Customer service needs for the post-covid consumer

As the pandemic challenged relationships between retailers and consumers, it began to reveal modifications in shopper behaviour. With the industry now facing a new ‘post-covid buyer’, understanding its expectations are crucial.

Nurturing customer service continues to be a primary focus of businesses. Even pre-covid, retailers naturally updated their offerings to out-perform competing brands – why the groundwork concerning competition within retailers is said to have entered into discussion as early as the 20th Century; ‘assessing the complexity of competition’, ‘distinguishing its varying types’ and establishing the existence of a ‘retail structure’ regarding firms that catered to distinct markets. Yet in the words of US accountancy firm McKinsey and Company, “Now is the time for customer experience leaders to position themselves at the forefront of shifts in consumer behaviour as a result of the pandemic,” suggesting that shopper experience is perhaps more important now than ever.

“It’s been a pretty scary and frightening time for most of us,” says Jo Causon, CEO at the Institute for Customer Service (ICS). “Organisations have sought to reassure customers, become proactive in their communication and appear more genuine and authentic, and the preservation of these offerings will be critical going forward.”

Causon has served for over 10 years as CEO at the institute. She underlines that the purpose of the organisation is threefold. Equipped with the ability to compare across different industries, the institute principally aids its members to improve their customer service and educate retailers the value it maintains. Whilst Causon suggests that the sector dealt with the pandemic admirably, she warns, “the crisis is not over,” proposing the vulnerability of the sector. She notes: “The longer-term societal and economic impacts are not yet fully apparent and will shape the customer experience landscape in the months and years ahead” – yet this is not the first time professionals issued warnings to the retail industry.

The beginning of the pandemic saw business experts expressing concerns surrounding consumer confidence. “It has already fundamentally changed the way people around the world think and act,” warned René Vader, global sector head, consumer and retail at KPMG International. “Almost overnight, physical stores were shunned and people started to prioritise health and supply-chain safety over cost and convenience,” coincidentally straining the relationship between retailers and consumers. The Office for National Statistics gave substance to these concerns, disclosing that retail sales fell -5.7% in 2020, accredited to the ‘lack of trust’ felt by consumers, according to KPMG – a chief indicator of ‘performance’ within the sector, ICS remarks.

The institute published a latest report assessing the landscape of consumer service at present. It displayed that over 50% of the customers who said they had noticed a change in customer service stated that it was positive: “Much of the recent improvement in customer satisfaction can be attributed to better problem recovery and resolution,” says Causon, suggesting that whilst coronavirus perhaps impeded consumer confidence, it correspondingly demanded retailers to find new ways to reconnect with their customers.

As the outbreak entered its adolescence, prominent retailer Asda unveiled a ‘happy to chat’ scheme which saw the firm’s delivery drivers gift consumers consultation during a ‘lonely’ period. According to the retailer, 23% of customers disclosed they interacted only once a week, with some describing the novel service as a ‘lifeline’. “We’ve had such a positive response from customers since we introduced the badges,” says Geoff Norris, delivery driver at the firm. “You can tell that even a five minute chat with someone can have such a positive impact on their day.” In fact the venture was so well-received that Asda decided to make it a permanent addition to its consumer service offering: “Without regular contact with friends and family, it felt right to make our ‘happy to chat’ badges a permanent fixture to our drivers’ uniforms,” says Simon Gregg, vice president of online grocery at the retailer.

A latest study by Talkdesk discloses that post-covid, 86% of retailers anticipate developing customer relationships will be part of agent KPIs within the next five years, with 54% citing to improve customer loyalty as a ‘top’ business priority. KPMG proposes these figures have been influenced by the ‘new consumer’; a customer brought forward by Covid-19 that is more ‘thoughtful’ and ‘selective’ in their decision making. According to a recent study by the accounting firm, 80% of people now prefer buying from brands whose actions align with their beliefs and values, with 63% naming value as the chief differentiator on product and service choice. “In terms of changing consumer behaviour, we have certainly seen a rise in caring about the local environment and interest in terms of localism,” notes Causon.

It seems that as the industry embarks on a post-covid consumer landscape, a remodelling of customer service may be fundamental for retailers if they want to retain their consumers – especially since 2022 is set to place on retailers ‘significant headwinds’, according to the BRC. “As consumer spending will likely be held back by rising inflation, increasing energy bills, and April’s National Insurance hike. Moreover with little restrictions on travel and hospitality so far this year, there is more competition for the share of the consumer wallet,” says Kyle Monk, director of insights and analytics at the consortium.

But what can this new buyer expect? Well, in addition to being more value focused and environmentally friendly, customers also need to be made to ‘feel safe’. According to KPMG, 92% of consumers anticipate companies to have safety provisions in place – an expectation verified by employees within the industry. “With people being more anxious about going into crowded places, it’s important to make people safe and at ease,” urges Asia Hadleigh, customer assistant at Marks and Spencers. The consumer also needs to have the option to shop online. “Consumers expect to be able to resolve any potential issues quickly and easily with a choice of platforms, including online chat, phone or email,” says Monk. However, Causon also stresses the importance of face-to-face communication: “Being able to talk to a human when you need to talk to a human is paramount,” indicating that retailers need to make sure they can provide for different types of buyers.

When establishing customer service and consumer expectations, Causon notes that it is not simply in reference to the “process” or “interaction” with the buyer – “the truth is, brilliant customer service starts in the boardroom.” The customer service specialist underpins that the culture of an organisation is principal to the shopper, an aspect supported by KPMG as it discloses ‘integrity’ to be one of the lead pillars in driving customer loyalty. “Customers will seek out businesses that demonstrate and build trust,” says Julio Hernandez, head of global customer centre of excellence at KPMG, underlining the value that consumers place on personable relationships.

The pandemic saw a consumer whose expectations chiefly related to their needs, transition into a buyer with a new list of expectations. The disconnect felt between retailers and consumers demanded businesses to essentially remodel their customer service offerings in an attempt to rebuild consumer confidence. As well as its offerings for in-store buyers, Asda demonstrated the value it upholds in the relationship with its shoppers as sensed it needed to ‘do more’ for those at home. Through unveiling its ‘happy to chat’ scheme, the retailer not only extended its customer service but ‘advanced its personalisation’, which according to KPMG is the strongest pillar in driving customer loyalty.

“It is the evolution of customer needs, attitudes and values that will most disrupt how businesses now compete,” states Hernandez. According to the ICS, great customer service matters because it remains a ‘lead indicator’ of an organisation’s performance. If retailers want to retain their buyers, they will need to modify their customer service offerings to suit the new consumer.

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