Customer experience leaders may have come to Forrester’s CX North America 2022 event to learn what the future holds, but Anjali Lai asked them to take a trip back to 1995 first.
Speaking in the keynote session for the Nashville-based conference (which was also hosted virtually), the Forrester senior analyst recounted the historic fire that wiped out Malden Mills, a manufacturer of fleece and other textiles. As tragic as that was for the business –- and though it might have prompted a move to a cheaper location — Lai pointed to the then-CEO’s unwavering support of the local community, which led Malden Mills to rebuild its factory in Lawrence, Mass.
“It happened at a time when leaders at large corporations were known to be praised if they were cutting costs, even if it meant decimating their people,” Lai said. “The conditions of the world at this moment are putting immense pressure on companies and once again surfacing existential questions — about the purpose of the business, the wellbeing of its people and the combinatorial relationship between the two.”
Lai showed data, for example, that revealed only half of consumers feel prepared for the future, and more than half are still worried about new variants of COVID-19. Depression rates, meanwhile, are three times higher than they were before the pandemic, she said. All of this can contribute to greater challenges in delivering outstanding CX.
This is where Lai sees a metaphor in the Malden Mills story. “As the world burns in the aftermath of the pandemic and all of its related calamities, the walls that once structured, separated and even protected components of our lives and culture are breaking down until they disintegrate,” she said.
We can see this in everything from ongoing supply chain challenges to the war in Ukraine and problems within global financial systems.
Businesses as ‘orienting institutions’
CX leaders can’t ignore these forces, Lai advised, in part because companies are part of a system that shapes — and is shaped by — social realities. She also said marketing and CX make brands among the most powerful “orientating institutions” that affect how people behave.
“Consumers and employees are the protagonists here. You are the actors of change,” she told the CX North America audience. “This is the scope of influence you have now.”
As these realities increasingly sink in and come into view over the coming decade, four themes will shape how companies will serve customers, according to Lai. These include:
Concerns over rising temperatures, wildfires and flooding aren’t new, Lai admitted, but the increased focus on the environment is leading to a full-fledged cultural transformation that’s changing how we think about (and interact with) nature.
Forrester data showed 44 per cent of consumers are spending more time thinking about the environment, for instance, and 49 per cent said they want sustainable options for products and how they are delivered.
“This is a massive jump in the data from over the years,” she said. “More consumers are saying that this is important than those that are saying (they want) tailored product recommendations, online chat, or guided shopping experiences.”
Brands should tackle this by painting the vision of the future where they can inspire, educate and empower consumers to follow through on the values they care about, she said. Unilever’s “Bright future made by you” campaign and Mastercard’s digital tools for tracking sustainable behaviors could be good models here.
Longer lifespans mean people are spending more time thinking about how to optimize for the second half of their lives, Lai said. That means companies need to harmonize their activities to support divergent interests of both employees and customers.
In practice, Lai pointed to companies that are introducing policies to raise their minimum wage, offering upskilling programs to prepare the workforce of the future and designing operations to embrace diversity, equity and inclusion.
Forrester data shows 43 per cent of consumers will go out of their way to buy from companies that prove they treat their employees well. This compares with 26 per cent who are looking at capabilities such as faster delivery times, or 30 per cent who focus on finding the cheapest product.
“The recommendation here is to open the aperture on your customers and employees, and to create more than economic value,” she said, citing functional value that reduces effort, or experiential value that make interacting with a company more pleasant.
Yes, consumers are trying more new online transactions for the first time than ever before. Yes, they’re making more digital transactions overall. However Lai showed data that suggested foot traffic in retail is bouncing back to pre-pandemic levels, and 38 per cent of consumers say they wish they could do more to disconnect.
This is why Lai talks about the notion of digital fluidity, which she defined as “a smooth experience where consumers can derive value from any place, space or time to match their needs and preferences.” Brands will need to be more targeted in their use of technology to offer context and support to gracefully navigate across digital and physical channels.
They’ll also need to capture consumer motivations on where and why they transact. Retail customers may be looking for novelty and entertainment when they choose how to engage, for instance, while cost savings might be more important for those evaluating payment options.
It’s the ultimate question: are consumers changing behaviors to meet the demands of the current moment, or are they changing for good? Lai said Forrester’s multi-modal data showed at least three important preferences have changed in terms of how consumers get value.
First, they are less willing to pay for high quality products, but 44 per cent said they will pay more for high-quality VIP experiences (vs. 37 per cent in 2019).
Second, 50 per cent said they are interested in seeing products that have been curated by a brand on their behalf, based on data about their interest. Only 39 per cent said the same thing three years ago.
Finally, consumers’ thirst for creativity means 33 per cent are more interested in startups vs. traditional brands, and 44 per cent are focusing more on small or local companies vs. national chains.
All this adds up to an era in which CX leaders are not only transforming how brands work to serve the bottom line, but to recognize the role they play in human lives.
“Businesses interlinked with — and are symbiotic to — social changes,” she said. “The effects of what you do are everywhere.”
Shane Schick tells stories that help people innovate, and to manage the change innovation brings. He is the former Editor-in-Chief of Marketing magazine and has also been Vice-President, Content & Community (Editor-in-Chief), at IT World Canada, a technology columnist with the Globe and Mail and Yahoo Canada and is the founding editor of ITBusiness.ca. Shane has been recognized for journalistic excellence by the Canadian Advanced Technology Alliance and the Canadian Online Publishing Awards.