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Customer Behaviour: What’s changed since the pandemic?.

Jeanine Desirée Lund
Marketing Executive

There has been a deluge of research exploring how customer behaviour has changed during the pandemic.

So in this blog, I thought I’d share some of the most interesting  UK, EMEA and global insights I’ve seen in relation to customer behaviour, experience and interaction.

Customer priorities have changed

Let’s start with a core observation. Human behaviour emerges from our responses to the challenges and opportunities in life. Some we choose and others arrive uninvited and impact us collectively, like the pandemic.

Covid-19 disrupted our most basic daily routines. For instance, the urgent need for contactless engagement resulted in new behaviours at scale. Globally, more than three-quarters of consumers have tried new online activities during the pandemic. Fifteen per cent have contacted customer services online for the first time, while the latest UK Customer Satisfaction Index (UKCSI) survey shows over 30% of customers have made more online purchases over the last six months.

A McKinsey survey found: “Industries across all regions experienced an average of 20% growth in ‘fully digital’ users in the six months ending in April 2021, building on previous gains earlier in the pandemic. During that same time period, it was primarily younger people joining the ranks of digital users.”

Will this level and speed of growth continue now we have emerged out of lockdown?

McKinsey says: “Acceleration into digital channels now seems to have levelled off in both Europe and the United States, with consumers in some industries saying that they will be using digital channels less frequently once the pandemic ends.”

Nonetheless, organisations have used the pandemic to accelerate digital-first agendas. According to the UK Office of Communications’ (Ofcom’s) latest market report, over one-third (38%) of consumers are now receiving fewer bills, invoices and statements in the mail, suggesting steady progress is being made in digitisation.

For some of us, the pandemic became an irreversible watershed moment. In a recent Accenture global survey, 50% of respondents agreed that “the pandemic made me totally revise my personal purpose and what is important for me in life”.

This new mindset can be seen currently at play as employers attempt to plug widening talent gaps and seek to persuade reluctant staff that the latest ‘new normal’ means getting used to commuting once again. Despite these efforts, an increasing number of us are not so sure this is what we now want.

Compared to ‘traditional’ customers, this new segment is also more critical. Half say many companies disappointed them by not providing enough support and understanding of their needs during challenging times. To that end, the same proportion left brands because of a failure to adapt their customer service to the new requirements of the pandemic. They now expect clear and easy options for contacting customer service and clear information about changes to service levels and economic/societal issues.

Culture is influencing customer behaviour

While the pandemic impacted all of us, the choices we made differed. This is conditioned by culture, specifically where we live in the world and the generation we have grown up with. Let’s explore this idea in the context of how we choose to interact with organisations as customers.

Most of the time we just get on with our daily chores, relying on instinct and experience to choose what seems the right path forward. As such, we don’t overthink how we should interact with organisations. I’m sure customers do not consciously see themselves as omnichannel. Instead, our instincts just tell us when we need someone to help us and when we can do it ourselves.

Global research shows this. Half of us prefer another person’s support when booking a medical appointment or resolving a billing issue. In contrast, we gravitate to self-service for booking an airline ticket or getting the status on an order, provided of course that the process is simple.

In other words, we tend to want a human touch when dealing with emotive or complex enquiries, while more straightforward matters can be resolved via self-service. Mid 2020, as the pandemic spread, over 50% of US consumers were already into the self-service habit with a further third saying they were receptive once they experienced more consistent success using it.

While I have always found the ‘emotive/complex’ a useful rule of thumb for live assistance versus self-service, the culture of where we live also influences our preferences. As shown in this research by the Qualitrics XM Institute.

It says: “Canadian consumers are the most likely to talk to someone on the phone, Spanish consumers are the most likely to meet with someone in person, Hong Kong and Indian consumers are the most likely to use self-service on their computers, and Thai consumers are the most likely to use self-service on their mobile phones and use online chat.”

The culture of the generation you are brought up in also influences your customer behaviour. Younger generations naturally exhibit higher usage of digital channels, such as private messaging, social and chatbots, given the mobile-first, instantly accessible world they inhabit.

