The Top 3 Ways Your Customers Changed During the Pandemic

By Mary Drumond, CMO at Worthix and Host of Voices of CX Podcast

The pandemic wreaked havoc on businesses and customers alike. Companies were unable to rely on what had always worked for them, and customers were left with uncertainty about where their priorities should lie. This massive shift in the consumer landscape brought to light the essential areas of the customer experience that had long been neglected, as well as new or renewed considerations for how to meet customers’ unique needs across all industries.

To get to the root of the meaningful consumer changes that have occurred over the course of the past year and a half, we have to look at the most relevant moment for businesses to consider: the customer decision. This moment must be investigated in order to understand how businesses can adapt to this rapidly changing environment. When you dig into the moment of the decision, essential information is revealed about customer needs, priorities, and expectations – which ultimately determine whether a purchase is made.

Through this lens of customer decisions, we identified three important shifts that happened for customers during the pandemic: the significance of social proof, a renewed value of the basics, and the increased power of the unique value proposition. As the world gradually returns to a sense of normalcy, understanding these changes, why they happened, and the impact they had on the customer decision can help marketers create stronger CX strategies which align with the new needs of the modern customer.

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1. Social proof was the main decision driver during times of crisis

During the pandemic, customers were suddenly faced with massive change that prevented them from relying on the cues they’ve always used to make decisions. So, in an attempt to ensure they made the right decisions in this new context, they looked to the behavior of others for guidance. In other words, “social proof” became a key motivator in their decision-making process.

Social proof is a term coined by Robert Cialdini in his book Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion. It’s defined as: a psychological and social phenomenon wherein people copy the actions of others in an attempt to undertake behavior in a given situation (Cialdini, 1984).

Data shows that those who were most impacted by the pandemic experienced this psychological and social phenomenon more intensely. Specifically, there was a 175% increase in importance placed on social proof for this group. When they are unable to rely on their previous heuristics or mental shortcuts, these customers copied the actions of those around them. This imitating tendency allowed customers to restore some confidence in their decisions and increased their perception of value.

So how can companies win customers back during times of uncertainty? We’ve established that during these times, customers increasingly need guidance on how to make decisions. Therefore, by providing customers with first-hand accounts and testimonials from as many individuals with influence as possible who trust the brand, it may increase the likelihood of others trusting them as well.

How this looks in practice would be a three-step process.

The first – and most important – step is to get an understanding of what uncertainties your customers have by taking the time to connect with them individually to solicit feedback and commentary about what’s most important to them. The next step is to announce the number and/or influence of customers, transactions or people that still trust your business. This could be done through customer reviews and/or testimonials, blog posts, email marketing, or even external validation through billboards, ads, PR, or collaborations with other brands, personalities, or individuals with strong influence

The third step goes hand-in-hand with the second one. When speaking to your customers through media channels, show the big numbers – numbers are important for social proof. Make it clear to your public that you have addressed the most relevant concerns, and this is why so many customers are already safely being served by your business.

2. The basics became the most relevant experiences again

Since the pandemic has induced some significant changes on how even the most basic processes are carried out, there’s a renewed priority placed on the basic, most elementary experiences that companies provide. These core experiences could be ones that customers had previously taken for granted, or completely new foundational experiences that arose during the pandemic.

Ultimately, this all comes down to a shifted perception of value. Consumers became more forgiving when non-essential experiences fell short, so long as their basic needs that they expected of the company were fulfilled.

To illustrate the move back to basics, let’s look at examples from both retail and entertainment:

  • Retail: The core experience that customers cared about most during the pandemic was the quality of the products themselves. Customers were more flexible with their expectations of interactions with staff if they were provided with the products that they primarily relied on retail companies for.
  • Entertainment: People relied on this industry to provide the necessary escape from reality during challenging times. They craved good, quality entertainment above all. So long as they were given engaging and entertaining content, they were more relaxed about the quantity of content being released. Quality was the core experience customers demanded here.

Even if companies did pride themselves on successfully delivering these core experiences in the past, the pandemic may have made them unable to rely on previous processes to fulfill these needs. For example, while maintaining ideal food temperatures may have been easy for in-person dining, this quickly became a challenge that restaurants had to face when they pivoted to takeout and delivery.

There were also new core experiences that emerged during the pandemic. The best examples of this, continuing with the restaurant industry, were food presentation, safe packaging, and efficient speed of delivery. For many businesses, this wasn’t even a consideration prior to 2020. However, as the pandemic forced this pivot, the ability to meet these needs correctly quickly became one of customers’ driving forces of value perception.

These experiences, whether previously taken for granted or brand-new demands, were essential. Companies who doubled down on providing solid, basic experiences before focusing on excess demands retained their customers loyalty. For businesses to continue to thrive, they have to stay in tune with the fluctuations of their customers’ expectations. Armed with this knowledge, companies can ensure that they are delivering on the business elements that their customers care about most, instead of trying to create an awe-inspiring façade over a lacking basic experience.

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3. The revival of the unique value proposition

Those most effected by the pandemic also found that their interest in small differentiators was rekindled. If all of their basic needs were fulfilled by a company, the small details that differentiated each company from its competitors – which may have gone unnoticed before the pandemic – became much more important to the customer decision.

This was clear across industries – for example:

  • In insurance, brand trust became a main motivator for customers in choosing a provider.
  • In restaurants, a proprietary sauce became a big reason that customers chose to order from a specific restaurant.
  • In entertainment, consistently great cast performances became especially important to audiences.
  • In retail, customers were more flexible with their expectations of interactions with staff if they primarily relied on that retailer to provide them with specific products.

In all of these examples, small unique attributes of individual businesses turned into the components that could tip the scale of potential customers decisions in their favor.

However, there were also offerings which, while previously an added bonus, turned into a main decision driver for customers. A primary example of this is public transportation. Previously, there was an expectation that commuters had to deal with some lack of cleanliness and comfort when taking public transport. If a subway or bus was spotless, to most people, it was simply a small bonus. However, now that health and safety has become one of the primary concerns for people across the globe, transportation companies that pride themselves on strict cleaning and safety protocols not only had an extra edge but had a great chance of completely overtaking competitors who didn’t hold these standards.

The renewed impact of the unique value proposition could be explained by customers craving connection with and confidence in the brands they do business with. If there are five brands who deliver the same basic experience with the same accuracy, these seemingly small details will likely be a major driver of loyalty.

Your key to keeping up with unprecedented shifts

These three changes have something in common that can shape your broader customer strategy going forward: your ability to adapt to these changes requires empathy at scale and a clear understanding of what drives your customers’ decisions. Obtaining this knowledge must be a continuous priority, with solid processes in place, in order to proactively prepare for shifts should another event occur that flips customer decisions on their head.

Every one of these changes occurred during the pandemic and had a profound impact on customers’ decision-making processes across industries and locations. But that doesn’t mean that they are going to go away anytime soon, as many people find their perceptions and expectations permanently changed by the pandemic. As such, these shifts are likely to stick around for a while, so it’s crucial to consider them while making decisions that affect customers and their experience with your brand. By genuinely understanding your customers and meeting their demands as they evolve, you can ensure that you are always their first choice.

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