Learning to treat individual customers as individuals is a key to business success. But being aware of underlying trends in the marketplace is also essential for the success of any business that relies on significant numbers of transactions and forward-looking planning. Here are six major customer trends I identify in my new book, High-Tech, High-Touch Customer Service.
Customer Trend #1: The Demand
for the Instantaneous
and the Expectation of Aggregation
My battery died recently on my aging Volvo, and with it I lost the stations that had been preset into my car radio. After driving around a few days manually selecting the stations I generally listen to (more or less just one station), I found myself irritated to have to dig up the ancient instructions on how to set a station into memory. I found myself thinking, “Doesn’t my car know I want this station as a preset? I mean, I listen to it every day—it should be inviting me to add it to a ‘favorites list’ or some such.”
But my car was manufactured in 2004, and, of course, cars didn’t “think” that way in 2004. And neither did consumers. Believe me, customers think that way now: They expect devices—and companies—to, in effect, say, “Mr. Solomon, I note that you’ve been listening quite a bit to your local NPR station. Care to have me memorize it for you so you’ll not have to fumble for it when you’re negotiating a difficult turn?”
Customers now expect personalized, aggregated information—instantly. To get a sense of how deeply customer perspectives have changed, look around. With the advent of mobile computing, a traveler can get all the answers on her iDroidPhoneBerry® that the concierge or bellman or neighborhood know-it-all used to parcel out at his own rate and with varying amounts of reliability: What’s a good Italian restaurant within walking distance? What subway line do I take to Dupont Circle, and which exit is best from the station? My plane just landed—in this country, do I shake hands with those of the opposite gender?
While this bears some resemblance to the model in place only a few years ago—settling into a hotel room, pulling out a laptop, fumbling around for an Ethernet cable, trying to figure out how to log on to the hotel’s network—there are real differences. Specifically, the better aggregation of information. Surfing the net—going out on a net-spedition to look for stuff seems like too much work and too big a time investment for today’s customers. Today, customers expect technology to bring an experience that is easier, more instantaneous, and more intuitive. They want to type or thumb a few keystrokes into Hipmunk—which lists travel options along with warnings about long layovers and other agonies, and shows hotels with precise proximity to your actual destination, or GogoBot, where your own Facebook/Twitter pals have already rated potential trips for you, or of course TripAdvisor, with its user-generated ratings of nearly everything in the world of travel—and have the information they need served up for them concierge style based on their IP address or satellite location and other useful clues.
A study by Accenture showed a manifestation of this trend: Customers in a retail situation often prefer to look to a smartphone for answers to simple product questions rather than working with a human clerk. The smartphone answers just seem to be faster and more accurate and sometimes, sad to say, come with a little less attitude.
Of course, the timeline of customer expectations in general have sped up to a radical pace. In addition to mobile computing, and improved connectivity, Amazon.com is one of the key factors in this—making the level of what’s in stock and available overnight absolutely unprecedented. Within minutes of placing your order, it’s likely being slapped with a shipping label at one of the Amazon.com-owned or UPS-Amazon.com-partnered warehouses in one of many strategically located places in the country. (And overnight, à la Amazon.com, is only the beginning. YouSendIt, a rapidly growing service that allows you to send enormous files nearly instantly, sticks it to FedEx in their slogan: “Overnight? Are you kidding?”)
Customer Trend #2: Shame Shift and Values-Based Buying
“Shame shift”: Before the economic downturn, the pride of being able to consume in a conspicuous manner—sitting in front of a many-inch flat screen, taking the family on a summer vacation to a center of tropical opulence—was considered appropriate and enjoyable by economically comfortable customers.
Now this same behavior may be seen as crass, even rude. The attitude has shifted from being proud to show off how much we can afford to being ashamed at consuming too conspicuously. But—and as Pee Wee Herman would’ve said, it’s a “big but”—there’s a huge exception.
“What we’re seeing now is consumption being excused by ‘attached meaning,’ ” as Jay puts it.
What is “attached meaning”? Think of the people you know who willingly pay five bucks for a cup of coffee, provided the coffee shop says that part of that fiver goes to help the rainforest. This phenomenon is significant. A study of consumer habits[i] confirms that shoppers are becoming “more deliberate and purposeful” in their purchasing decisions. “Conspicuous consumption has given way to more conscious or practical consumerism” and “rampant deal-seeking is being replaced by more purchase selectivity.”
Another study shows that 87 percent of consumers in the United States believe that companies should value the interests of society at least as much as strict business interests. Customers are demanding more alignment of company values with their own, and this customer sentiment is being expressed in buying choices. John Gerzema, chief insights officer at Young & Rubicam, told Inc. magazine editor at large Leigh Buchanan that, according to his vast database of consumer attitudes, 71 percent of people said, “I make it a point to buy brands from companies whose values are similar to my own.”
The trends of shame shift versus attached meaning and values-based buying can affect how you plan your interactions with customers, once you understand that sentiment about your company can involve broad elements of psychological distress or desire that might not seem to you directly relevant.
Customer Trend # 3: Timelessness over Trendiness
One of the notable characteristics people seek in their purchases today is “timelessness”—a desire that has emerged from the recession with a vengeance.