This raises an interesting question. Are today’s younger generations, therefore, less tolerant when things don’t work out as planned? Or is the generational difference in temperament explained by age? In other words, does getting older mellow us and make us more tolerant? Who knows? But until we discover how middle-aged Gen Zers end up behaving, we can only take note of what their current expectations reveal.

Research by the Call Centre Management Association (CCMA) shows those aged 18- 24 are almost twice as likely to be unhappy with wait times compared with those aged 65+. And younger people are much more likely to abandon a phone call.

The same research shows younger customers are also more trigger happy registering their displeasure with poor customer experience.

People aged 25-34 are twice as likely to have complained about customer service as those aged 65+.

Is this another example of the same mindset?

Paul Baxter, Managing Director of Marmalade Insurance explains this cohort’s customer behaviour well.

“Younger people have a much higher expectation of us than their parents do. They expect things to be absolutely right for them. We find average handling time significantly longer for young people than for parents, because you spend longer explaining things and they ask more questions. They’re also much more likely to be forthright in their survey feedback,” he says.

And while we are on the topic of feedback please note this: as a global average, 37% of consumers are unlikely to purchase more from companies that do not respond to their feedback.

Circling back to Paul Baxter’s observation, another point I picked up was the changes in contact frequency and duration during lockdown. I find the underlying psychology interesting.

A core instinct we develop from birth is the need for agency over the events in our lives and the comfort of knowing what is going on. Pandemics disrupt this peace of mind. Therefore, the less certain we feel about our circumstances, the more we need to ask. Many contact centre leaders will resonate with this comment made by Tracy Kellaway, the Director of Consumer Care UK at Estée Lauder, in Puzzel’s Evolution of the Contact Centre research with the CCMA.

“The biggest driver of traffic is when people just don’t know what’s going on,” she said.

In the same research, a staff member from Bupa shared how conversation analytics had surfaced a new set of pandemic-triggered topics their customers now needed to understand, resulting in longer call times and the need for additional resources.

Interestingly, voice has found new favour as an excellent medium to facilitate empathetic conversation. It could be purely coincidental, however, the Ofcom report also revealed voice calls made an unexpected comeback in 2020. Outgoing call minutes from landlines increased for the first time since 2003, up by 15%, while calls from mobile phones increased by 18% during the year. I know anecdotally from many conversations with service leaders how important the channel has become as part of their response to vulnerable customers.

What’s next for customer behaviour?

Looking forward, we can be certain customers will want both the convenience of digital interaction with clearly signposted access to the human touch.

‘Making do’ during lockdown and excusing poor service because of Covid must now turn into an ongoing obsession with making digital engagement work. This means tackling the underlying process complexity of many online journeys with the aim of reducing effort through simplification. The consequences are clear: customers will leave you if you fail in this.

As for the future of live channels that can champion empathic conversation, there are clear indications of their growing need.

Mental health remains a huge overhang from lockdown. Research shows women and BAME communities are some of the most affected.

Times are also likely to get economically tougher for some, with the end of furlough schemes in the UK for example and an increase in the cost of living. Ofcom noted total debt among broadband and mobile customers increased from £475m to £550m last year. The Office of Gas and Electricity Markets (Ofgem) is forewarning energy bill hikes of up to £150 per household, which will affect around 15 million households.

Meanwhile, for those lucky enough to afford such things, the latest UKCSI records the number of customers who prefer to pay more for excellent service, has risen from 26% at the outset of the pandemic to 32% in mid-summer 2021.

If there is anything to be learnt from all this, it is the importance of really understanding customer behaviour by building an ongoing narrative of their stories, both in the current detail and their future path.

To learn more about how customer behaviours and expectations have changed throughout the pandemic, and how contact centres have adapted, check out Puzzel’s four-part Evolution of the Contact Centre research initiative.

About the author

Martin Hill-Wilson was CEO of one of the first BPOs and CX consultancies in the UK. He then spent a decade in the systems integration industry positioning the value of new technology and the associated change agenda. He is now in his tenth year as Brainfood Consulting, offering a mix of services. These include conference chairing, keynotes, webinars, whitepapers, workshops, consulting and mentoring.

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