Consumer Behaviour is Changing: Are you Keeping Up?

March 13, 201911min

Over the last few years, we have seen a shift to more conscious consumerism that values experiences over things.

This can be attributed back to several trends, such as the rise of mindfulness, the minimalist trend in homeware, as well as the tidying trends like KonMari and Swedish Death cleaning. These, combined with the very real effects of climate change, are changing the way consumers think about their purchases. This was spotted as a trend back in 2017 by Euromonitor and does not seem to be reversing any time soon.

What this change means for businesses

Remarkably, few large companies are truly adapting to this change in mindset. Even then, a lot of it is paying lip service to the consumer experience rather than embedding Customer Experience at the core of the organisation.

Persil’s “Dirt is good” campaign is a great example of how messaging has moved away from the product to focus on the experience the product enables. In fact, Unilever seems to be one of the few large organisations truly keeping in touch with the zeitgeist as their recent Sustainable Living Plan has shown. And it’s working – their sustainable living brands grew 46 percent faster than the rest of the business and delivered 70 percent of its turnover growth.

Even with these great examples, and the rise of the B Corporations with ethics at the core, traditional industries are constantly being disrupted by more nimble startups that put Customer Experience at their core. This is a bit of a no-brainer, really. Traditional companies can float happily on repeat customers whilst startups literally live or die on the experiences they provide. I recently wrote about this at length, but I very much doubt that this illusion some companies have that technology will save them is anything more than that.

How AI can increase productivity

First, it’s important to realise that what we term ‘AI’ is a bit of a red herring. True AI, in the science fiction, self-aware state, is yet to emerge. What we are using quite effectively in business settings are things like machine learning, natural language processing, and speech recognition systems. I talk about this at length here.

The best thing organisations can do to improve productivity is to take a long hard look at internal systems that enable staff to work more efficiently. What is the use of enabling chat function on your website if your customer support person still needs to log into three different systems to get a simple answer?

With machine learning, we have the option to automate a lot of the menial tasks that create busy work and detract attention from what should really matter to a company – providing the best customer service you can, ideally a human one.

The importance of visibility for improving the customer journey

We recently worked with a FTSE100 company to try and marry up quantitative data from their online real estate with qualitative data from the hundreds of research sessions that have been carried out over the years. Sadly this iteration didn’t work, but it is important to keep striving to solve this, as only by combining the information on “what is happening” from quantitative data with the “why is it happening” from qualitative data do we get a true picture that enables informed decision-making.

With this in mind, I would caution against solely relying on analytics as quantitative data tends to say a lot more about the biases and existing knowledge of those who form the questions and therefore only works when you already know the parameters that you are looking to confirm or validate.

We find that the best tools for truly forming a picture of the end-to-end Customer Experience is by mapping it with contextual research. Further value can then be added by overlaying this with the Employee Experience as well as mapping the third parties involved. This is known as service blueprinting. These maps can be used very effectively to set up analytics journeys and provide further validation for the issues arising in the customer journey.

Why businesses should strive for the perfect mix of automation and human contact

Over the last 10 plus years, we have been dedicated to letting customers self-serve. In fact, I have helped create a multitude of self-service help sites. They can be very useful. What has now started emerging in research sessions is that people really hate them…and chat bots (more on this in a minute).

One of the interesting things we found back in 2012 when running usability tests on the newest iteration of BT Business Self Service (which has since been updated several times) was that participants were far more likely to try using the self-service flows when they could clearly see the contact number.

This has stood the test of time. When you allow people to try but also provide an intervention point that enables them to talk to a real person, they are more likely to have a go first. eBay, with their impenetrable help flows, could do with taking this lesson on board, but they are by far not the only offenders in this category.  Royal Mail’s business help doesn’t look too great either for allowing human contact.

People have also started bring up chat bots as these often mis-interpret the text and provide rubbish answers whilst masquerading as real people. There was a fascinating article on this fairly recently, but in essence, what we keep seeing is that when people know they are chatting to a bot, they tend to be far more forgiving than when they feel another human is treating them like a fool.

I firmly believe we have reached peak Customer Experience automation and to further automate customers out of direct contact with the company is foolish. I recently wrote about this in a housing association context but it is very applicable to all other industries – have you ever been to a Tesco Express to be faced with a row of self-checkouts and no till staff? This happens to me all the time and I believe it’s not a great experience. There is merit in mixing the automation whilst still always providing human contact.

Merje Shaw

Merje Shaw

Merje Shaw is the managing Director of innovation firm Path59, which brings start-up level disruption and agility to traditional industries. She is also a Judge at the 2018 UK Customer Experience Awards.

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