“When you consider layoffs, downsizing, delayed raises, and reduced hours, more than half of all American workers have suffered losses,” Young & Rubicam’s Gerzema notes. “This very real pain has driven us to reconsider our definition of the good life. People are finding happiness in old-fashioned virtues.”
Examples are everywhere: Urban and suburban women flouting zoning regulations to raise their own hens in their side yards; the practice of “cow-pooling” (where several families join forces to share in the purchase of a cow); or the surge in popularity of Hunter boots, the boots that the Queen of England wears when she walks her corgis. This footwear classic combines authentic story and excellent product and, as a result, has caught fire. Customers are looking for old standbys that can become hip again. A backstory—history—has become important to the consumer. “People are looking for things that are authentic,” says interior designer and web phenomenon (“Apartment Therapy”) Maxwell Gillingham-Ryan. “I think it started happening after 2001: first there was 9/11, followed by recession.” The drive for authenticity, says Gillingham-Ryan, “will resonate with people as long as we live in these times.”
But we are living in these times, so don’t be fooled into thinking your customers will accept timelessness without timeliness. They want the twenty-first-century version of timelessness—on a timetable that matches the impatient standards of the digital generation. Inconvenienced in any way, they’ll usually lose interest. For example, Restoration Hardware is perfectly positioned for the timelessness trend—but it still needs to release an iPad app and to be able to deliver overnight to the farthest reaches of its customer base. A Twinings Tea slogan nails the ideal, uh, blend we’re looking for here: “Your 15-minute break, 300 years in the making.”
Customer Trend #4: Customer Empowerment
Customers feel newly empowered in their relationships with companies. They’re expecting businesses to respect that sense of empowerment—and they lash out at those that don’t. They expect that your company will make itself easy to contact and will respond to their comments at a high and thoughtful level. Which I suggest you do. Because feedback will be offered, whether welcomed by you or not. It used to be that a peeved customer might drop by your shop and give the manager an earful. Or go through an extended search to figure out the correct address for an executive high enough to make a difference, and then sit down and write her an angry letter. Later, the Internet brought an increased sense of empowerment, with online comment forms and the ability to send instantaneous complaint e-mails.
Today, those methods are increasingly looking slow and outdated. Technology has created faster, more viral ways for consumers to make their annoyance felt. Exhibit “A,” here, of course, is Twitter: Anyone who has enough people reading his blasts can get a company’s attention in a hurry with a cleverly or powerfully worded complaint—either within Twitter’s one hundred and forty characters or via a shared link directing followers to a longer blog post elsewhere on the web. Not only that, but the people who see it may resend it to their own Twitter followers (i.e., retweet it). Before long, one person’s complaint will reach enough people and elicit enough similar responses to make the company wake up and pay attention to the problems of the original complainer. thanks.”
Customers understand that this is empowerment at the speed of light. And they expect you to understand it too, to incorporate the empowerment expectations of customers into your problem-resolution process. In other words, understand that the playing field has flattened—or prepare to be flattened yourself.
A model for how to encourage customer empowerment comes from Umpqua Bank, an institution top rated for service at its locations in the Pacific Northwest, California, and Nevada. Walk into any of its lobbies and one of the first things you’ll see is a placard reading “Let’s talk” and an antique-y phone with a direct connection to the president’s (Ray Davis, legendary founding president, director, and CEO) office. Is this a gimmick? Nope, because Mr. Davis actually answers it, according to Michele Livingston, senior vice president and regional retail manager. In fact, she says, “Ray loves talking with customers who have an issue, not hiding from them.”
Customer Trend #5: The Greening of the Customer
While the strength of this green trend will ebb and flow and also varies in strength from customer to customer, it’s a clear underlying sentiment among much of today’s buying populace. And the younger the customer, the more “hooked on green”—so there’s no reason to think this trend will abate as the buying power of younger consumers increases. In interacting with your customers, it’s always wise to operate from the assumption that they’ll have concerns relating to the environmental impact of your operation and their purchase. Those unconcerned with the environment will rarely be offended if you take environmental precautions, but those who are environmentally concerned will be upset by, for example, your business’s excessive packaging, whether or not they do the favor of letting you know of their disappointment.
Awareness of environmental sensitivity should become part of the thinking behind your customer service interactions. For instance, perhaps a particular customer who purchased a large item from you that arrived in less than perfect shape would prefer a discount rather than having a pickup and rerun of an order because of his concern about the carbon impact of the return shipping. Or maybe the offer to throw in an additional, but not entirely needed, product as compensation for a delay will only grate rather than be appreciated.
Customer Trend #6: The Desire for Self-Service
Self-service, which includes everything from web-based e-commerce to IVR (interactive voice response telephone systems) to concierge-like self-help touch-screen menus in public spaces to passengers printing their own boarding passes before traveling, is a powerful trend in customer service, and companies that ignore it, pursue it reluctantly, or violate the basic laws of its implementation will be left in the dust. There are various factors driving the self-service trend: our round-the-clock lifestyle, a buying populace that is increasingly tech savvy, even in some cases the higher comfort level of some socially anxious customers when doing business with machines rather than face to face or even on the phone.
By Micah Solomon, a customer service and marketing speaker, strategist, and author of the new book, High-Tech, High-Touch Customer Service. Find Micah at http://www.micahsolomon.com or visit his blog: http://www.collegeofthecustomer.com