Although coronavirus has forced customers to dramatically alter their behaviours, the global consumer was already evolving. What the crisis has done is drive the speed of this change much faster than anyone could have imagined, and businesses must quickly pivot their operations in response. 
Consumer-facing companies are having to anticipate what kind of customer is emerging, so they can build the capabilities they’ll need to stay relevant in the future. However, the situation is fluid, and defining a strategy for the future is difficult with little to base assumptions on. 
Amy Francis, Senior Relationship Manager at Criticaleye, says many companies will face new challenges when it comes to customer behaviours and attitudes. “COVID-19 has required businesses to rethink their customer experience designs in the short term and will more than likely have a seismic impact in the long term too. Like the economic crisis of 2008, it will be a watershed moment on many levels." 
Fabian Wong, Chief Creative Officer at Capita Consulting, says COVID-19 has changed consumers’ experiences and expectations as well as their confidence in businesses. With this in mind, it is more imperative now for brands to stand out in the marketplace. 
“COVID-19 could take up to a year to subside, and another one or two for conditions to normalise, so businesses must think about how they interact with customers. 
“They have to consider what they can offer to consumers that goes beyond what they currently provide and that customers will pay more for or commit further to their brand for. This is the experience premium.” 
Fabian sees three customer experience-based designs that will feed into businesses’ strategies moving forward: co-created experiences between company and consumer; ethics-led experiences in which companies demonstrate they are protecting the consumer and society at large; and human-hybrid experiences that blend technology with human interaction. 
“It could be either or a combination of all three,” Fabian says, “but organisations must decide what is important for their brand and its impact on the market. Then they must look at how they create that customer experience. 
“The companies that go the extra mile ought to be able to take market share from their competitors and come out of this crisis in better shape.” 
China has already gone through several distinct phases of customer behaviour that Gianluca Carrera, Chief Solutions Officer at Dunnhumby, believes will be replicated more widely: the early stocking up after the initial COVID-19 outbreak, the preparation for isolation, and then a temporary period of ‘new normal’. 
“Customer expectations changed at each stage [of the pandemic] and if you want to create a positive customer experience your ethical and service standards will need to be very high. If not, post crisis, customers may stay at home and continue to behave as they did during the crisis or choose with their feet and move to an alternate supplier or retailer.” 
Building deeper relationships 
Fabian says that organisations must work harder and use technology to build consumer loyalty because connecting with customers is currently restricted to limited digital interactions. “From a sales viewpoint, customer loyalty is so much more important than ever. This is an opportunity for us to connect much better and take it to a new level. There has to be greater effort now because of those limited touchpoints.” 
Phil Smith, chair of IQE and a Criticaleye Board Mentor, stresses the need for strong and effective communication from businesses as they move to a potential new normal. “One of the key things to recognise during a crisis is that you must keep communicating with your customers. It’s something you have to put a lot of focus on. 
“People will remember their commercial experiences, and they might actually build better relationships in these more fallow times than when they’re in an intensely transactional mode.” 
Gianluca takes that further, pointing to the importance of businesses listening to their customers and drawing on all of the available data.  
“In these times, a good company should put itself in their customers’ shoes. Put the customers first, listen to them. Data is powerful – customers speak with their wallets, their purchase habits and their feedback.” 
To drive the company forward and out of this crisis while keeping customers on board, companies must be creative about how they analyse and use this data. 
“Data tells you ‘what’, you then need to ask ‘why?’ To answer that takes a lot of introspection and an analytical approach,” Gianluca says. 
“Once you have the ‘why’, you have to answer the ‘so what?’ and numbers won’t help here. It’s down to creativity, and what underpins that makes the difference; it could be analytics, experience, gut feel, logic, anything that can be used to validate the creativity. Without this companies will fail to react to market conditions or define their future.” 
Ultimately, businesses must listen carefully to what their customers are telling them throughout the crisis and use that to create the winning customer experiences that will be needed in whatever new normal emerges.  
David Hobbs, Senior Editor, Criticaleye 
Next week’s Community Update will provide highlights of Criticaleye’s inaugural Virtual Forum on Leading Through the Impact of COVID-19.