Design a Customer-Centric Experience to Meet Changing Needs

Your customers’ needs are evolving daily. Here’s how to prepare to keep up now so you can excel in the future. 

During the COVID-19 pandemic, whether you were ready for it or not, your audience’s behaviours, needs, and receptiveness to marketing have dramatically, and justifiably, shifted. During physical isolation and government-mandated shut-down, we’re faced with a lot of clear challenges. At the same time, we’ve been given opportunities to adapt to these constraints to meet our customers where they are now and deliver what they need to navigate through this crisis. 

Before the COVID-19 pandemic, we were already actively discussing the many ways in which the new digital world would be customer-centric. In 2020, customer expectations were expected to increase as customer experience was anticipated to overtake price and product as the number one differentiator. In the last two months, COVID-19 has accelerated that shift faster and stronger than any of us thought possible. The “upcoming” reliance on digital is now here. If you already have a customer-centric culture, you’re ahead of the game. Retail and e-commerce businesses, especially, are positioned to take advantage of this evolution. The ones that are prepared to close the customer experience gap and respond to changes the quickest are primed to succeed. 

Allison Humphries, VP of Strategy at Appnovation says, “When businesses are unsure, they often panic and feel the need to rush to get as much to market as fast as they can. What we tell our clients is that they need to think about what actually drives their business, prioritize what they know works and deprioritize the nice-to-haves and extras that won’t have a meaningful impact on the overall experience. A phased approach will help make sure key initiatives get launched while simultaneously making long-term plans for structural improvements that will make a huge difference over time.”

How a company deals with customers to ease hardship during a crisis tells you how much they really care about their customers. User and experience design are where that story unfolds and proves just how well businesses are equipped to serve their customers.

Make anything you can faster and easier

In isolation, our typical expectations around time are heightened. Customers feel both an aggressive sense of panic and, simultaneously, a stress-inducing sense of having to just… wait. Interminably. It’s more important than ever to reduce stress and friction, not cause it. You need to make sure that your customer and user experiences fit into the new day-to-day realities of your audience – right now. When almost everything feels harder, longer, or more complicated, getting anything done with ease feels like a relief. Proactively and effectively responding is a best-practice on a regular day. But during COVID-19 it shows a sense of urgency backed by empathy. 

Your UX needs to pivot as much as your business does. Details matter. Anything you can do to quickly update your experience and digital journey to show that you understand your customers’ constraints and demonstrate how you’re easing them is crucial:

  • Update order shopping flows with reminders on new options for leave-at-door, pick-up or delivery and precisely how they work.
  • Offer new mobile tracking methods for delivery times so people can plan their day accordingly
  • Extend return policies and broaden out-of-store options
  • Waive shipping, change and cancellation fees
  • Offer discounts on gift-cards and future purchases
  • Add COVID-specific banners, chatbot options, and other callouts to point people immediately to the info they need to know

Rely on research, not assumptions

The customer that you knew even a few weeks ago is not the one you’re speaking to now. The key here is not to focus on what you want to be saying or selling, but on how you’re making it easy for them to know and get what they want. Awareness is paramount in knowing what they want to buy. That’s where behavioural insights and analytics give you an opportunity to come out ahead. Adapt what you’re doing to match how your customers’ preferences and moods have shifted during the outbreak. 

“First and foremost, understand your customers at a deep level. You might have done a ton of research before this [pandemic], but people’s attitudes and behaviours are drastically changing. Research is fundamental. You can’t walk in with a subjective or anecdotal view. How you, or the people around you, might be dealing with the crisis isn’t necessarily the same as your customers. Putting more of an emphasis on behavioural research and testing, especially as we move quickly, will give you the results you’re looking for as you launch, listen and optimize,” states Humphries.

As we start to move into various phases of economies reopening, it’s also clear that we will continue to be in isolation longer than we initially thought. Updating customer behaviour research and journey mapping to reflect these changing mindsets is not a knee-jerk reaction but solid, mid-range planning on how to meaningfully speak to your customers. The research will help put you in your customers’ shoes with a better understanding on how their needs have changed from essential to luxury spending. With most brick-and-mortar shut down, what services and goods, like gym equipment, are customers considering for their homes? As we inch towards the summer months, what needs of that season can we predict and proactively offer that can be adapted to isolation and physical distancing?

Don’t talk about your empathy, prove it

Avoid being accused of #CovidWashing. No matter how well-intended, any instance where a company appears to take on the posture of caring about outbreak-related needs without being ready to back them up with action is a disaster waiting to happen. (Just ask Reese Witherspoon.) In the beginning weeks of the outbreak, everyone began to talk. Both marketing leaders and consumers quickly began to share on social media about the deluge of ostensibly well-intended (but ultimately self-serving) emails from CEOs of companies talking about just how much they understood how hard it was during these “uncertain and unprecedented times.” And that’s nice. But it’s not the totality of what your customer really needs right now. To meaningfully engage, you need to have customer-centric language across all channels, communications and content. Working with your brand and content teams to make sure you’re saying the same things, in the same way, across all of your digital touchpoints will help you ensure your language is really focused on your audience and not on you.

