Customer Experience

Customer experience in the age of COVID-19

As of this writing on March 19th, large portions of the world are in lockdown or in the process of moving to that state. It is an extremely sad reality that many tourism, hospitality, and services companies and entire industries could potentially be (save massive government intervention) completely wiped out. I personally have numerous friends and family who have been laid off, or seen revenue fall to zero even in the early days of this epidemic. Make no mistake, this probably one of the most challenging times to be in business – not merely for the underlying economic conditions, but the human toll this will take, and the still high levels of overall uncertainty.

That said, some of these industries have the ability to mitigate and shift slightly – faced with the closure of most theatres, Universal has been able to deliver new releases via streaming. It also has a deep back catalog which may be re-marketed to a world stuck indoors and starved for distraction. Disney has indicated they will likely accelerate their Disney+ offering in the same way.

Other sectors will have to adapt in other ways;

Omnichannel will rapidly shift in nature

Some retail stores have been putting systems in place for a few years which will also allow them to weather this storm, but they may be forever changed by the experience. Loblaws, the largest grocery chain in Canada (and a Contentful customer) has seen a dramatic surge in their “click to collect” operation, and it is feasible that adapting to this new way of consumption becomes the norm for customers, even after the worst has passed.

In some other cases, the old ways may make a comeback. The age of the print catalog seemed to disappear with the internet, but with many people working from home and communicating solely via screens, it’s entirely possible that the experience of flipping through a well-produced catalog with beautiful visuals becomes a well-needed escape.

The return of nesting

It’s very possible that our living spaces once again become a focus of attention; adapting spaces to serve as part-time offices or daycares (or both simultaneously) may mean new purchases to remain productive. It’s one thing to work for a few hours at your kitchen table and chair here and there, but if you are now fully remote, this means at a minimum upgrading your chair (please don’t forget your ergonomics in all of this). 

Similarly, your home literally is your sanctuary, so ensuring a calm, well-ordered space with a good sense of design will help get you through the day.

As a result of both of these, we may see home decor as one of the few relatively healthy sectors as people adapt. Some of the early work in VR and AR may help replace the showroom experience here as well.

Services like Peloton, Zwift, Headspace and other channels to maintain physical and mental health may gain share as they become a needed outlet and virtual meeting place (my Zwift usage is up rapidly – even from my normal routine).

Online chat will go from being a communication of last resort, to a primary channel

In the past, online chat was often seen as a communication channel of last resort, and many brands would even implement AI chatbot solutions, given that the primary use was for common tasks (asking for opening hours, locations, etc.). However, as customers shift to online-only activity, they will be expecting far more interaction from these facilities – which means that unless your chatbots can cope with the increasing depth and diversity of questions, this channel may have to shift to actual people.

In which case, the question becomes how to scale a customer support operation to include virtual teams? How do you build and scale a corporate culture entirely remotely? How do you ensure they are trained properly and have the correct information in front of them?

Communication expectations will change

I think we’ve all experienced the onslaught of COVID-19 related email updates, which tend to fall into two categories; either useless or critical. In many cases, there was no additional context or steps provided, thus merely adding to the noise that customers are already facing. The most useless COVID-19 “update” email I have seen was three sentences from a very large, nationwide chain who frankly should know better:

“We’re living through turbulent times together. Our booksellers are your neighbors, your friends and family. Your stories are our stories, and we know how resilient our communities are.”

So, don’t be that marketer.

However, based on Maslow’s hierarchy of needs – anyone providing services around the bottom of the pyramid, namely infrastructure, food, housing, utilities, etc. needs to be very clear and prescriptive about their plans to stay up and running, and where they are providing additional support (if applicable, for example around temporary mortgage payment relief). 

In the case of providers where we have always experienced an abundance of supply without interruption (food, toilet paper, electricity, etc.) informing customers around downstream availability and restocking schedules will help in planning and maintaining a sense of comfort. In this case, downstream food supply capacity is running at 200%-500%, but you wouldn’t know that based on store shelves; so reassurances are key. 

If my power went out in the past, it was no big deal (I live in the woods, and Hydro Quebec always does a wonderful job of repairing the infrastructure) but in a heightened sense of vulnerability, actively communicating (vs. passively reporting) about these events will be key – particularly where many more people are now working from home, where previously they could be considered “low-priority” times as long as repairs were done by 5pm.

Privacy expectations are gone, possibly forever

One of the consequences of HIPAA is the understanding that any communication regarding medical status is extremely protected personally identifiable information (PII). As a result, the majority of communication between caregivers and patients is done in person, and most tools for remote communication were banned. As a result of COVID-19, the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) has lessened this restriction.

This is an understandable step, but once taken, it’s extremely hard to put that genie back in a bottle. Platforms which were optimized for speed of communication will probably find that information will leak out in a very public fashion (indeed, some large corporate calls during this time have already been subjected to troll “ZoomBombing”).

While we have all been attempting to adapt in an agile fashion, information security should not be forgotten as bad faith actors will be attempting to take advantage of this lapse in normal policy.

Shifting from in-store to product “oo-bie” and storytelling

Many luxury brands such as Bang & Olufsen and Apple had done an excellent job with unifying the product discovery and browsing experience from on-line to in-store channels. The mantra “the experience is the product” rightfully made many retailers rethink what a store experience needed to be, by including wonderful design, ample browsing space, and a well-trained staff.

Brands will be doing the best they can to try to emulate a similar experience in this new reality. In many cases, they already have a browsing and discovery experience which has the required brand vision – but may have been lacking in details as they could depend on an in-store associate to  provide this all-important link between research and purchase.

As I mentioned before, maintaining this human connection will be key. It would not surprise me to see associates in a full visual chat, rather than simply texting. Similarly, they might need to have a product on hand to demonstrate features to help relate to the product or how it might look on the person on the other side of the video.

Similarly, the oo-bie “out-of-the-box experience” will be key as this becomes the first (and possibly only) in-person interaction between your brand and your customers. Direct-to-Consumer (DTC) vendors have been innovating in this space for a little while, but the trend will accelerate as more traditional brands will be forced into this mode.

Above all, be human – your people are your best asset

These are going to be trying times, and how your brand interacts with customers will not be forgotten any time soon. This works both ways; both compassion and callousness will be noted (and probably discussed on social media) in an amplified way. This includes how you treat your staff; working sick or under conditions of duress will manifest itself in frustrated and miserable interactions with customers.

As humans, we have the capacity for adaptation and resilience. Those brands that have the means to shift the means of interaction and delivery have an opportunity to reshape the customer experience in significant ways which will likely outlive this and become the new norm. 

If customers get both a good brand experience as well as the convenience and comfort of online shopping, but with an elevated level of understanding (and ultimately less cost to maintain storefronts) this trend may simply become the new normal.

Update: A version of this post also appears on and I will be presenting at Contentful Blueprints 2020 North America and EMEA on the topic as well.

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