Today’s guest blogger is Micah Solomon, a customer service and marketing keynote speaker and consultant. His latest book is High-Tech, High-Touch Customer Service. Micah is a keynote speaker for Zendesk’s Customer Service Hero tour. Find Micah at http://www.micahsolomon.com or visit his blog: http://www.collegeofthecustomer.com.
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 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. (Please note that this is a two part series: part 2 can be found here)
Customer Trend #1: Demand for Instant, Aggregated Information
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 was 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. Now, 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.
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.
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
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 there’s a huge exception.
“What we’re seeing now is consumption being excused by ‘attached meaning,’ ” as Jay Coldren, VP at Marriott for lifestyle brands, 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 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.”
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 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 people 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. 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 21st 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.”