Truly customer-centric user journeys should always be driven by behavioural data, authenticity and a desire to do what’s right for your users. During a crisis, saying that you understand what people are going through is ok at first. But it quickly becomes a platitude. What you really have to do is show that you understand by adapting your policies and procedures to meet them where they are and give them something they need. Yes, “actions speak louder than words” is a cliché. Also yes, it’s never been truer than it is right now. 

When Shake Shack recently realized it had applied for a U.S. federal Paycheck Protection Program small business loan it didn’t end up needing, its CEO took to LinkedIn and, in plain language, announced they were giving the $10 million loan back. Aside from it simply being the right thing to do (Shake Shack is clearly not a small business) the amount of positive earned media they’ve collected in the days since exceeds the amount of the loan. 

Make it simple to help others

Your customers want to do good right now. You can be the business that made it easy for them to not only buy what they wanted from you but also to pay it forward. Now is the perfect time to add micro-donation options to your checkout process, and offer $1 or $2 add-ons to donate to local food banks, health services, and other programs supporting essential front-line workers. 

When done right, entire campaigns can be based on socially-incented giving during COVID-19. U.K.-based fitness e-commerce superstar Gymshark recently launched #NHSSweatySelfie, where it will donate £5 to the National Health Service for everyone who posts a selfie with the hashtag during their workout. It’s the ideal blend of being relevant to your base and logical for your brand while encouraging an action that will benefit your followers’ health and also giving them a chance to contribute to the greater good. The brand name isn’t in the hashtag, no purchase is necessary, they’re not asking to follow or tag friends to increase social reach — you don’t have to ever have been a customer to take part. The goal is simply to raise money for medical services that need it during a health crisis. But you can bet the positive halo of sentiment they’ll garner for their authentic approach will pay off with increased loyalty from their passionate base. 

Enable your employees to do the right thing at the right pace 

Every minute counts in a crisis. You want to make sure your frontline employees can not only help customers but that they’re empowered to make their own decisions to make it happen fast — or, if the situation warrants, slowly. Customer-centric companies know that happy customers start with even happier employees. This starts with taking care of your own first, giving teams flexible work-from-home arrangements, and solutions so they can provide amazing customer service. During this harried, uncomfortable time, that means making sure they’re trained to ready the room and customize their approach for what your customer is going through. 

For a working parent trying to juggle a young family with that conference call starting in 5 minutes, that would mean speed and efficiency. For someone who’s lost a loved one to COVID-19, that would mean kindness and taking the extra time to listen for however long it takes. Your service teams can be agents of change unto themselves, but it takes savvy digital leaders to trust them, give them the freedom to go off-script and invest in the tech tools and content strategy they need to be successful (and helpful).

Accessibility matters more than ever 

A quality user experience is inherently tied to accessibility and ethical design. With the recent forced migration to digital channels during the outbreak, making sure your business is accessible to all of your customers is an absolute must. 

If your web experience isn’t accessible, your business isn’t accessible. You have customers with differing abilities right now who are relying on your digital user experience more than ever, and if you don’t plan to help them during this crisis then you’re planning to lose them as customers. On a regular day, you should be building in accessibility needs at all levels of your customer experience strategy. With our current climate of heightened digital use, and with most of society hyper-focused on the moral impacts of how businesses operate and do the right thing for their customers, implementing accessible design is imperative. Changes might be easier than you think. Learn now about how to find out how you’re currently ranking for accessibility and some of the easiest website improvements you can make quickly

Keep crisis management and CX working together

Crisis management, UX and CX impact (and even have a chance to augment) each other. In a natural disaster or sudden but short crisis, it’s clearer when you’re in the middle of it. With COVID-19, it’s the exact opposite — we have no idea how long this will last or when it will end. For some, that could signal that the time for strategic crisis planning is over but that couldn’t be less true. Yes, many business leaders (and governments, and most of humanity) were caught off guard by the severity and extent of the outbreak. This is a unique situation where the majority of us are in the same boat. Even with a crisis in full swing for an unknown duration, planning can still have a strong and positive impact. Now is the perfect time to create a crisis management plan or update your current one to address the realities of the pandemic. After all, crises are fluid situations and your plan to address them should be equally flexible. 

When it comes to customer experience and crisis planning, regular communications are key. You’re correct to be concerned about oversharing and how to say the right thing, but this is where honesty will guide you. This is a first-time situation for us all, and it’s never been more ok to admit when you don’t know something but you have full intentions to figure it out and you’ll be in touch when you do. Keep in mind that regularly doesn’t mean constantly. Your crisis plan will inform your communications calendar and how that gets integrated into your larger user experience through all your digital channels. 

Your goal should be to take your entire customer experience into account, put your users at the centre of it, and position them as the north star to decide how you’ll say the right thing at the right time. 

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