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COVID-19 Has Forever Changed the Customer Experience

The first days and weeks of the pandemic forced companies to initiate significant changes to their customer experience. Nearly a year later — with the risks of exposure still high in the U.S. — many of those changes have become habits. Because habits tend to stick, even with vaccine rollouts, many industries face a changed landscape for the future.

“The realization has hit all of us that this pandemic is not a two-week or a two-month disruption,” said Tim Calkins, a clinical professor of marketing at the Kellogg School. “It’s going to go on for a very long time.”

So how can your company recalibrate for a changed world? Calkins offers tips for companies looking to adapt their customer-experience strategies for the long haul.

Take Stock of What Changes Are Likely to Stick

Calkins advises companies to first take stock of the profound changes in their customers’ daily lives and figure out how those changes will realistically impact their business over the next months and years.

“You have to ask your company, ‘What’s now changed in our world? And what does that really mean for us in terms of how we go to market and how we interact with our customers?’” he said.

Take retail. Even before the pandemic, retail clothing brands were carving out direct-to-consumer niches on social media sites. This trend quickly accelerated when shoppers were abruptly stuck at home.

“Even if you don’t buy a lot of clothes, occasionally you still need a new pair of socks,” Calkins said. “With all of us forced online, it didn’t take long to realize that online shopping is easier in some respects. Which means we’re not going back. If you are a company that wants to build a brand in this space, your tools have now changed, and your opportunities have changed.”

Or take the hospitality industry. With people eager to get out of their homes, there are early stirrings of a recovery in vacation and resort travel. But business travel still has not budged. 

“For business travel to really happen, you need two people available to meet, and right now nobody is available to meet,” Calkins said. “And there’s no indication that’s going to happen for a very long time.”

Even when hotels do reopen, Calkins sees them having to adapt their marketing efforts to new customer priorities. For business hotels, this shift will include a new focus on safety and cleanliness. Moreover, hotels that previously packed grand lobbies with restaurants and shared workspaces, or that hosted large conferences, may need to rethink how they use those spaces — at least in the medium term.

“The idea that you’re surrounded by other people in a shared experience was always so important to hotels. That created the social energy that a lot of hotels built their brands on,” Calkins says. “Even when people begin to travel, it may be years before people seek out and really desire that social experience.”

Embrace the Online Customer Experience

With much of life having shifted online — and much of it likely to stay online for the foreseeable future — it is time to ensure that the online customer experience is just as carefully designed as the in-person one.

Before COVID-19, for instance, most grocery shoppers made purchasing decisions in the store, choosing products based on what they saw, touched and compared on the shelves. As a result, companies invested in shelf-placement plans, in-store promotions and point-of-sale merchandising to drive visibility and sales.

As the dust of a new, post-COVID reality settles, the organizations that experimented will have many more tools at their disposal.

“Now, so many people are ordering online,” Calkins said. “So the whole decision process is different for customers.”

Delivery and curbside pickup have added new steps — and new people — into the customer experience. Stores now bustle with employees and contractors filling orders for customers. These buyers are more interested in speed and accuracy than bargains, so they aren’t influenced by on-shelf promotions.

“All the stand-in shoppers want is the products to be in stock, to be easy to identify, to be clear and simple,” Calkins said. “They’re motivated by very different things than consumers shopping for themselves.”

This means if grocery stores and other retailers want to steer customers toward certain products, they will need to incorporate promotions into other parts of the experience. Some grocery stores have begun adding free product samples to customers’ online orders, for instance.

And don’t forget the importance of the last mile. Reliable, quick and safe pickup or delivery is now squarely a part of the customer experience: Mess it up — or do it worse than your competitors — and your customers may start shopping elsewhere.

Recalibrate the In-Person Experience

There’s no doubt that the in-person customer experience has taken the biggest hit from COVID-19.

“For many retailers, that retail experience was always so important,” Calkins said. “It was fun and exciting, with lines of people and cool music that helped define the brand experience. Now, if you even go into the store, it’s more of a solitary experience and it’s very different for brand building.”

Some of this fun and excitement is just not possible right now — and that’s okay. According to Calkins, “care” should come first. This means taking physical steps to ensure the safety of customers and staff, as well as sending reassuring signals to customers that make them feel cared for.

“Consumers really want to know that a company cares,” Calkins said. “Given all the uncertainty in the world right now and all the risk and the hazard and the way people are feeling, there’s nothing more important.”

Still, it can’t be all hand sanitizer and no swag — particularly for brands that have strong emotional appeal, and where customer service tends to be less transactional and more relational. These companies need to be particularly creative about brand-building.

Take the Best of Both Worlds

Will customer-experience experiments stick around when COVID-19 is in our rearview window? Maybe not. But maybe it will.

Above all, it’s important to remember that a constantly changing environment means constant opportunities to learn and adapt. Eventually, as the dust of a new, post-COVID reality settles, the organizations that experimented will have many more tools at their disposal.

“When constraints go away, or we are met with new constraints, all of a sudden we can try new things,” Calkins said. “This can lead to new ways to connect with customers, new product offerings, new opportunities and things that hadn’t been considered before.”

Education has long been viewed as a change-resistant industry: Teachers determine the information they want to teach, establish an approach to teaching that material and then deliver it to students in the classroom. The shift to remote learning has upended that. In the process, it has presented new possibilities for the ways teachers and students interact.

“Everyone’s been forced to do things they never planned to do,” Calkins said. “And what we’ve learned is that a lot of these new techniques let you do things that were never possible before: things that in so many ways are far superior to what we used to do. You look back and you wonder why some of these ideas had trouble taking off before?”

The advantages of platforms like Zoom for many teachers and students — from the time saved commuting to schools to the myriad ways of engaging with breakout rooms and discussion boards — can be transformative. But teachers are learning the limits of remote teaching as well: It’s tiring, and some tasks are more difficult. Calkins looks forward to a future when the education industry can take advantage of the best of both worlds, designing student experience with the optimal technologies for different types of engagement.

“The customer journey in the world of education three years from now will be completely different than it was three years ago,” he said. “We’re going to see these new tools being used not to the exclusion of in-person — I don’t think anybody thinks that’s ideal — but in combination and in different ways that will optimize a learning experience. If ever there has ever been a time for that kind of expansive thinking, it’s now.”

This piece was originally published in Kellogg Insights.

Timothy Calkins

Clinical Professor of Marketing at Kellogg School of Management @TimothyCalkins

Timothy Calkins helps people and organizations build strong brands. Calkins is an award-winning marketing professor, author, speaker, and consultant. He is an associate chair of the marketing department and clinical professor of marketing at Northwestern University’s Kellogg School of Management. He is also co-academic director of the Kellogg on Branding executive education program.

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