What the Pandemic Continues to Teach Us About Customer Wants and Needs

The future of experience is empathy

Well before the Covid-19 pandemic, “empathy” had become a major business buzzword.

The reason is simple: As so much of the customer experience moves online, companies now often do business with people they never see. That means viewing everything from the customer’s perspective to understand and anticipate their needs and feelings has become a different and, in many ways, far more challenging game.

Brands are expected to create a consistently unified and seamless experience both online and offline, with ever-growing focus on the former. And they must do so at a time when digital pioneers like Amazon and Netflix keep raising the bar on what an outstanding experience looks and feels like.

This has given consumers unprecedented power. Today’s customers have come to expect magic in their interactions with businesses. They have more choices than ever, they can switch to a competitor with a few clicks of the mouse, and they heavily influence a brand’s reputation through social media posts and reviews—the new viral word of mouth.

Empathizing with your customers

Enter the pandemic. By accelerating the digitization of the customer experience that was already well underway, Covid-19 made it a prerequisite for every business to deliver a delightful experience that demonstrates complete understanding of the customer’s needs and wants on an even greater, more thoughtful level.

“In just a few months’ time, the Covid-19 crisis has brought about years of change in the way companies in all sectors and regions do business,” detailed a McKinsey report issued in October 2020. “Companies have accelerated the digitization of their customer and supply-chain interactions and of their internal operations by three to four years.”

As the spread of the Delta variant has disrupted the return to normalcy that seemed attainable earlier in the summer, it remains critical for businesses to find ways to get inside customers’ heads, proactively connect with them on an emotional level and meet their needs in an environment that seems to change by the week.

“Empathy is the future of experience,” stated Adobe’s 2021 Digital Trends Report, which surveyed 13,000 marketing, advertising and ecommerce professionals worldwide. “Customer empathy will be used as a differentiator with brands demonstrating knowledge of their customers and the unique ways they can serve them.”

How well organizations can adapt to the continuing unpredictability of today’s world will define market winners and losers for years to come. Consumers are likely to remain loyal to companies that served them well at a time when their lives were difficult and their emotions on edge, and they won’t forget those who let them down.

Delivering the future of experience

For businesses, empathy seems to have become not just a value but a paradigm governing nearly every aspect of the business. It is now incumbent on every business, regardless of size, to deliver a memorably convenient, hassle-free experience that shows complete connection with the customer’s emotions at every interaction. For companies to do this well, they need to put themselves in the shoes of their customers, to see first-hand what it the experience is like.

For example, in retail, convenience and flexibility already were growing as critical differentiators in the shopping experience, but Covid-19 upped the ante. Retailers quickly realized they needed to offer all three of the following: the ability for shoppers to buy online and pick up curbside or drive-thru; real-time inventory that is accurate, available online, in-store, and in-app, and clearly communicated across channels, stores, and digital touchpoints; and flexible return policies that give shoppers more confidence in their purchases, regardless of whether they shop online or in-store.

Those features will remain permanent fixtures in retailing because the pandemic has reinforced the importance of brands meeting customers where they are.

Here are a few other examples of what businesses should do to further deliver an exceptional customer experience:

A seamless checkout experience, both online and in physical locations. People are less willing to endure long waits in a store checkout line or a clunky or buggy online checkout process. Smart retailers figure out how to stop that from happening.

Better use of technology to improve the in-store experience. It’s time to eliminate one of the  most frustrating in-store aspects: walking from aisle to aisle looking for an item.

Lightning-fast delivery. Amazon has recalibrated consumer expectations about delivery time, and that has put a lot of pressure on all online retailers to follow suit. It’s crucial for businesses to streamline their internal processes and work with their supply chains to meet the demands of increasingly impatient buyers.

Awareness of what annoys customers. Does anyone like it when a company sends too many promotional emails? Businesses should consider how impersonal and irritating the barrage can feel, and develop better, more effective techniques that feel targeted to the individual.

If all of this sounds challenging, the good news is that businesses don’t have to go it alone. With on-demand human insight, you can uncover and understand how real people respond to your products, messaging and experiences—giving you the necessary information to meet and exceed customer expectations. Take the time to talk directly with customers and learn more about what they love and don’t.

By getting inside customers’ heads—and hearts—businesses can gain necessary insights about the permanent changes that the pandemic has brought to the customer relationship and experience.

Paige Musto is the VP of corporate marketing at UserTesting, where she is responsible for all things brand, event experience and thought leadership. Prior to joining UserTesting, Paige was the VP of corporate marketing at Act-On, where she was instrumental in growing the company into a category leader.