OPINION26 February 2021

The future of customer experience in the post-pandemic world

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How can companies prepare for the post-Covid-19 era? Steven van Belleghem argues that we will have to adapt to a more virtual world.

Crowd of people wearing anti-viral masks

When I talk to various contacts around the world, it is interesting how experiences of the pandemic have been different in many ways for everyone, but also shared lots of similarities, both on a personal level and for businesses. Thankfully, one of the things most people seem to agree on is that there is now light at the end of the tunnel – albeit that we don’t know quite how far away that light really is.

So what will customer behaviour look like once we are in the post Covid-19 era? Having the flexibility to adapt to the rapidly-changing customer expectations will certainly be a crucial skill in the next ahead, but I think we can look back at the pandemic for some good indications for what the future holds.

Stage 1: Compensating the physical world
Back in March 2020 I was still very naive. I was convinced that by mid-May I would be back travelling the world again. However, within just a few days full-blown panic set in as it dawned on me I was basically out of a job. All my keynote presentations were cancelled and my mailbox was empty.

I was caught off-guard, and so were most companies. People had to ask themselves how can they keep a business going in a world where personal contact was no longer possible – and consequently, digital usage exploded in a matter of weeks.

The priority at that point was surviving, keeping the business going and safeguarding the basic customer experience to keep customers coming back. We woke up in a world where virtual was the norm, but we were all trying to use digital to compensate for the loss in the physical world.

Stage 2: Discovering the benefits of the new world
Within a few months, more companies started to understand that the big digital jump of 2020 would lead to permanent changes in behaviour, and many embraced flexibility in terms of working environment.

For customers, it is clear that digital communication, customer service, sales and marketing are all here to stay, and we saw companies make plans for the permanent character of the digital world, with a focus on improved efficiency and sustainability.

Many organisations started to try out new business models that bring the business to the customer. Just a year or so ago, the customer went to a location (both physically and virtually) to consume a service or buy a product; today services and products go where the customer is. Peleton brings the fitness experience to the comfort of your own home, while Disney+ brings Disney content directly to the living room.

Stage 3: A better experience
At the start of the pandemic, companies were using digital to compensate for the loss in the physical world. What we’re now seeing are the real benefits of the virtualisation of our world, where it is no longer be about compensating for the loss, but creating value in a new way.

If the pandemic lasts for 18 months, this is plenty of time for humans to adapt to new behaviour. The better the virtual services, the more we will get used to them and the more permanent certain behaviour will become.

In 2021 we will see more and more bold decisions from organisations. Large enterprises will start to sell off their real estate, some will be geared more directly to consumer business models, more subscription-based business models. Hotels, airlines and events companies will develop new business models that cater to their new consumer.

The priority is no longer compensating our loss, but on creating more value than ever.

Stage 4: Best of both worlds
Once the pandemic is behind us, many people will expect to just pick up where we left off. The reality is, however, the post-pandemic world will be fundamentally different from the world we knew before the pandemic. We will keep all the new, more efficient and more sustainable business models, and it will put old business models under pressure.

Of course, we will go back to visiting bars, restaurants, concerts, tourism – I think we all miss that part of our old lives – but we will add some old-world flavours to the new world. The starting point is different.

We now know a real drink with friends is a thousand times better than an online drink, but what about traveling for two days for a business meeting? Will people who bought a Peleton go back to the gym? If Disney+ is getting the newest content, will we still go to the cinema?

If you’re just waiting for the pre-Covid situation to come back, I think you are taking a big risk. It will feel like we’re going back to the old world but in reality our behaviour will have changed fundamentally. Start creating a strategy that is ready for stage four now, and try to build new value models rather than compensate for loss.

Steven van Belleghem is an author and speaker focusing on customer engagement in the digital world.