nurtured in a while.

A 25% increase in Hasbro game purchasess in the first quarter of 2020 is just one example of this trend. Together with online shopping, we are becoming more self-sufficient in providing for our needs and are depending less on other people in the retail environment to help us out.

When escaping to vacations elsewhere is not an option, we are discovering hobbies and other ways to keep ourselves busy.

Social behaviour and human connection redefined

COVID-19 has forced us to redefine our social interactions. But it has also exposed some of the beauty in social responsibility. While hugging, handshakes and social closeness are set aside in the name of social distancing, we have also experienced an explosion of acts of generosity and gratitude that have shed light on how society can unite in times of need and how humans can be there for each other.

The craving for human connection will probably intensify after the pandemic will pass and we will seek to reconnect more than ever before. The notion of not seeing family and friends and not being able to touch them could not be more foreign to the human psyche. The acute social shortage that this forced isolation created will most likely be compensated later with greater need for human physical engagement.

Rethinking value

While unemployment is passing 12% at the time of publication, it is expected that many consumers will be rethinking their choices of products and brands. Many will opt for cheaper alternatives to their favorite choices. But it seems as this goes deeper than a mere financial calculation. 

As many major brands such as Kellogg’s and Heinz have experienced unexpected growth in their products sales, many up and coming young brands have seen a sharp decline. Kraft Heinz sales rose 6.2% from a year earlier on a comparable basis. Kellogg said its comparable sales for the first quarter climbed 8%, including improvements in its cereal business, which has struggled for years as reported by the Wall Street Journal. Customers are finding comfort in the trusted and known brands at a time when many of their beliefs and trust have been disrupted.

Online as a mainstream

The notion of online fitness was not appealing to many customers. They believed that sweat and exercise need to be felt together in a social setting to be effective. The increase in memberships for Peloton Interactive online sessions as well as many competing services has surprised customers as well. People who have never considered this option are finding it rewarding and suitable.

This is one example of a multitude of services that customers hadn’t previously consider online as a legitimate mainstream solution and now are forced to rethink their position. Zoom sessions may very well replace some traveling in the future, when travel will be permitted again. For people who were dependent on the retail experience, online shopping has proven that they can do it themselves and may opt to minimise some of their traditional retail experience of the past.

Hygiene and health top of mind

Needless to say, with the massive communication of COVID-19’s risks and the recommended approach to avoiding it, people are experiencing a new era of health concerns and hygiene awareness. The recent announcement by the MTA in New York that the subway will be shut down every day between midnight and 5AM for cleaning and disinfection treatment is another example of how the new-normal customer will expect to live and be serviced by the brands they use.

While in the past hygiene and health requirements were assumed, but often not discussed, they are now highly likely to be above-the-surface topics and customer expectations will be aligned accordingly. The new-normal customer adapted some new self-care practices and is likely to retain them after the pandemic threat dissipates.

While in the past hygiene and health requirements were assumed, but often not discussed, they are now highly likely to be above-the-surface topics and customer expectations will be aligned accordingly.

Living life in small bites

Living life large has been replaced with learning to enjoy the small bites of life. We have learned to enjoy the simple practices conducted with our smaller nucleus family and friends (mostly by phone or Zoom).

While it is likely that some customers will try to overcompensate for the shortage of big trips and indulgent activities, the majority will probably cherish the small bites of life they experienced during the COVID-19 experience and retain them for a while.

The emergence of the new-normal customer

Reviewing the above trends, we are facing a new-normal customer.

The new-normal customer is more cautious in his optimism. He is emerging from a devastating threat and approaching life in small steps. There is definitely a sense of vulnerability in the new-normal customer demeanor. The lack of control imposed by COVID-19 and the lack of an immediate medical solution have shaken her beliefs and trust in humanity’s ability to address threats. The impact of the threat will be felt for a while after and it will take time, if she is to ever regain her footing and feel fully in control. 

The new-normal customer is re-establishing trust in many aspects of his life, from health to employment to friends. Trust will need to be stablished based on new rules. Health and hygiene will be critical as he will rebuild relationships and reintegrate into society.

The notion of self-sustainment will be accompanying this new-normal customer for a while, as he will approach other services and brands with caution.

This vulnerable, cautious, self-sustaining, health-minded, and trust-rebuilding customer is presenting a challenge to any brand trying to determine how to deliver value to her. Every brand ought to examine its products, features, services and support to ensure that they correspond to the new-normal customer persona and provide relevant responses to emerging customer needs.

Customer persona

When evaluating the strategy post-COVID-19, organisations need to approach their decisions in a disciplined manner, assuming that while some changes in customer mindset might be temporary, some are here to stay. The evaluation of the strategy forward ought to consider the following aspects of the strategy and should be brought to market.

  1. Alignment - How do our current value proposition and products align with this new-normal customer?
  2. Experience - What should our products create for the new-normal customer? (E.g. empowerment, mindset, beliefs, social connection)
  3. Innovation - What additional innovations should we focus on to best align with the new-normal customer?
  4. Segmentation - Who should we focus on in the new-normal customer in order to best provide value that will result in loyalty?

If there is one lesson we can all take from COVID-19 and its impact on the world, it is that the future belongs to those who can adapt fastest. As I discussed in my last book Next Is Now (2018), change resilience is the new core competence of organisations. It is defined as the speed and scope of change that an organisation can absorb and move forward. The faster we can adapt, the greater the chance is that we will maximise the opportunities and reach the new finish line successfully.

Lior Arussy is founder and former CEO of Strativity Group, a global business transformation firm. www.LiorArussy.com  

Replies (1)

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Peter Dorrington - TTEC
By Peter Dorrington
21st May 2020 16:23

Hello Lior,
a great read - thank you for sharing your insights.
> 'The New Strange' - like you, I believe that customers will not just bounce back to the ways things were before COVID-19, but we're in uncharted waters - most of us have never experienced anything like this (either at work, or in our personal lives). We are all going to have to adapt, and quickly!
> A lot of data about customers is obsolete - for example, personas are one way of expressing a customer segment, a segment that was probably developed pre-COVID-19 and therefore does not reflect the new customer priorities. Doing regression modelling on data that spans the before, during and after of COVID-19 is fraught with challenges too.
> New needs imply new responses - echoing your words, we're going to have to reformulate our products, services and operations. However, some businesses are going to have to go even further - they're going to have to take a hard look at their fundamental purpose (their raison d'être)
I share your conclusion - to thrive in the New Strange, brands will either have to evolve, or face decline and eventual extinction - it's that serious.

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